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That Peculiar Man’s Plays

Photograph from the original production of Look Back in Anger

In a 2016 interview, Julie Walters declared that when she started her acting career in the early 70s, “you’d hear middle-class actors trying to sound working class because it was cool”. She lamented the decline of “working-class drama” that “comes out of people being unhappy and angry with the unfairness of life” [*]. The cycle, which included Walters’ training as an actress and now closed, began with the emergence of the “angry young men,” and also coincided with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman (1958).

In John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Jimmy and Cliff, “common as dirt” (26) [**], criticise J. B. Priestley, as part of the establishment they reject. Later, Jimmy alludes to “that peculiar man’s plays” (83) without giving a name. However, two joking references to Eliot follow: Jimmy suggests “T. S. Eliot and Pam” (83) as an artistic name for him and Cliff; he then puns on the title of the last of the Four Quartets, in the style of music-hall repartee: “she was called a little Gidding, but she was more like a gelding iron!” (84). Furthermore, Jimmy has written a poem that – he parodically claims – contains “a good slosh of Eliot” (50).

The social setting of The Elder Statesman is upper class and not obviously satirical, by contrast with the treatment of aristocratic dullness in certain characters of The Family Reunion (1939). In Eliot’s last play, when Michael confronts his father, he reveals that the father’s title, Lord Claverton, was the culmination of a political career, and that he married “up.” As a young man, Lord Claverton, then Dick Ferry, courted a chorus girl, Maisie – humble enough to be deserted without scruple. For Michael, his father’s status is more an encumbrance than a privilege, and he longs for an independent life away from his family.

Look Back in Anger concerns itself with the lives of young people of the working class; the protagonist of The Elder Statesman is an old man, and a lord. Eliot’s play is realistic, but it conforms to the conventions of drawing-room comedy and is written in verse, albeit transparent. Osborne’s realism, on the other hand, colours the characters’ speech. Colonel Redfern observes that Jimmy “speaks a different language from any of us,” and that he “has quite a turn of phrase” (65, 69). The rhythmic balance of Eliot’s measured lines is strikingly different from Jimmy’s verbal incontinence: “Mummy and Daddy turn pale, and face the east every time they remember she’s married to me. But if they saw all this going on, they’d collapse. Wonder what they would do, incidentally. Send for the police I expect” (28).

Look Back in Anger and The Elder Statesman are separated by just two years, but also by a generation. Osborne’s play depicts a new society, a society not in step with Eliot’s drama.

[*] Susie Mesure, “Julie Walters: ‘There will be another working-class acting revolution’,” The Independent, 28 February 2015.

[**] All quotes from this edition: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, London: Faber and Faber, 1960 (1996).