Arnold Wesker was one of the leading playwrights in the social protest movement that dominated British theater in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. While some of the dramatists, notably John Osborne, were dubbed “angry young men,” Wesker was sometimes referred to as “the angry angel” because of the idealism at the core of his plays, including The Kitchen.
The Kitchen was the first play he wrote; it was given a performance, in a one-act version without sets, at London’s Royal Court Theatre, one of the centers of social protest drama. It was not until he had gained his reputation with his celebrated trilogy—Chicken Soup with Barley (pr. 1958, pb. 1959), Roots (pr., pb. 1959), and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (pr., pb. 1960)—that The Kitchen in its revised, full-length version was given a full production at the Royal Court, in 1961. The play was adapted to film the same year.
Unlike most of the “angry young men,” Wesker came from a working-class background. He gained firsthand knowledge of kitchen life through working as a pastry-cook in French and British restaurants. The character of Paul, the Jewish pastry-cook in the play, is partly based on himself. Paul’s naïveté led some critics to describe the play itself as politically naïve; it has also been criticized as melodramatic. Critic Kenneth Tynan was one of those who profoundly admired it. It “achieves something that few playwrights have ever attempted,” he wrote; “it dramatizes work.” The Kitchen can be seen as the sharpest and purest statement of Wesker’s concern for the working class and its need for creative fulfillment, a concern that he developed in subtler and more ruminative ways throughout the trilogy and his later works.