Sarah Kahn, a small, fiery Jewish woman of European origin, thirty-seven years old at the opening of the play. She lives in the East End of London. She is the wife of Harry, whom she constantly nags, and the mother of Ada and Ronnie. Two features immediately characterize her: her warmhearted but unsentimental dynamism and her total commitment to communism. This commitment is less ideological than intuitive, being based on a sense of community and the need to care, an extension of her strong sense of wider family. It is because of this feeling that she is the one figure who does not become disillusioned as the play progresses. Although personal tragedy overtakes her during the twenty-year span of the play (particularly her husband’s physical and mental collapse and the breakup of her own family and the Jewish East End community), she never loses her warmth or her convictions. In this loosely structured chronicle play, she is the one character who holds the play together, as the matriarch in a matriarchal society and the true essence of socialism: a caring heart that can withstand political oppression, crass materialism, and disillusion. She alone remains unbroken.
Harry Kahn, a Jewish member of the working class, thirty-five years old at the beginning of the play. He is something of a thinker. Although he apparently shares his wife’s beliefs, he is almost her complete opposite: physically weak, timid, and a compulsive liar. Their incompatibility leads to frequent quarrels that finish with Harry feeling defeated and guilty. In act 2, he suffers a partial stroke, which makes employment difficult; he more or less gives up. By act 3, he has had a second stroke and is a physical wreck, helpless and incontinent. the play suggests that his physical weakness is an outward sign of his emotional and spiritual weakness.
Ada Kahn, Sarah and Harry’s daughter. As the play opens, Ada is fourteen years old and, like her mother, totally and actively committed to communism, especially in the immediate confrontation with the Fascist “Blackshirts.” As the play progresses, she loses her youthful zeal because of a long engagement and, after her marriage, an even longer separation from her husband, Dave, caused by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. She also is demoralized by the failure of their utopian scheme to live simply in the country.
Ronnie Kahn, Sarah and Harry’s son. In act 1, Ronnie is a child; in act 2, he is a politically committed high school student; and in act 3, he returns from a job in Paris as a chef. In many ways, Ronnie resembles the author, just as the play is the story of the author’s own family. Ronnie is shown to be particularly sensitive to his parents’ failures. He is terrified of becoming as weak as his father, and he argues fiercely with his mother that communism has failed. the argument leads Sarah to define her socialism of the heart, but Ronnie cannot accept this, at least “not yet.”
Cissie Kahn, Harry’s sister, a Trades-Union organizer. She is as strong in character as Sarah and is as committed in her beliefs, but she lacks her sister-in-law’s humanity and warmth. She prefers confrontational roles, but, as the play proceeds, she finds less and less support among her union members, until she is finally “retired” from her post.
Dave Simmonds, Ada’s husband. Among the Jewish teenage boys in his group, Dave is the most attractive and idealistic. He volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists....
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For most of the play, he is only heard of through Ada, who reveals his disillusionment with the working class and the failure of his rural socialist scheme.
Monty Blatt, another of the Jewish teenagers in act 1. He reappears in act 3 with his wife, Bessie, at a reunion with Sarah and Harry. He is now a successful entrepreneur in Manchester and wants to forget his earlier communist leanings, even while continuing to admire Sarah for her commitment.
Prince Silver, the third of the teenagers who participate in the demonstration. He also reappears in act 3, now running a secondhand shop and clearly no longer politically active. He is one of the players in an unsuccessful game of cards that is in stark contrast to the idealistic dialogue of act 1.
Hymie Kossof, Sarah’s brother. He makes a dramatic entry in act 1, having been hurt in the demonstration. Like Prince, he settles down in life. He is also in the game of cards and, also like Prince, refuses to wait up with Sarah for Ronnie to return from Paris—a final symbolic act of desertion.