Triangulating Comparative Class Conflict in Modernist Drama

(Here is another essay, slightly modified, from ENG181. The paper close a close reading of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Look Back in Anger in an effort to examine how class conflict transpires within the texts. All though I no longer stand by my reading since I’ve now come to realize my interpretation of Marx’s words were fallacious, I still think it is a piece worth sharing even if it is a marker of how far I have since come in my studies)


Upper classes are a nation’s past; the middle class is its future.” -Ayn Rand

            “The middle-class stands half-way between the proletariat and the capitalist class. Being a necessary complement of capitalist society, this class is constantly being reborn.” –Karl Marx

            The existing Anarchy in capitalist production brings forth a contradiction regarding middle class intellectuals: labor-power can only be sold to academia so as long the class remains stable, yet, convolutions in the cultural production process creates anomalies which in turn destabilizes the class, subjecting it to temporary liquidation. From such contradiction emerges periods of hardship where the “toiling intelligentsia” begins inner-class vacillation. Struggle waged by the “lower” and “upper” Middle-strata takes full form through artistic expression. To this end, playwrights Edward Albee and John Osborne have crafted masterworks illustrating this end; Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Look Back in Anger demonstrate the inherent chaos of class turmoil. Shown through triangulation each author effectively concludes with a powerful statement on contemporary society- that class conflict is inevitably bound with the dysfunction of the nuclear family. Dysfunction take different forms, however: for Edward Albee martial conflict, for John Osborne societal angst. Class conflict acts as the midwife. Delivering such an overarching theme utilizes both authors use of expressionism as well as social commentary. Delving into this more will require a thorough analysis of the first acts in both authors’ landmark works. However, as relevant as these characters are they cannot be properly examined on their own merits. In order to flesh out their purpose a triangulation must be done. Jimmy is only revealed in his totality when triangulated with Cliff and Allison, while with Martha, Honey and George. Without understanding the relationships these walking allegories possess in relation to other constructs it is impossible to know their dimensions.

Existential Distortion: Character Dissatisfaction within the Imperialist Center

            John Osborne and Edward Albee created protagonists whom either did not “fit in” to their born era or felt as though they were born to lead a life of mediocrity; in both instances, Jimmy Porter and Martha (the leads in Look Back and Who’s Afraid) rage at their comfortable middle class surroundings. They desire more of everything, for Jimmy a real purpose while for Martha a powerful position.

In the first act of Look Back Jimmy’s personality as a radical small-business owner comes out into the forefront immediately, effectively illuminating his class Self-hatred. When discussing “posh” newspapers and the events of the day Jimmy begins his tirade against Cliff, his proletarian friend (and employee). Upon discussing worldly events Jimmy asserts: “Well, you are ignorant. You’re just a peasant. (11)” The vehemence here relates to the word ‘peasant.’ Jimmy usage connotes shame by associating working class people as uninformed for not sharing in his opinion. This degradation is merely the first salvo. He turns to his wife, Allison and continues with his classist rant- “What about you? You’re not a peasant are you?” In the play’s canon Allison represents the upper-Middle class. Extending this accusation the reader is able to see Jimmy bringing attention to his own decision, that of marrying outside his class; a “sin” for any revolutionary. More to the point such a line emphasizes how much turmoil Jimmy has internalized for doing so, a decision which still nags at him and causes frustration within not only his marriage but his social life as well.

So is seen the start of class conflict: Jimmy, the petty-bourgeois businessman raging against the perceived ineptitude of his working class employee while simultaneously taking aim towards the upper echelons of the middle class.

