The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066

Chicken Soup with Barley centers on the Kahn family, a Jewish working-class family from the East End of London who start out as communists. The family is matriarchal; the mother, Sarah, holds both the family and the play together.

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The play does not have a dramatic plot line; instead, it chronicles the different stages by which the Kahn family and their friends shift their political and personal allegiances (from the years preceding World War II to the postwar decade) in the direction of disillusionment and even breakdown.

The first act takes place on October 4, 1936 (a day of some historical significance in the political history of the 1930’s), when a grouping of communists, Jews, and dock workers prevented a fascist march of “Blackshirts” through the East End of London. Along with the Spanish Civil War, it heightened the awareness of British communists and socialists alike of the struggle against fascism and the forces of reaction.

Scene 1 is set just before the Blackshirts’ march is due to begin. Harry, Sarah’s husband, has returned from taking their two children, Ada and Ronnie, to relatives to keep them out of harm’s way. It is immediately apparent that husband and wife are in conflict with each other: Sarah nags Harry; Harry lies to Sarah and steals money from her purse. Sarah is actively involved in the effort to prevent the Fascist march; Harry seems afraid of physical action, preferring to discuss books. Three young Jewish boys—Monty, Prince, and Dave—enter, all excited by the prospect of confrontation. Dave, who has just volunteered to join the Communist International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, is clearly more intelligent and idealistic than the other lads. The scene ends with them exiting to join the demonstration, to background cries of “They shall not pass.”

The second scene occurs on the same evening, after the protestors have successfully forced the cancellation of the Blackshirts’ march. Hymie, Sarah’s brother, has been hurt by a policeman’s baton and has come to be cleaned up before going home. Cissie, Harry’s sister and a militant trade-union organizer, also enters. Everyone is elated, but there is an undercurrent of friction between Sarah and Cissie, whom Sarah accuses of being heartless. Sarah goes out to collect the children, and Harry returns. It is fairly obvious that he has not participated in the demonstration and has spent the time at his mother’s house. On the other hand, Ada, who is only fourteen years old, has been busy acting as messenger and has not been baby-sat at all. Sarah returns and has a fierce row with Harry, the others having already left in anticipation. The two children are now upset. The note is one of anticlimax.

Act 2 is set in the immediate postwar period (June, 1946). The Kahns have been resettled in an aging public-housing block of flats. Their political commitment is now in something of a crisis. Ronnie, a bright and lively high school student, is out delivering leaflets for a May Day demonstration (even though it is June) as the scene opens, but Ada seems disillusioned. She has married Dave, who after fighting in the Spanish Civil War was drafted into the British Army for the duration of World War II and has not yet been demobilized. He too has become disillusioned by the war and by the lack of idealism in particular. Sarah is involved in trade-union activities, but Harry, going from one job to another—and at present unemployed—has clearly given up. The scene reveals these facts in the dialogue. An atmosphere of tension and recrimination builds, dramatically ending as Harry has a stroke and collapses.

The second scene takes place sixteen months later; the audience sees Ronnie talking with Cissie about his father, who has partially recovered and is able to do storekeeping jobs, and also about his own ambition to be a writer. Ada and Dave have moved into the country to try to practice a nonindustrial rural socialism. Cissie talks about the difficulties of organizing her members to take industrial action.

Harry and Sarah enter; Harry has lost his job (again) but will not admit it to Sarah. His continual purposeless lying enrages her, and they quarrel. Sarah goes off to a union meeting, leaving Ronnie to look after his father. There is a letter for the hospital that Harry wants to open; Ronnie tries to stop him, and the encounter breaks both of them. Harry feels totally defeated, while Ronnie is terrified of becoming like his father.

Act 3 occurs eight years later, in November, 1955. Sarah is seen struggling with welfare forms as Harry, who has had a second stroke, is at times both senile and incontinent. Monty Blatt reappears, for the first time in many years, with his wife. He is now a prosperous shopkeeper in Manchester and is embarrassed by his former Communist Party membership. He refers to the Russians’ having annihilated the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist League as one reason for his disillusionment. He does, however, recognize Sarah’s continuing loyalty. “Bless her! Someone told her socialism was happiness so she joined the Party. You don’t find many left like Sarah Kahn,” he says. Again, the scene ends in anticlimax, as Harry’s incontinence becomes obvious and he is hustled out.

