Arnold Wesker

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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:...

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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 members of the working class who have trouble breaking out of the traditional mold and for whom Wesker’s Centre 42 project was perhaps intended. They are little better off than poor Harry except that they can move.

There is one exception among the Bryants, the twenty-two-year-old daughter Beatie, who has benefited from living with young Ronnie Kahn for three years in London. Besides cohabiting with him, she has kept his interest by pretending to listen to his ideas, a necessity with which she can dispense once they are married and she starts having babies. The slim plot of Roots consists of waiting—while Beatie sings his praises and continuously quotes him—for the great Ronnie to appear and meet the other Bryants. He never does. They prepare a feast for him, but he does not show up. Instead, he sends a letter of regret breaking off his affair with Beatie because she is so uncultured. Ironically, Beatie is not destroyed but is instead shocked into the fluent awareness that Ronnie had always tried to develop in her. Meanwhile, the other Bryants wade into the food lest it go to waste.

Beatie represents the younger generation that is moving to the city and developing “roots” in working-class concerns; she is an embodiment of Sarah Kahn’s continuing hope. She also anticipates the concerns of women’s liberation, which might partly explain why her role has been a favorite in the modern theater. As for Ronnie, he takes after his mother: Politically and culturally correct, he is personally something of a snob and a heel (there is a bit of the father here too). Ronnie gets off too easily in Roots, while Wesker is too hard on the country folk. Unfortunately, though Wesker admires D. H. Lawrence, he does not seem to share Lawrence’s appreciation for the animal vitality of country people (though it must be admitted that Lawrence wrote about an earlier generation that perhaps was more vital).

Wesker’s I’m Talking About Jerusalem suggests that his mentor was not D. H. Lawrence but nineteenth century socialist William Morris, who envisioned a Jeffersonian democracy of independent craftsmen. Picking up a loose end from Chicken Soup with Barley, I’m Talking About Jerusalem goes to the country with Dave and Ada Kahn Simmonds, who settle a few miles from the Bryants in Norfolk. Their dream is to leave the problems of urban clutter behind and build their own private Jerusalem in the country, where Dave will support them by creating beautiful handmade furniture. He will thereby realize William Morris’s vision of the independent craftsman who has a meaningful relationship with his work instead of merely filling a place on a factory assembly line. The Simmondses do enjoy their spacious country freedom, but, after thirteen years, a growing family and economic pressures force them back to the city. The throwaway consumer society does not sufficiently appreciate the worth of handmade items. The point seems to be that people cannot be uninvolved, cannot escape the problems of society, but must work together to bring about the New Jerusalem for everyone.

The Old Ones

The annals of British socialism continue in an example of Wesker’s later work, The Old Ones. From The Old Ones it is clear that as the problems of subsistence are solved, the problems of existence come more to the fore. At times The Old Ones evokes the Theater of the Absurd as two old brothers, the optimist Emanuel (“Manny”) and the pessimist Boomy, quote blasts at one another from William Butler Yeats, Thomas Carlyle, Voltaire, Martin Buber, John Ruskin, the Zohar, and Ecclesiastes. Other characters have similar problems: For example, old Jack goes around ringing a bell and sounding like a mad scene from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). Yet the setting and characters are realistic enough—recognizable as contemporary Britain, from the youths who drop out of school and beat up old ladies in the street, to members of the next generation who are approaching middle age and still searching for a career choice, to the old folks who live in comfortable retirement but puzzle over the meaning of it all. It is clear that socialism has not yet solved the problems of old age, death, and the generation gap, much less the meaning of existence.

What is required is a Socialist theology, and Wesker attempts to provide it in the form of the old people’s fellowship and Jewish custom. Through their own histories of failed relationships, the old ones have mellowed into tolerance of one another’s eccentricities and appreciation of one another’s company (even the quarreling brothers seem to need each other). They spend their time calling and visiting back and forth: At this stage, one needs all the moral support one can get. Their fellowship culminates in a revived celebration of Succoth, the Jewish harvest festival. Succoth calls for a symbolic hut in the room (in remembrance of frail humankind’s vulnerability and need for God’s help) and for a joyful countenance. Although marred by a few quarrels, the old ones’ Succoth feast is indeed joyful, ending in a stirring Hasidic dance. Thus, ritual solidarity is achieved in the face of the universe.

As The Old Ones suggests, the movement from solidarity to religious fellowship is not as far as it might seem. In the epilogue to The Four Seasons, Wesker argues that love must undergird all human interaction, at whatever level: Men and women “need to know and be comforted by the knowledge that they are not alone in their private pain. You can urge mankind to no action by intimidating it with your eternal condemnation of its frailties.” In his work, Wesker does not commit the ideological fallacy committed by his characters Sarah and Ronnie Kahn, who voice their love for humankind in the abstract but seem uncaring toward those closest to them. Socialism, so to speak, begins at home.

