Arnold Wesker Essay - Critical Essays


Arnold Wesker’s central concern has been the fate of the working class in modern Britain, and the developments in his work have by and large grown from this concern. In his early plays, which form a saga of the working class through two generations in city and country, the concern is obvious and so is Wesker’s commitment. A second group of plays examines interpersonal relationships, which were certainly not neglected in the early plays. Most of the characters in this group are of working-class origin. Some of Wesker’s plays have dealt with a variety of subjects and themes—journalism, class divisions, responsibility to one’s community, commitment. These issues, however, were first raised in Wesker’s early work. Wesker has merely shifted the focus of his concern from direct treatment of the working class to treatment of issues closely affecting it.

Besides indicating Wesker’s personal growth, the developments in his work also reflect changes in the modern British working class. In Wesker’s early plays, the working class is shown in its traditional role: serving the needs of the higher classes and worrying about where its next meal is coming from. Already, though, changes are occurring. With socialism comes more power, better living conditions, and greater opportunity, but these changes bring new problems. The old class solidarity dissipates. Some working people cannot escape their traditional role and grasp the opportunity for richer, fuller lives. Others grasp the opportunity but still find themselves searching for meaning. The Wesker trilogy introduces this stage of socialism, and his plays treating interpersonal relationships explore it further. In an epilogue to The Four Seasons, Wesker explicitly connects socialism and interpersonal relationships and defends his shift in emphasis:There is no abandoning in this play of concern for socialist principles nor a turning away from a preoccupation with real human problems; on the contrary, the play, far from being a retreat from values contained in my early writing, is a logical extension of them. . . .

In short, building the New Jerusalem is not merely a simple matter of seizing power and satisfying basic material needs.

Food, however, is quite obviously the main symbol in Wesker’s plays, changing its meaning from context to context. In Roots, the farmers are sweating to grow it, while in The Kitchen the cooks are sweating to cook it—they represent the traditional role of the working class. In Chicken Soup with Barley, sharing food (particularly the archetypal chicken soup) symbolizes compassion and working-class solidarity. On the other hand, in Roots consuming food symbolizes the mindless animal contentment of the welfare state. In Chips with Everything (as in fish and chips), the “chips with everything” note on the greasy East End restaurant menu suggests not only familiar working-class identity but also—to the upper-class snob “Pip” Thompson—the indiscriminate potato-like nature of that identity. Throughout Wesker’s plays people are constantly preparing food or tea for one another, usually as a token of love, respect, or fellowship. For example, onstage in The Four Seasons Adam makes Beatrice an apple strudel, the recipe for which Wesker kindly shares in a note to actors.

The Wesker Trilogy

The basic introduction to Wesker’s work is The Wesker Trilogy, consisting of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. They do not constitute a trilogy in the strictest sense (the three plays have separate actions and settings and do not follow in entirely chronological order), for each can easily stand alone. They are, however, united by their characters, two generations of the city Kahns and the country Bryants, and by the same general subject: the conditions, aspirations, and frustrations of the British working class. Thematically they are also tied together in a loose thesis-antithesis-synthesis relationship.

Covering the most history is Chicken Soup with Barley , which stretches over three decades of life in London’s East End. The bustling first act shows militant workers, led by the communist Sarah Kahn, putting down a Fascist march during the 1930’s. Later, one of the young workers, Dave Simmonds, leaves to continue fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Even here, however, the idealized solidarity is not complete: A prominent shirker is Sarah’s own husband, Harry Kahn, who in the thick of the fight runs off to hide at his mother’s home. The second act is set in the 1940’s, shortly after World War II, and change is apparent. Deterioration of the one-time solidarity is occurring: Tired out by political activity and war, sick of industrial urban society, Dave Simmonds and Ada, the Kahns’ daughter, get married and withdraw to a quiet life in the country. Despite a new Socialist government, capitalists are still finding ways to exploit the workers. By act 3, set in the mid-1950’s, the deterioration is complete. The Soviet Union’s behavior has exploded Communist ideals, Sarah is now fighting welfare-state bureaucracy, and the old comrades have dispersed. One example is agitator-turned-businessman Monty Blatt, who expresses the prevailing “I’m all right, Jack” philosophy: “There’s nothing more to life than a house, some friends, and a family—take my word.” Ronnie, the Kahns’ son, likewise disillusioned and searching, is embarrassed by the old language of solidarity; words such as “comrade” now seem unreal.

The most interesting characters in Chicken Soup with Barley are Sarah and Harry Kahn. Apparently held up for admiration, Sarah is a spunky Mother Courage figure who expounds the play’s chicken-soup philosophy and who persists in her ideals even as her world crumbles around her: “you’ve got to care or you’ll die.” At the same time, she is a pushy wife and mother and something of a shrew. Poor Harry is already demoralized enough, as a breadwinner who has trouble finding work (it is, after all, the Depression), and Sarah finishes the job of emasculating him. Finally, her nagging gives him a stroke, and thereafter his deterioration mirrors the decline of working-class solidarity, until he becomes the ultimate case of the uninvolved person, paralyzed and unable to control even his bladder and bowels. It is too bad that Sarah does not practice her chicken-soup philosophy more on Harry.

Picking up thematically where Chicken Soup with Barley leaves off, Roots at the same time provides a strong contrast in setting and characters. It is still welfare-state Britain, now 1959, but the place has switched to the Norfolk countryside, where the rural working class is presented in the persons of the Bryant family. The Bryant men work as pigmen, tractor drivers, and garage mechanics, and the women are housewives. Although the men are still subject to a mysterious “guts ache” and to being sacked at work, the Bryants are generally fat and complacent. Uneducated, unaware, and conservative, they take no interest in affairs outside their own little circle. Their conversation is about the weather, food, and family, or gossip about the neighbors. They enjoy popular culture (they can hardly wait to get television), but books and classical music are “squit.” They represent the...

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