The final scene takes place thirteen months later. Sarah has brought Prince, Hymie, and Cissie together because Ronnie is supposed to be returning from Paris, where he has been working as a chef. Cissie has been “retired” from her job. They play cards, but the game degenerates into misplay and arguments. Ronnie has not yet returned, and the others are unwilling to stay longer. They go, and Sarah puts Harry to bed. She dozes, waiting.

Ronnie returns silently and wakes Sarah. They reunite. She has pinned all of her hopes on Ronnie, but it is obvious that all is not well. He has in fact given up his job and, more than that, has renounced communism, citing especially the recent Russian invasion of Hungary. He tries to confront Sarah: “The family you always wanted has disintegrated, and the great deal you always cherished has exploded in front of your eyes. But you won’t face it.” Sarah’s long final speech is her defense. The curtain falls on Sarah as a survivor: Her beliefs have withstood everything. All the others have fallen away.

Dramatic Devices

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Although Chicken Soup with Barley is part of a trilogy, it is structured independently of the other two plays, and a study of them would shed little light on this play. The trilogy plays are connected by a loose “webbing” rather than being cumulative or sequential. In fact, the ending of the play is as late historically as the ending of the other two plays. Thematically, Roots (pr., pb. 1959) shows the success of Sarah’s ideas as they have been reinterpreted through Ronnie by Beattie, the rural heroine, a character very much modeled on Arnold Wesker’s own wife; I’m Talking About Jerusalem (pr., pb. 1960) further explores Ada and Dave’s disillusionment with their Utopian sort of socialism.

The main dramatic device is not, then, its trilogy structure, but rather its chronicle layout. It is more akin to the older chronicle play, a genre which German playwright Bertolt Brecht had revitalized. Wesker allows a number of historical events to structure the play for him; they influence plot, character development, and the discussion of ideas. Thus, the Cable Street march, the Spanish Civil War, the election of the Labour Party to government after World War II, the Russian liquidation of certain Jewish leaders, and the Russian invasion of Hungary are the pivotal events of the three acts. The first act is readily divisible into two scenes—before and after—but the two-scene division of the other two acts seems much more arbitrary, and the typical looseness of the chronicle play is evident.

Wesker preferred this structure to the tight Ibsenist structure, which relies on unity of time, place, and plot, where the past obtrudes into an all-pervasive present as the uncovering of guilty secrets inevitably fashions choices and events. It has been suggested that Wesker liked a looser structure because it allows a cause-and-effect pattern to unfold gradually, without guilt or inevitability being the predominating mood. It permits an audience time to see where characters choose to give in or go on, not because they are pressured by a guilty past but because existential choices test their authenticity. Thus Sarah emerges as the one authentic character, whose understanding of socialism must therefore be true.

The pattern of others dropping away, however, does become somewhat obvious. It can be predicted exactly what will happen when Ronnie returns, and Wesker’s engineering of the last scene consequently lacks subtlety. It must be realized, though, that Wesker started with this scene in his mind, and the play was written backward, as it were. Nevertheless, it is the first act that appeals to most people, perhaps because there is still a genuine open-endedness about the direction people will take and events will move.

It would be true also that Wesker’s use of anticlimax as the predominant device for ending his scenes has not yet been established. These anticlimaxes are in the form of physical action rather than choices: quarrels, physical collapse, incontinence. Much of the anticlimax centers on Harry, whose degeneration seems somewhat drawn out, but if too well portrayed, it could withdraw sympathy from Sarah. It could be argued that Sarah is meant to be seen as an ambiguous Mother Courage figure, but as it is clear that she is modeled after Wesker’s own mother and his comments seem sympathetic to her, such an interpretation has dubious validity.

Wesker’s stage directions are important. He makes use of song in act 1 to show the vitality of working-class culture at that time. His dialogue is rich and full without drawing attention to itself as either Jewish or Cockney. It is thus perhaps less likely to date than other contemporary plays.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

Sources for Further Study

Dornan, Reade W. Arnold Wesker Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Hayman, Ronald. Arnold Wesker. London: Heinemann Educational, 1970.

Leeming, Glenda. Wesker the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1983.

Leeming, Glenda, and Simon Trussler. The Plays of Arnold Wesker: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1971.

Marland, Michael, ed. Arnold Wesker. London: Times Newspapers, 1970.

Ribalow, Harold. Arnold Wesker. New York: Twayne, 1965.

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