Arnold Wesker Wesker, Arnold (Vol. 5) - Essay

Wesker, Arnold (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wesker, Arnold 1932–

Wesker, a British Jew of Russo-Hungarian descent, is one of the foremost of the New Wave dramatists of the working class. The Kitchen and Roots are considered theatrical masterpieces. In addition to his plays for stage, television, and screen, Wesker has written criticism, essays, and, most recently, a collection of short stories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Future historians of mid-twentieth century drama will have to do a lot of homework on the political background, and I don't envy them the job. Stock responses along one or another political groove were the main obstacle to critical assessment of the new English playwrights who came to the front from 1956 onwards. The artistic vitality of this new wave came from an upsurge of attitudes, diction, and characters formerly unknown to our stage; but it seems that the release of energy among the supposedly inhibited English could only take place in the absence of genteel restraint. At all events, most of the new writers had an education well short of university standards. The result is a freshness of imaginative response side by side with conceptual poverty, as if they were artistically mature and intellectually virgin.

In many critical opponents of the New Wave this condition seemed to have been reversed. They … shirked the issue and fell back on the snobbish formula 'kitchen sink'. Although they had the advantage over the dramatists in education and experience, they greeted the dramatic equivalent of a social revolution with vague gestures of distaste and never brought their minds to bear on it. (pp. 71-2)

Having failed to define the New Wave's admittedly meagre stock of ideas, its opponents went on to reveal an astonishing ignorance of dramatic form. They repeatedly invoked the Edwardian concept of a 'well made play' without, apparently, having broken down even that limited vehicle to its elements, which are in fact two or three star actors in scenes contrived for the display of personality and technique. Such parochialism, leaving out as it did most of the world drama's expressive range, including Shakespeare's method in the histories, was especially unsuited to coping with the new English work. The new playwrights were actively opposed to boulevard drama, and in Wesker's case any objection to it in principle was reinforced by total ignorance of it. Working as a kitchen porter in Paris, he never went to the theatre at all. (p. 72)

Wesker's most notable qualities are emotional maturity and his command of action in depth. The first means that he never condescends to his characters, the second that what happens on stage is always more interesting in performance than we would be likely to guess from quotation…. Under the surface of dialogue which, like O'Neill's, is often limp and colourless on the page, there comes into focus a network of relationships more significant than the interplay in the foreground, which can be written off as a quarrel between cooks or the gushing quotation of a half-educated young man's ideas, accurate but uninspiring. The inner framework, on the contrary, contains social and political issues, held together dramatically by the playwright's urgent concern for them and by his conviction that they affect the homely characters in front. Thus, behind Ronnie Kahn lies the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and behind both is the fact of the author's Russo-Hungarian descent; behind Peter the cook lies German idealism and violence; and behind Beatie Bryant is a generation faced with a new kind of choice. In each case there are three sources of pressure: current affairs, the author's attitude, and the characters in the play.

At the end of Roots there is a good example of the way this three-fold pressure is applied. The elementary theatrical situation is that of a heroine ditched by her fiancé and alone with a family she has outgrown. From the current sociological angle, Beatie Bryant is a working-class girl, newly awakened to the joys of abstract painting, classical music, and extra-marital love. From Wesker's angle she is all that, and also a creature with a choice between self-realisation and absorption by the greedy mass of spenders corrupted by advertising; from her own, she is a woman in love who has done her best to reconcile her boy-friend's view of life with that of her mother. By the end of the play she has been let down by everybody, yet she chooses that moment to assert herself with all the zest of a woman who at last knows her own mind. It works, because the commonplace events on stage register a series of pressures beyond those undergone by the characters. (pp. 73-4)

Is there really anything more in [The Kitchen] than close observation of a sleazy environment, arbitrarily whipped into a crude approximation to drama from time to time? Many think not; but what worries me about their attitude is a suspicion that they might think the same of The Iceman Cometh and The Lower Depths. (pp. 75-6)

