In the middle of the 1950s there was a revival of the English Theatre. In the 30s and 40s the English Drama was dominated by the Loom shire Plays, that is a commercial play, remote from everyday life-problems, with characters belonging to high society. The English Theatre had then become a form of middle-class entertainment producing only light comedies for a limited audience. It seemed to have nothing to offer because the main plays being staged were either by conventional authors or by foreign ones. Among the former we can quote Terence Rattingan, who wrote plays of “characters and narrative” rather than of ideas; among the latter we may quote Ibsen, Brect, Sartre and the Italian Ugo Betti.
The new trends in opposition to the old ones were the so-called “Drama of Commitment and Social Protest”, “The Kitchen Sink Drama”, “The Theatre of Ideas”, The Theatre of the Absurd” and “The Theatre of the Angry Young Men”.
They were completely different from the previous plays and illustrated man’s solitude in a hostile world, his sense of isolation from other human beings, his frustration and rage at the contemporary conditions of the world and at the general disorganization of society. For what they expressed in their plays, they were considered as authors with leftist ideology by contemporary reviewers.
The Theatre of Ideas had a tendency to discuss general social and political problems on the stage: corruption in local politics, social conflicts and other brutal but real themes. The main representative was John Arden.
The plays which were considered a turning point in the British modern Drama were Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. They belonged respectively to The Theatre of the Absurd and to The Theatre of the Angry Man. They had an immense success and started the restoration of the English Theatre. A crucial role in promoting the new drama of the late 1950s was the emergence of a new kind of audience: men in their thirties, with a cultural and political background. They were the children of the early television age and used to identify themselves with the characters and plots of TV drama.“Look Back in Anger had immense popularity also because it was shown on television.
THE THEATRE OF THE ABSURD
Between 1952 and 1962, some playwrights who had met in Paris, wrote a series of plays that are generally labelled as “Absurdist Plays”. They were the Irishman Samuel Beckett, the Rumanian Eugene Jonesco, the Russian Arthur Adamov and the Spanish Fernando Arrabal. They had in common the same vision of life and of man trapped in a hostile universe, without any chance of happiness and hope for the future. Their works reflected the anxieties and the troubles of their contemporaries who believed that man could not find any essential purpose in his actions. They did not regard themselves as a school and they did not found a movement; on the contrary each of them, as Martin Esslin writes in his The Theatre of the Absurd, “is an individual who regards himself as a lone outsider, cut off and isolated in his private world ….. with his own personal approach both to subject matter and to form, with his own roots, sources and background”.
The term Absurd was originally used to mean “out of harmony, illogical, with no purpose”. In an Essay on Kafka, Jonesco defined the term as follows:”Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose ….. cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots man is lost: all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless”. Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus (1942) wrote: “In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger …… deprived of memories of a lost homeland, he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life ….. constitutes the feeling of absurdity”. Sisyphus, for ever rolling a stone up a hill, for ever aware that it will never reach the top, is the perfect type-figure of the absurdity of man’s destiny. He explains the sense of anguish at the absurdity of human condition which is the central theme of the absurdist plays. To express it, the plays are generally characterized by the absence of plot; they often have neither a beginning nor an end, neither action nor developments of events; the setting is reduced to the minimal elements and the characters are presented with no individuality and without psychological insight; the language, too, is absurd: to stress the failure to communicate of contemporary man they are full with verbal nonsense, repetitive statements, very short speeches and silent pauses.
THE ANGRY YOUNG MEN
In the late 1950s a number of young writers, among whom we can mention A. Wesker, Kinsley Amis and above all John Osborne, had an immense success in Britain. They were grouped under the label of “Angry Young Men”. They gave voice to the young generation who, dissatisfied with the world they lived in, wanted to create their own way of living. They struggled against the Establishment and some of its values: family, patriotism, the Established Church and culture. They began to cry out against conventions, tradition and authoritarianism. They felt cheated as the promises of the Welfare State had revealed to be empty: society fed them well, educated them well, but still kept them trapped in a class system that opened the doors to the rich public school members of the upper-middle class and kept them closed in the faces of the members of the working class.
Jimmy Porter, the main character of Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger”, became a model to be imitated for the British young generation of the late 1950s. Jimmy spoke the raw language of a frustrated generation, the language spoken by real people in the streets and not the sophisticated one used by the upper classes.
The Angry Men’s works were politically committed and dealt with contemporary themes. They took as subject matter the middle and the working class and depicted in realistic terms their typical habitat, generally a gloomy and shabby room; they were torn between the hope provided by their ideals and the depressed reality which shattered all hopes of a better future.
Unlike the “Theatre of the Absurd”, which was a European phenomenon, the “Angry Man” was typically English.
As about the origin of the label “Angry Young Men”, there has been a misunderstanding of the title “Look Back in Anger”. The play does not deal with anger but with a love which dies for lack of spiritual generosity.
On March 10th, 1992 Osborne was in Italy as a guest in “Maurizio Costanzo Show” on the Italian network Channel 5. In an article which appeared the following day on the Italian newspaper “Repubblica”, Arnold Wesker, a playwright belonging to the “Angry Men”, wrote about an episode Osborne had referred to, the previous evening, explaining the origin of the label. Osborne had met at a bar a literary critic, George Fearon; he had to advertise “Look Back in Anger” and he did not know how. While they were having a drink, Fearon looked at Osborne and asked: “if I am not wrong, you are an angry young man, aren’t you?” He explained that he had thought of a volume by Leslie Allen Paul published in 1951 and titled “Angry Young Man” (it dealt with a Marxist who was engaged in the class struggles). From then on the label is being used by the Media all over the world and students at school have been studying the “Angry Young Men” in the English Theatre. Wesker closed the article maintaining that there has never been an angry young man or a group of angry young men. “We were happy instead, because our plays had success after the label and we could earn a lot of money”.