angry young men

angry young men

angry young men, term applied to a group of English writers of the 1950s whose heroes share certain rebellious and critical attitudes toward society. This phrase, which was originally taken from the title of Leslie Allen Paul's autobiography, Angry Young Man (1951), became current with the production of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956). The word angry is probably inappropriate; dissentient or disgruntled perhaps is more accurate. The group not only expressed discontent with the staid, hypocritical institutions of English society—the so-called Establishment—but betrayed disillusionment with itself and with its own achievements. Included among the angry young men were the playwrights John Osborne and Arnold Wesker and the novelists Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain, and Alan Sillitoe. In the 1960s these writers turned to more individualized themes and were no longer considered a group.

Angry Young Men is a journalistic catchphrase applied to a number of British playwrights and novelists from the mid-1950s. The phrase was originally used by British newspapers after the success of the play Look Back in Anger to describe young British writers, though it was derived from the autobiography of Leslie Paul, founder of the Woodcraft Folk, whose "Angry Young Man" was published in 1951.

It has hen used more generically, to refer to a young person who strongly criticises political and social institutions.

John Osborne

The playwright John Osborne was the archetypal example, and his signature play Look Back in Anger (1956) attracted attention to a style of drama contrasting strongly with the genteel and understated works of Terence Rattigan that had been in fashion. Osborne's The Entertainer (1957) secured his reputation, with Laurence Olivier playing the protagonist Archie Rice.

Definition by stance

Their political views were seen as radical, sometimes even anarchic, and they described social alienation of different kinds. They also often expressed their critical views on society as a whole, criticising certain behaviours or groups in different ways. On television, their writings were often expressed in plays in anthology drama series such as Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-68) and The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70); this leads to a confusion with the kitchen sink drama category of the early 1960s.

Definitions by groupings

As a catchphrase, the term was applied to a large, incoherently defined group, and was rejected by most of the writers to whom it was applied; see for instance "Answer to a Letter from Joe" by John Wain (Essays on Literature and Ideas, 1963). Some commentators, following publisher Tom Maschler, who edited a collection of political-literary essays by the "Angries" (Declaration, 1957), divided them into three groups:

  1. The New University Wits (a term applied by William Van O'Connor in his 1963 study The New University Wits and the End of Modernism), Oxbridge malcontents who explored the contrast between their upper-class university privilege and their middle-class upbringings. They included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Wain, all of whom were also part of the poetic circle known as The Movement.
  2. Writers mostly of lower-class origin concerned with their political and economic aspirations. Some of these were left-wing and some were right-wing. They included John Osborne (whose play Look Back in Anger is a basic "Angries" text), Harold Pinter, John Braine, Arnold Wesker and Alan Sillitoe. William Cooper, the early model AYM, though Cambridge-educated was a "provincial" writer in his frankness and material and is included in this group.
  3. A small group of young existentialist philosophers led by Colin Wilson and also including Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins.

Cross-currents in the late 1950s

Friendships, rivalries, and acknowledgments of common literary aims within each of these three groups could be intense (the relationship between Amis and Larkin is considered one of the great literary friendships of the 20th century). But the writers in each group tended to view the other groups with bewilderment and incomprehension. Observers and critics could find no common thread among them all. They were contemporaries by age. They were not of the upper-class establishment, nor were they protegés of existing literary circles. It was essentially a male "movement". Shelagh Delaney, author of A Taste of Honey (1958), was described as an "angry young woman" (see Arthur Marwick (1998) The Sixties).

The perception of them as "angry" outsiders was the one point of coherence. It all had something to do with English "provincialism" asserting itself, in a world where James Joyce (an Irishman) and Dylan Thomas (a Welshman) had recently taken the literary high ground. Feelings of frustration and exclusion from the centre and The Establishment were taken up, as common sense surrogates for the Freud and Sartre of the highbrows. In a negative description, they tended to avoid radical experimentalism in their literary style; they were not modernists by technique. That much fitted in with the overlapping Movement poets, identified as such a year or two before, also a journalistic label.

Later uses

The term has also been used in reference to three British musicians of the late 1970s and early 1980s whose music carried the vitriol of punk rock, but not its musical style: Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joe Jackson.

In India, this designation was also bestowed upon Amitabh Bacchan when he reached the peak of cinematic popularity for his repeated appearances as protagonist in the typical violent and heroic hindi films

See also


  • Success Stories (1988) by Harry Ritchie, a well-documented history of the AYM as a journalistic phenomenon
  • The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s (2002) by Humphrey Carpenter, an anecdotal group biography
  • The Angry Years (2007) by Colin Wilson, personal history and detailed accounts of many other figures attached to the label

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