When it comes to [the characters in The Kitchen], we will be disappointed if we look for any great insight or complexity; there are too many of them and there is too little time. Moreover, not one of them develops, as Beatie Bryant does, or learns anything new from start to finish. These might appear to be crippling defects, were it not for the fact that the characters do take on independent life, mainly because they speak in varied accents and dialects. We get the flavour of distinct personalities from the brief incidents which detach them from the crowd. This has been taken too much for granted, and seems to me remarkably skilful. An obvious parallel is O'Neill's definition of his crowd in The Iceman Cometh, but he takes four times as long to do it. Wesker's people are less characters than personalities, indeed it is part of the statement that they are not characters, but as usual with him they refer to a social context far bigger than themselves, to boring work, misused leisure, incentives, retirement, and other subjects of mid-century anxiety or debate. (p. 76)

A kitchen on stage can be accepted as a Capitalist microcosm with the proprietor standing in for God. The relationships and conflicts resemble those in other industries enough to prevent the documentary aspect from obscuring the point. First we are introduced to the people and, rare in the theatre, their work. Then they are shown under stress. In the subsequent lull a few of them go as far as they can towards reflecting on their situation. Finally, there is the feverish progress to an overwhelming question. The contours of significant action rise to the break period, structurally a climax though subdued in tone. I am plotting the inner action; the usual critical method would mark the lunch-hour rush as a climax and the break period as a relaxation, merely because one is noisy and the other quiet. In fact the reverse is true. The core of the play is a conversation in which Peter asks five of the others what they want from life. One wants tools and gadgets, the second sleep, the third money, the fourth women, the fifth human understanding. When the same question is put to Peter himself, he doesn't answer, or rather he answers in character by forgetting that the question has been asked. He has just caught sight of Monique, the waitress he is in love with. This wonderful scene, with the ovens at half-power, a guitar playing, and men of limited intellect fumbling with the issues which convulse the mid-century world, is a masterpiece by any standard. In the formal scheme it comments on what has gone before and enriches the seemingly trivial conflicts before and after. It recalls in various ways O'Neill, Gorki, and Chekhov. (pp. 77-8)

Peter's place in the scheme remains a debating point, because the scheme itself is so good. Two lines of defence, neither of them wholly convincing, can be followed. One is to take him as an essay in expressionist violence, an instrument registering the extremes of conflict elsewhere stated through people whose interest is limited by apathy or brutish prejudice. If working-class drama is to be more than reporting, at least one character must be given insight enough to lend events a shape. It would be cheating in this environment to introduce the necessary factor on an intellectual plane, so it is done emotionally instead, by the presence of a sensibility unstable but superior. The other artistic defence of Peter would be to adapt Kedrov's dictum that Uncle Vanya is an orchestra of which Vanya is the 'cello, to call Peter the solo instrument in a concerto. Either way, Peter is an impressive creation with the special appeal of characters who seem to break out of a play's design and take on independent life. As a part he might become a challenge to distinguished actors.

Wesker's claim to serious critical attention can very well rest on The Kitchen and Roots. (pp. 78-9)

Chicken Soup with Barley is remarkably mature. There are three acts, in 1936, 1946, and 1956. The action is that of time, politics, and social change on a Jewish East End family, the Kahns; and one way to appreciate it is to imagine what a mess this or that other 'committed' playwright would be likely to make of the same subject. The route is littered with invitations to get lost, as, say, Osborne does, in a piquant stage relationship or lay down the law at political slogan level. Instead of that, the political issues are almost inseparable from Wesker's characters and seem as much a part of the household as a cup of tea. (p. 79)

Although he arrives there with greatly inferior intellectual equipment and totally different techniques, Wesker reaches commanding heights from which he is able to ask questions as urgent as those asked by Shaw. He has the advantage over Shaw in emotional maturity and at times in the layers of meaning piled up behind external action…. Art as well organised as [his] will not yield its full flavour to criticism fettered by political opinion, Right or Left, still less to oversimplified notions of dramatic form. (p. 80)

Laurence Kitchin, "Drama with a Message: Arnold Wesker" (originally published in Experimental Drama, edited by W. A. Armstrong, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1963; copyright © 1963 by G. Bell and Sons Ltd.), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 71-82.

