Chicken Soup with Barley

by Arnold Wesker

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Critical Context

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Chicken Soup with Barley and the other plays of the trilogy—Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem—deal, directly or indirectly, with other members of the Kahn family and the analysis of prewar communist beliefs in a postwar era. The trilogy fits into the context of the resurgence of British drama in the mid-1950’s, after several decades of stylized upper-class comedy and farce. Wesker was one of the first of a continuing stream of British dramatists who placed their work in lower-class milieus, writing on specifically social issues and trying to come to terms with the enormous changes subsequent to World War II. Wesker himself states that he wrote Chicken Soup with Barley after seeing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957). The free expression of working-class language, tensions, and emotions, written from the inside, revitalized the British theater.

Many of these “angry young men,” as this group was often called by contemporaries, were not politically committed, even though there was often a leftward direction to their social criticism. Wesker, however, was both politically committed and active. There is a certain didactic element in his work, and an attempt at historical and social analysis. The characters in this play know what they believe and why, and also why they change. It is interesting that in the years following this play Wesker helped initiate Centre 42, an arts and drama group seeking to reach working-class audiences who were not traditionally theatergoers. It was an attempt to reestablish a working-class culture. Wesker saw himself still very much as working class, though in later years this identification became less apparent.

Within Wesker’s own work, Chicken Soup with Barley is one of the first plays he wrote, and the first to be produced. It was deliberately first presented away from the London establishment, in the civic theater in Coventry, although it soon moved to London. It did not have a long run, though it is revived fairly frequently, often as part of the trilogy.

Chicken Soup with Barley is perhaps one of the most obviously autobiographical of Wesker’s plays, for Ronnie’s experiences are very similar to his own. For example, Wesker himself worked as a pastry cook in Paris. Also, Wesker’s parents, like Kops’s, were poor Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who became engaged in left-wing politics. Wesker’s fame rests principally on the trilogy and his Chips with Everything (pr., pb. 1962), even though he has written more than ten other plays and some short fiction. Later plays have moved away from the political domain and have become more private or more Jewish.

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