On this day in 1956 John Osborne's first play, Look Back in Anger, opened at London's Royal Court Theatre. The press release for the play called the twenty-six-year-old Osborne "an angry young man"; when the play became a hit, the phrase stuck as a label for an under-thirty, post-war generation which felt disillusioned and disenfranchised. The Daily Express said that the play was "intense, angry, feverish, undisciplined. It is even crazy. But it is young, young, young." Critic Clive Barnes later called Osborne "the veritable beginning of the beginning," and cited the opening night of Look Back in Anger as the "actual birthday...of modern British theatre."
Some reviewers found more than anger in the hero, Jimmy Porter, calling him "a tiresome, boorish oaf," and an "exhibitionist wallowing in self-pity." Jimmy has a university education, but he has dropped out so far that he runs a sweet-shop, the better to observe and rage -- against the class-system still hanging on, against the empty promises of the welfare state, against the Cold War world that hardened into place, against his wife and friends for putting up with it. "I've an idea," says Jimmy at one point. "Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say?" Such remarks, said Kenneth Tynan's review, make Jimmy "the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet," and make the play "a minor miracle" for having expressed it:
All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage - the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of 'official' attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy friend as 'a female Emily Bronte'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who does shall go unmourned.... I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it as roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30. And this figure will doubtless be swelled by refugees from other age-groups who are curious to know precisely what the contemporary young pup is thinking and feeling. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.
There would be other hits for Osborne -- Luther, Inadmissible Evidence, an Oscar for his Tom Jones screenplay -- and at times he would be angry mostly at how he had been forgotten, but he too came to regard the premiere of his first play as a defining moment. Here is the first paragraph of his two-volume autobiography:
May 8th is the one unforgettable feast in my calendar. My father, Thomas Godfrey Osborne, was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, on May 8th [he died when John was eleven].... The Second World War ended on 8 May 1945, a date which now passes as unremembered as 4 August 1914. On 8 May 1956, my first play to be produced in London, Look Back in Anger, had its opening at the Royal Court Theatre. This last particular date seems to have become fixed in the memories of theatrical historians.