Let us pass over [Wesker's] irrepressible impulse to indoctrinate the working classes with Higher Forms of Art, though this may some day constitute one of the most embarrassing episodes in recent English cultural history. His plays are a good deal more complicated about such missions than his behaviour warrants, and when he deals—in the Chicken Soup trilogy and in Chips With Everything—with the intellectual's poignant failure to merge with the masses, he uncorks a theme which is both convincing and deeply felt. His writing, on the other hand, though full of sincerity, is almost completely wanting in art, being crude, zealous, garrulous and naive; his sense of style has not developed much beyond the grey, exacting realism of Galsworthy; and his relentless missionary temperament and perennial innocence frequently turn his characters into caricatures from agit-prop. (pp. 168-69)

Robert Brustein, "The English Stage" (originally published in New Statesman, August 6, 1965; copyright © 1965 by The Statesman and Nation Publishing Co., Ltd.), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 164-70.

Arnold Wesker's first two plays, Chicken Soup with Barley and The Kitchen, broke all the rules. They are written like films. The setting for The Kitchen involves several large gas ovens, a butcher's table, storage units, sinks, swingdoors—the whole apparatus of a large kitchen serving a busy restaurant. It is inhabited by thirty people: cooks, waitresses, and menials. The action is dispersed in a series of brief interludes embedded and almost immersed in the routine complexity of kitchen work. Each individual episode is severely curtailed in time and leaves little mark on its successors. There is only one major climax that must serve both phases of the play—Wesker does not call them "acts"—and this occurs when Peter, the most verbally articulate character, grabs a chopper, cuts through a gas main, and stops what for him is an intolerable routine. Then he rushes out and leaves the manager and others to sustain and rapidly contain the consequences of his action.

The play was of course criticized for its lack of dramatic construction; and its first professional production in London had to wait for the success of later plays by Wesker. But the playwright defended his innovations: "for Shakespeare the world may have been a stage," but for him "it was a kitchen," where men and women were imprisoned and dwarfed by a grueling routine, and where specifically human actions could not have development and climax and consequence. He had found a form for what he had seen and felt.

Wesker must then have read a book on "how to write a play," for his next two plays are more conformist, each with three acts and far fewer dramatis personae; the passage of time is more usual, the settings are easily realizable in the three walls of a box set. In Roots, the most eloquent of all these early plays, a heroine dominates the action.

But with Chips With Everything Wesker returned to a broader theme and presented two more of his "worlds." One shows conscripts in the R.A.F. on the parade-ground, developing from ill-coordinated individuals into a "fine body of men," efficient and faceless at the passing-out ceremony. The other shows, in interspersed scenes, the same conscripts in their barracks, but now bringing their individual needs and affections to various, disconnected, and imperfect life; in these scenes Wcsker shows another development towards a group-life, but far less certain or effective than that of the parade ground. When the recruits voluntarily follow a leader, the group reaction is efficient, and when they combine to protect and aid the unfortunate Smiler—the rejected and suffering fool—their corporate life becomes considerate. But at the end, these actions have no consequence; the random collection of individuals disperses as the airmen are posted to different stations.

With Chips and The Kitchen, Wesker was recognized as a social dramatist whose plays need large casts and are made effective by choreographic direction. But then his next play to be performed was The Four Seasons, which has only two characters and tells the story of a love affair. His director and the critics seemed quite unprepared for this: it was a new and unexpected development. But the love affair was private, intimate, and finally inconclusive: Wesker was magnifying one of the individualistic incidents of The Kitchen or Chips, artificially sustaining a confrontation (that in any of his ways of life is naturally tentative and impermanent) for as long as a symbolistic framework of Winter-Spring-Summer-Autumn would permit. His dialogue attempted to hold on to moments by the use of song or formal address, and so it suggests the antipathies, submissions, and cruelties at the heart of short moments of apparent concord.

