Chicken Soup with Barley

by Arnold Wesker

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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, “You’ve got to care, you’ve got to care or you’ll die,” lies here. This issue is at the root of her earlier quarrel with Cissie: Cissie has no compassion; she is all activity and confrontation and ends by driving her members too far and being dismissed. Sarah stands for the nondogmatic, intuitive, heart-based socialism that binds people into a community. Those who live by idealism alone, as do Ada and Dave, and even Ronnie, are seen to fall by the wayside; moral weakness, as shown by Harry, fails and degenerates.

Although the Kahns are Jewish, Wesker does not capitalize on this cultural trait explicitly, as Bernard Kops does in his The Hamlet of Stepney Green (pr. 1957, pb. 1959). Chicken Soup with Barley incorporates no specific Jewish practices or rituals. The matriarchal focus, however, does seem traditionally Jewish: It is Sarah as mother-of-all who dominates the play. However, she is a failed matriarch; Judaism, as much as communism, has failed to withstand the ravages of materialism and the cynicism of the Cold War. Wesker describes himself as a humanist, and such a humanism is probably what he intends the audience to infer from the play’s title, which is referred to specifically only in Sarah’s last speech. Here it becomes symbolic of human caring expressed as a community bond. It is the sharing of food among people poor in material possessions but rich in concern and commitment. The apparent failure of such a communion voids any incipient sentimentality at the end of the play. It must be cherished in the teeth of selfishness and individualism.

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