Arnold Wesker

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Arnold Wesker, one of the many English dramatists of the stage revolution that began with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, made his reputation with a trio of plays about the working classes called The Wesker Trilogy, composed of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. More to the point, his name became associated with the term “kitchen-sink drama,” owing to the realistic depiction of life in his play The Kitchen, concerning the routine of daily life in a restaurant kitchen. This same realism exists in his play about military life, Chips with Everything, which joins those works previously mentioned as the fifth of Wesker’s best-known plays. All are highly detailed, humorous, and compassionate studies of life among the poor. All are drawn from his own personal and family life and are based on his strong convictions about the necessity for social change.

Born in East London (Stepney) to Joseph, a tailor, and Leah Perlmutter Wesker, of Russian-Hungarian-Jewish extraction, Wesker held assorted jobs as carpenter, plumber, bookshop assistant, farmworker, and pastry cook. He spent two years in the Royal Air Force and enrolled in a course at the London School of Film Technique, entering The Kitchen in The Observer play competition in 1956, the year the stage revolution began. Although the play was rejected by theater managers at the time, like so many of his contemporaries whose plays were staged in provincial theaters and who maintained an association with a particular theater, Wesker found his home in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. As a moralist and social activist, he worked hard in Centre 42, an organization with the purpose of bettering life for the working classes, especially in regard to the importance of art in their lives. As a result of his political activism, he spent some time in prison for his part in a protest staged by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Kitchen has its roots in Wesker’s own experiences and in those of his mother, who supplemented the family income with restaurant kitchen jobs. The structure of the play takes on the order in which workers arrive at a restaurant in the course of a day, the rhythms of life in the kitchen increasing to a frenzied pitch with the lunch and dinner rushes.

Like The Kitchen, Wesker’s trilogy is drawn from his own experience, this time from his own family and community life in London’s East End. In all three plays, characters of the same family continue from one generation to the next. The first of the three plays to be staged, Chicken Soup with Barley, begins in the 1930’s in the context of the fascistic anticommunist marches that took place in the Jewish East End. Despite the domestic quarrels of the family of Harry and Sarah Kahn, larger issues and events unify them and their idealistic son and daughter, Ronnie and Ada. World War II, the Russian invasion of Hungary, Harry’s paralyzing stroke, Sarah’s desperate attempt to keep the family together—all these events affect the moral and political idealism of Ronnie. In the second play of the trilogy, Roots, the scene is Norfolk, where Beatie Bryant and her family are awaiting the arrival of her fiancé, Ronnie, who upsets the expectations of the family by his decision not to marry Beatie. She, in turn, has experienced her own self-discovery, in contrast with the narrow-mindedness of her family and neighbors. I’m Talking About Jerusalem continues the Kahn family chronicles, this time in Norfolk, where Ronnie is helping Ada and her husband Dave move...

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into a new home. More disillusionment sets in as all three, along with an old friend who is visiting them, confront a variety of personal failures. Dave is involved in petty thievery; Ronnie talks about his failed relationship with Beatie; Harry is confined to a mental institution; and a voice on the radio announces the Conservative victory of 1959. The four friends in their current situation present a vivid contrast with their optimistic idealism inChicken Soup with Barley, a play in which their vision of a humane society based on brotherhood had been so strong. Despite the anguish in all of them, their idealism, although diminished, remains in the form of their recognition of the small gains that have been realized.

Originally written as a novel, Chips with Everything is based on Wesker’s experience in the Royal Air Force. Written in Brechtian style, the play is drawn from Wesker’s own letters. Pip Thompson, the main character, although middle-class, is an idealist who insists on forgoing his middle-class prerogatives for a commissioned rank. His sympathies for the military underclass and his opposition to authority, on the other hand, are challenged by officers and by his own personal revulsion to the vulgarity of the very class he champions. Chips with Everything was hailed by New Critics such as Kenneth Tynan and rejected as proselytizing propaganda by critics who opposed Wesker’s left-wing view of the outdated English class system. Between the two extremes are those critics who see Wesker’s plays as compassionate, humane, and moral.

Wesker’s later plays are clearly distinguished from his early plays by the focus on personal relationships, bordering at times on the sentimental or fanciful. The Friends, for example, is concerned with a group of friends who react to the central character, Esther, who is dying of leukemia. All of Esther’s friends are in the interior decorating industry, and their aesthetic community is the integrating principle of the drama. A Chekhovian situation prevails as the idea of death is the catalyst that drives various characters into revealing their inner selves. The vision here is highly personalized, and the sharp focus of the early plays seems diffused. Lyrical in tone and poetic in imagery, the style of the later plays contrasts sharply with the realism and social criticism of the early dramas. Yet the strong affirmation of family, community, and social idealism remains the thematic hallmark throughout Wesker’s plays. Wesker has received several honors. In 1985 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature, and in 1989 he was made an honorary Litt.D. of the University of East Anglia.


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