With Their Very Own and Golden City,… Wesker once more used the wide scene, only less restricted in time, place, and type of character. Here is the whole life of a working-class boy becoming a famous Town Planner, knighted for his services. Like The Four Seasons it did not please the critics: flashbacks in the last scenes from middle-age to youth (involving two actors for a single character); a setting that has to change during the action (especially in the last eleven scenes, where Wesker wants to have the progression of a film rather than of a play); the obvious propagandist and autobiographical elements combined with the compression of characters to types that was necessary in order to contain such wide-ranging subject matter within bounds of a three-hour performance—all this gave offense. If Wesker had been content with his own earlier dramatic forms he would have been in less danger of being judged a failure. But a more demanding form is what he seeks—in order to present the themes he has always considered significant. He is using the theater to explore, to demonstrate in more comprehensive and more subtle ways: that is why he is a dramatist before he is a propagandist. (pp. 12-14)

John Russell Brown, "Introduction" to Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown (© 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 1-14.

Love Letters On Blue Paper [a collection of short stories] dwells, despite its title, on death, decay and socialism but not necessarily in that order—socialism is torment reserved for the living. The three stories included in this collection are somewhat ambiguous, though, since they deal with these unpleasantly sentimental themes with a prose which is dry to the point of artificiality. Sheridan Brewster is 'The Man Who Became Afraid,' a humourless and pedantic creature whose timorous death promises to be as uninteresting as his life, and I suppose that we must put it down to Wesker's unerring dramatic sympathy that the prose should be as heavy as the hero….

The second story, 'A Time of Dying', is in fact "autobiographical," which simply means that quotidian experience has been ruthlessly subjected to nineteenth-century laws of chronology, causation, aesthetic unity and rhetorical effect. It is a memorial to the death of some close relations, and as such it can be interesting only to those who were naturally involved. The last of the stories is the titular head of the collection, 'Love Letters On Blue Paper', and it returns again to Wesker's favourite study of those who discover that they have lived to no purpose. It is here, of course, that Wesker's dry prose comes into its own as he articulates the even dryer processes of fear and failure….

The story is carefully written, apparently without irony and certainly without humour, and although the mawkishness is reserved for Wesker's protagonists it is this mawkishness which, finally, suffuses the whole book. (p. 246)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 24, 1974.

Predictably low on middles, short stories grab inevitably for endings. In short, you might say, short stories are obsessed by finality. What apter, then, than that Arnold Wesker should pursue his own obsession with human finality by means of short stories. Even the least successful of Wesker's three stories [in Love Letters on Blue Paper]—the first one, about a man whose way of boasting he's afraid of nothing is to profess that he's 'afraid of everything' and who is visited by the nemesis his words invoke—has the satisfying moral panache of great fable. Wesker, of course, doesn't merely seek the rounded and plausible satisfactions of parable: the man who becomes afraid is also a Labour Party supporter whose decline involves his realisation that he no longer believes in equal opportunity. On this occasion the political theme and the fabliau shape don't quite manage to mesh, but 'A Time of Dying' and 'Love Letters on Blue Paper' do contrive confidently to animate their political as well as their more general concerns…. In both, memory, particularly family memory, is shown focused and strengthened by dying, and, involved in a variety of traditions and continuities, the death of the individual becomes a kind of triumph. Wesker's writing is, especially in these two tales, finely sensitive, strongly humane, and quite convincing. It proves that the kind of realism he's often sought is much more attainable through the generous particularities of prose fiction than in the stylised artificialities of the stage. (p. 293)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 30, 1974.