The Wedding Feast

The Wedding Feast picks up the theme of socialism, returning to Norfolk to do so. The Jewish show manufacturer, Louis Litvanov, tries to put his socialism to work through paternalism, deciding to attend the wedding reception of one of his employees. The often slapstick comedy does not hide his thwarted idealism. Wesker seems to be suggesting that equality is a necessary socialist fiction, rather than an ideal, since, in fact, class divisions need maintaining. Trying to collapse them merely leads to disorientation and disharmony.

The Journalists

In The Journalists and The Merchant, Wesker moves away from working-class settings and concerns. The Journalists works rather like The Kitchen in showing the pressures of a hectic working environment undermining the possibility of idealism. The Sunday newspaper staff seem motivated by the need to cut public figures down to size. The central character is a star columnist who was once perhaps an idealist but now adopts a calculated cynicism as a defense against her disillusionment.

The Merchant

In The Merchant, Wesker strikes out in a new direction: He takes a Shakespeare play (as did Edward Bond and Tom Stoppard) and rewrites it. He states that he has always found The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597) insupportable in its anti-Semitism. In his version, Wesker shows Shylock as an idealist, committed to open inquiry, a lover of books, a true Renaissance figure. In opposition to him are Christian “fundamentalists” who attack both the free-market forces of Venice and its toleration of Jews, however limited. The Venetian establishment, holding the political power, is more subtle: It takes a foolish gesture (the signing of the bond between Shylock and his close Gentile friend Antonio) and exploits it to deprive Shylock of his priceless collection of books. His idealism is further shattered by the flight of his daughter, who eventually loses both family and lover.

The play contains rather more plot than is usual for Wesker—the constraints of the original play dictated this. For the play to work, a good knowledge of the original is needed, because it is in the differences that the real force of the play is felt. The Merchant is a play in which Jewishness is most obviously analyzed for what it is in its most enlightened forms, rather than as a paradigm for social cohesion and motivation.

The 1980’s

After critical neglect, the production of The Merchant brought Wesker back somewhat into critical focus. The plays that followed, however, did not build on this, showing little clear direction. Annie Wobbler, the stage version of an earlier radio play, was a one-woman stage piece written specifically for the actress Nichola McAulife. Wesker was careful to deny these were monologues, however. Other one-woman plays followed: Four Portraits of Mothers and The Mistress. Letter to a Daughter was the last in the cycle, about a doubt-ridden single mother. It had been written for Norwegian jazz singer Susanne Fuhr, based on her biographical notes, though it received an early production in Tokyo, Japan. The most successful of these plays was Yardsale. Another, contrasting exploration of the female psyche was in Caritas, about a fourteenth century young nun.

By contrast, One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round shows a somewhat biographical but ultimately unsuccessful shift to middle-class, middle-age domesticity. Its shocking openings of a middle-aged lover romping around with a younger partner, making love barely offstage, do little to relieve a caricatured and stereotypical bedroom comedy. A Jewish mother is thrown in de rigeur. Lady Othello is a similar middle-aged jaunt, this time in New York.

A more promising development seemed to open up in an incursion into children’s theater with Shoeshine and Little Old Lady, two plays for young people. In the same year, The Kitchen was produced by the National Youth Theatre. However, compared to the commitment to youth theater by his contemporary British playwright, Edward Bond, the incursion seemed dilettante.


Because of Wesker’s failure to recapture his early success, most critics began writing Wesker off as a contemporary dramatist. However, Wesker himself has remained a committed and energetic playwright whose supply of plays shows no signs of dropping off, and the performance of a recent play, Denial, has challenged the received opinion of his superannuation.

The ninety-minute play deals with a controversial contemporary issue, False Memory Syndrome, especially in the sense that it can undermine family cohesiveness with its unprovable charges of sexual abuse. In this play, the triangle of daughter-father-therapist forms the dramatic foundation on which a hard-hitting set of speeches is based. Wesker refuses to demonize either the therapist as an implanter of false memories in an attempt to “solve” her client’s problems or the father, as the supposed perpetrator of the original sexual abuse. Both have genuine cases to make. In the end, the parents’ plea for normal touch and physical play to bond families emerges as Wesker’s, thus linking the play to his earlier plays about family bonding, however dysfunctional the family might seem.

The one part of the play that drew criticism was the introduction of a Holocaust survivor, still dealing with (very real) memories, as a sort of counterbalance to hidden memories. The handling of this part was too mechanical to be credible.


Wesker, Arnold (Vol. 3)