Continuing with his monologue Jimmy berates: “No one can raise themselves out of their delicious sloth. You two will drive me around the bend soon… (15)” A reference to his own actions (investing in a sweet-stall) enabling him to transcend his working class origins. This is met with an angst ridden cry representative of the agony inflicted upon him during his social transience; despite great opposition he was able to climb the social ladder, those around him, however, appear content with their current stations. Such a reality befuddles Jimmy and causes him to lash out once more this time taking aim at his friends perceived existential crisis: “Why don’t we have a little game? Let’s pretend that we’re human beings, and that we’re actually alive.” Meant as a call to action in the sense that being a real human means becoming active within the class struggle, this passage defines Jimmy’s frustration in terms of class conflict: wishing an end to class collaboration while promoting class conflict the reader gleams a cornerstone of Jimmy’s dilemma, namely, that he is a petty-bourgeois living in a period which should be fraught with the struggle for a classless society, yet is not. He ditched his working class status, ascended to the indecisive Middle Class and yet gained nothing in return all while expecting a mass-movement to have been launched during his lifetime.

This is the social root by which Jimmy rages against Cliff and Allison’s alleged lack of convictions: he (Jimmy) is a radical while they are not; he is diametrically opposed to the capitalist establishment while they see it as the comfortable status quo. Naturally such anger born of isolation evolves into despair with Jimmy’s tangent on Cultural Imperialism. “But I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age- unless you’re an American of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That’s a thought isn’t it? (17)” Understanding this facet of the scene in conjunction with the recurring demand of Jimmy’s prodding Cliff make tea therefore signals a greater lynchpin: tea (a British mainstay) is representative of Jimmy’s desired Anti-Americanism, a counterweight to the cultural attacks of United States life. The subtext here is that of Britain’s subservience to American ideals: consumerism; so in utilizing tea the implied directive is that of British proletarian culture instead of bourgeois cultural production. Connected to his earlier rant by means of dialectics, readers understand that Jimmy’s beef with society is not simply a question of uncaring masses or competing cultural currents but rather that of Imperialist deviations degrading the populace so as to ensure complicity with the capitalistic mode of production.

The penultimate result of this contradictory paroxysm is disdain. Jimmy delivers by saying, in response to Cliff’s comment on Allison private property “You’re quite right. But you know something? Living day and night with another human being has made me predatory and suspicious. (36)” Directed not so much as towards society insomuch as towards Familial Nuclearism this line is doubly vital. For it is the martial anchor of the conflict between Jimmy and Allison’s relationship while also an indictment of life in the epicenters of international capitalism: without the communal bonds of anti-monetary progression civilization will be doomed to what Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ulyanov called the predatory (“Imperialist”) phase of human development.

If this aforementioned theme of class conflict as told through the dysfunction of the nuclear family carries any social weight, than we are able to say that this is a common narrative in the Anglo-American world. Crossing the Atlantic and forward six years into the future we find ourselves in the United States, circa 1962; the discord prevalent in post-war Britain has infected the latest superpower.

While the story of Martha and George is predominately one of gender roles and homosocial dominance, this is not to say there is a lack of class conflict. This is due to the introduction of Nick and Honey. When these coworkers show up it thus gives Martha the ability to be understood through the prism of class conflict mediated by masculinity competitions. Right off the bat the play opens by Martha quoting a classic line: “What a dump! (7)” It is a jab against her duties as a housewife. Yet, when combined with the reveal that she has invited guests over to share in her and George’s messy living quarters, the uttered phrase takes on meaning regarding the nuclear family, specifically, monogamy tied to wage-slavery. Of course the question must be asked as to why Martha invited guests over in the first place. Why would she ask over new professors when her house if untidy and husband non-committal? The answer may be found in the creation of an imaginary son. “George: And she mentioned…? / Honey: your son’s birthday… yes / OK, Martha… OK. (24)” George is taken aback not because Martha’s tactic is new but rather the opposite: it is old. The conflict here does not concern what Martha and George have but rather what they do not possess.  This is further articulated near the end of the scene when Martha tears down George. The point of contention here is failure to ascend to the upper-Middle class. Martha relates a story:

“And I got the idea… that I would marry into the college… which didn’t seem quite as stupid as it turned out. I mean, daddy had a history… of… continuation…” Martha continues “always had it in the back of his mind to… groom someone to take over, when he quit.” And so Martha started a watch for suitable men: “So, I was sort of on the lookout for … prospects, with the new men.” And then she met George and exclaims “You see, Groege didn’t have much… push… he wasn’t particularly… aggressive. In fact he was sort of a… a FLOP!”