Arnold Wesker has moved from plays to short stories [Love Letters on Blue Paper] with happy results. Doubtless, one of the reasons for his success is the fact that he has an inherent respect for his characters, when he is not outright in love with them. He commits himself wholeheartedly to their vision of things, refusing them nothing, permitting them to believe in themselves and their lives, to scream at death, to yearn for victories of whatever sort—even when the victory belongs to an elderly woman whose dreams of selfhood center on winning money in the football pools. Few writers of fiction nowadays are so fearlessly generous as Wesker is with his characters (the most successful of whom are old East End types), and the result is a collection of stories of stunning dramatic power. (p. 36)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 17, 1975.

Of all the playwrights of England's "Angry" renaissance of the late '50s, Arnold Wesker is perhaps the least known here in America. He happens also to be about the best of a good lot. John Osborne, Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, Brendan Behan—it's easy to think of them all (and not just poor Behan) in the past tense. Nothing fails with such finality as a revolution that succeeds.

But Arnold Wesker is a special case. It is puzzling, really, that his plays have not traveled well to this side. He is Jewish and of working class origins—and his writing (in particular his early work) seems to have quite a lot in common with that of American Jewish playwrights, such as Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. But that, perhaps, is just the trouble: it may be that Wesker seems too familiar, that his work may be too much in a mode we think of as more or less American. Perhaps theater audiences here look for something more exotic in their imported plays—something distinctly "English."

If that is the case, I wonder how this collection of stories, Love Letters on Blue Paper, will fare here. It cannot possibly get the audience it deserves, for if it did that, it would shoot to the top of the best-seller list…. [Three] of the five stories in it ["Six Sundays in January," "The Man Who Became Afraid," and the title story] are remarkably good; and one of them, the title story, is as fine as any I've read for a very long time. The trouble is, these, just as some of his plays did, seem somehow "American": some in their Jewishness and others in their technique—the way they go beyond basic storytelling and into a kind of existential mode, communicating a quality of life, making them novels in summary. I suppose that you would, in fact, call the three very good stories "short novels," for they are well over what is usually considered story length….

[The] beautiful "Love Letters on Blue Paper": it is a story of death, of dying, but as the title has it, this one is also, and most importantly, a love story…. [It] is beautifully faceted, suggesting an entire marriage, man and woman, as death comes to part them.

As all this may suggest, Arnold Wesker's great themes are death and the family. Even the two shorter stories in the book, "Pools" and "A Time of Dying," conform perfectly, treating both. His attitude is best summed up in the curtain line of his first play, Chicken Soup With Barley, spoken by a tough matriarch to her son, the would-be-poet: "If you don't care you'll die." Wesker cares. And the extent and depth of the concern he shows in these stories may yet win him at least the beginning of an audience here in America. Then, perhaps, the plays.

Bruce Cook, "Return to Sender," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 1, 1975, p. 2.

Mr. Wesker, a Londoner, has been known here mainly as a playwright, and three of the five stories in ["Love Letters on Blue Paper"] might well be improved if they could somehow be staged. Like many modern dramas, they tell of unexceptional people struggling with vague and confused feelings, and the forms in which they express these feelings—the inner monologues of a thirty-five-year-old Hampstead mother overtaken by ennui and self-doubt, the jottings and musings of a Jewish widow living on dreams of winning the football pool, and the sudden, surprising love letters of a wife to her dying husband—are histrionic in a way that doesn't stand up on paper but that might be effective in the speech of a resourceful actress. Of the two remaining stories, one is a gentle, factual account of a period of deadly coincidences in the author's family, and the other is a formal tale—almost a fable—about a British businessman whose spiritual malaise curiously resembles that of his fictional suburban-American counterparts. On the whole, this book isn't quite funny enough or touching enough to be enthusiastically recommended, but it has its rewards of sentiment and insight. (p. 126)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 9, 1975.