Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1477
This play was Arnold Wesker’s first popular work, although his previous plays had enjoyed considerable artistic success. Like all of his plays, CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING delineates an aspect of contemporary society, not stopping at pointing out faults, but going on to point toward solutions. Wesker’s drama is, in fact, an extension of a general concern with social causes, and his identification with those causes is as strong on the stage as it is off.
Wesker also continues his interest in the psychology of the individual character in CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING. At first the play seems to be without a plot. A group of recruits meet at a training camp and several episodes occur which have some comic or dramatic interest as episodes: Corporal Hill plays the stereotyped drill sergeant; the recruits have their first drill lesson during which it is discovered that Smiler is physically unable to stop smiling; the various officers introduce themselves and in doing so reveal their individual perversions; Pip Thompson tells the history of his distinguished family; there is a Christmas party which degenerates into a fight and a confrontation between Pip and the officers; and Pip organizes and directs a very funny sequence in which the recruits steal some coal from the camp’s central supply. However, there is little apparent connection between these events except that the same people are involved in each before the second act.
In the second act the play begins to take shape, and what seems to have been a series of discrete events merges into a distinct pattern. That pattern cannot be equated, however, with the traditional plot in which a problem is introduced, complicated, and ultimately solved. CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING is closer to life than that: the basic assumption of the play is that in life the patterns lie inside the characters, and whenever anything significant occurs it happens within the individual. The only way to approach the play is through the characters who undergo the most changes in the course of the action.
The first characters who need to be accounted for in an analysis of the play are those who do not change, those in whom those changes have already occurred which are the builders of a man’s eventual character. Corporal Hill is a contradiction. On the one hand, he is the caricature of the drill sergeant, tough, unfeeling, and dedicated to the single-minded purpose of turning out perfect fighting men. On the other hand, he is genuinely concerned with the welfare of the recruits assigned to him, with seeing that they have the opportunity to work out their individual problems on their own terms.
The Wing Commander is dedicated to two propositions: first, that the military commitment is the most important concern of contemporary society; two, that the fighting men of the line are trash and it is the duty of the upper classes to mold that trash into worthy articles to be adapted into the social apparatus. The Squadron Leader believes that the only duty of the average man is discipline and obedience and the duty of the members of the upper classes is to command that discipline and obedience.
The Pilot Officer is obsessed with cleanliness. He sees the whole world as a breeding place for bacteria that have no function but to create disease. It is his self-appointed duty to clean up that breeding ground and to make it sterile. Similarly, the Physical Training Instructor sees as his duty the building of Greek gods. The average man is, to him, an anaemic creature unworthy of living in an enlightened society.
These men are important because they form the environment in which the action takes place. It is in reaction to them that the character changes which form the substance of the play occur. In terms of any social allegory which may be intended, it is impossible to ignore the obvious affinities that this environment has with the kind of environment the Nazis tried to create in the 1930’s.
Although all of the characters change, and significantly, two of the recruits exemplify the kind of change that informs the drama. Smiler Washington is, like all of the recruits except Pip, from the slums of London. He is afflicted with a singular malady—he is physically unable to stop smiling and his face is frozen in a perpetual expression of mirth. He is a kind of contemporary Billy Budd, overcome by a disability he has no means to correct. In fact, at the beginning the parallel with Billy Budd seems to be so exact that it must have been planned. Smiler seems to be beloved by all, a friendly, gentle man who can bring himself to offend no one.
Smiler soon reveals, however, that he is far from the epitome of happy innocence. He becomes petulant, constantly picking fights with his fellow recruits. He is morose and unpleasant, and the irony of his smiling face is soon apparent. His face is a constant irritation to his superiors. Corporal Hill sees the eternal smile as a satiric comment on the training itself and the Pilot Officer sees Smiler’s ever-bared teeth as a breeding ground for germs. It is soon apparent that there is no place in this society for perpetual happiness.
Erasing the smile from Smiler’s lips becomes an important project for the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, who berate him constantly in the attempt to prove that his smile is voluntary. Finally, he runs away, only to return to the camp for reasons of his own never revealed to the audience. The only explanation that is offered is that he found that he could not go on alone.
Pip Thompson becomes in the course of the play the most important character. Both his fellow recruits and his superiors are puzzled because he has chosen to enter military service as a lowly recruit. The first explanation offered is too simple: he is revolting against his father, who was a distinguished general in the last war. But it is soon clear that Pip’s rebellion goes much deeper than that. He constantly denies that his father is the source of his rebellion, yet he just as constantly calls up his father and his family as being representative of his rebellion.
He is surely not possessed of an active social conscience. He reiterates time and time again his disdain for the problems and concerns of his fellow recruits and the only times he joins with them in any concerted effort to improve their conditions are a few occasions when his personal comfort is affected, when the recruits need coal for their fire. Pip rejects all offers of close friendship just as easily as he rebuffs those among his fellow recruits who try to bait him because of his upper-class background.
Consequently, all of the recruits and officers find that their most pressing problem is to decide what Pip’s motives are. Some think that he is merely “slumming” for a lark. Others ascribe to him a social conscience he consistently denies. The officers are convinced that he is simply trying to punish his father by being as imperfect a follower as his father was a perfect leader. The only interest in the men’s welfare that Pip ever evidences is his concern that they not let the officers manipulate them. He paints a picture of the lower classes as a mass of easily manipulated objects. What finally emerges as Pip’s driving force is a concern that men not let themselves be treated so. He does not want the men to allow the officers to use them, and he himself does not want to be manipulated by his society into becoming an officer and a gentleman.
The irony is that at the end of the second act Pip has been successful in inspiring the men to a semblance of authentic action. They stand up to the officers and refuse to allow Smiler to be jailed for running away. But Pip has capitulated. The officers have evidently won and have convinced him to take what they conceive of as his proper place, that of an officer. In the last scene, as he dons his officer’s uniform, he ironically congratulates the men on their action. Finally Pip, now an officer, reads off their assignments to the men.
The exact meaning of all this is not clear. Is Wesker saying that the lower classes have nowhere to go but up, but the upper classes have nowhere to go but further into decadence? Is he saying that there is hope for the reformed but none for the reformer? Or is he simply creating a powerful human experience which illuminates, however dimly, all experience. In any case the play is a strong statement about the importance of the individual and of his individual actions.
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