After this emasculating assault upon George the reader holds both pivotal facts which drive Martha’s rationale for socializing: George’s failure in both the romantic and professional realms. Martha desires status and renowned. George was supposed to provide that luxury. He was intended to be driven to take over the college and provide Martha with a son, yet on both accounts he did not.

In effect this is the underlying root for the turmoil. Martha battles her husband not as a provider but as a failed tool of her class ambition. She desires him to reclaim his purpose and take up the university mantle, to give her a child. If this happens than the house (representative of the perceived filth of the lower-middle class) will cease to be dirty; cleansed as it would be in the aura of prestige and money which comes with ascension towards a higher social standing.

To the end of martial conflict, the homosocial competition serves to mask to complex class conflict driving the plot from behind the scenes. Everything from the “musical beds” to Martha’s seemingly mystifying commitment to George can be explained: it is all an act, a strategy by which Martha hopes to one day geode George into reclaiming his purpose; that by asserting his masculinity in his academic setting (against his youthful rivals) he will one day gain the drive to take over the university as she had originally planned.

Class Conflict, Not Class warfare

Karl Marx once said that the history of mankind was the history of class warfare. Yet it must be emphasized that the focus for both Osborne and Albee is class conflict, not class warfare.

Defining class warfare as the forcible overthrow of one class by another, this act was a violent affair. It ended not with parliamentary reform but revolution by which the working class seized power and erected their righteous dictatorship to replace the decadent bourgeois one. Class conflict, on the other hand, is merely tension between classes (and sub-classes) expressed through capital allocation.

One may say that Look Back and Who’s Afraid are dramas. More specifically though they are class dramas by where the characters represent a continuous evolution or “rat race.” Jimmy rages against the upper class, while several years in the future, across the ocean, Martha (despite holding a social position desired by Jimmy) rages as well against her inability to climb to more prestigious positions.

In this manner we see unintentional traces of pseudo-absurdism: no one in either play is ever happy. Each set of characters demand more. Yet as shown through the comparison of each class’s lifestyle we know this to be an invention of class society. Though attaining the position by which Jimmy (in his own manner) aspires to (so as to assist the revolution), we clearly see that Martha is not satisfied with her life; for she longs to be higher up in the social ladder. Unhappiness, it seems, is a product of the class struggle failing to develop into class warfare.


For all of the “progress” of aristocratic labor groups agitating on behalf of the Middle Class, there is no surplus of joy to be found. If proven by artists who have either lived under the conditions described in their work or found a kinship with those who have, than a declaration that capitalism is an untenable social system is not a remarkable claim.

John Osborne and Edward Albee communicate the troubles of socio-economic constructions through their remarkable pieces. Osborne for his mastery in “setting the stage” as an indirect precursor towards Who’s Afraid and Albee for his furious tirade against attempts to “live with” the status quo; the fact that his work is in turn an indirect sequel to Look Back only ratifies both narratives into a cohesive whole. Complimenting each other in terms of social commentary as a whole we are able to discern an anti-tradition narrative basing itself in the present historical epoch.

All of this is to say that the two plays herein examined represent a remarkable departure from expected forms of drama. Instead of basing one’s thread in terms of petty morality squabbles both authors base their arguments on the concrete aspects of daily life: relationships juxtaposed against the reality of class society. While one depicts nuanced conflict the other displays overt distress. In each case, however, the reader is invited to witness a scenario by where the instability of undemocratic economic institutions impress upon the masses a churlish withering by where social decay is the expected outcome.

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