The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.