Study Guide

Chicken Soup with Barley

by Arnold Wesker

Chicken Soup with Barley Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Chicken Soup with Barley can be understood on many levels: Arnold Wesker writes autobiographically, of the disintegration of his own family and its Jewish East End community; historically, of the waning of the Communist Party in Great Britain after World War II and of the loss of commitment to socialist ideals in the face of crass materialism; and politically, exploring what true socialism really is. The apperception of these levels depends to a large extent on the audience’s background: knowledge of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Cold War period, the differences between the political positions to which the play refers—especially between Marxist socialism (that of the Communist Party) and non-Marxist socialism (that of Great Britain’s Labour Party). In Great Britain, for example, the Labour Party has enjoyed very wide support from the working classes and the trade-union movement, whereas the Communist Party has always been a tiny minority concentrated in small pockets. Jewish communists started as a small, if vocal, minority in Great Britain, even in the heady days of the 1930’s; by the late 1950’s, they were virtually extinct. Without such knowledge, the increasingly embattled and isolated position of Sarah can be only partly appreciated by the playgoer.

Wesker is not merely concerned with this extinction. He wants to show what must remain, what must not be lost. The significance of Sarah’s last speech, when she declares,...

(The entire section is 500 words.)