The Play

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The Kitchen spans a day’s work at a large London restaurant. At the beginning of part 1, the stage is in semidarkness (there are no curtains). It gradually comes into full light as Magi, the night porter, lights five ovens in succession. As each oven is lit, it emits a hum; the effect of all five ovens is a roar, which continues at varying levels throughout the play.

Members of the day staff, of many nationalities, enter in ones and twos, exchange greetings, and take up their allotted stations to start preparing food. Waitresses move in and out on their way to the dining room at the back, with trays of glasses or piles of plates.

The bantering repartee ranges over various personal issues, but the main topic is a fight that occurred between two of the cooks—Peter, a German, and Gaston, a Cypriot—the previous evening, when most of the staff had gone home. Several different versions are given, some with racial overtones. The men are mainly critical of Peter, but Anne, the Irish woman serving coffee and desserts, reminds them that Peter is in a difficult emotional state because he is in love with Monique, a married waitress. Monique enters and presents Peter’s role in the fight in a rather heroic light.

Peter, a young, boisterous, but good-natured cook at the fish station, arrives late and tries to effect a reconciliation with Gaston, but Gaston, a forty-something cook at the grill, is still angry. Peter and Monique quarrel through much of the scene, but eventually she agrees to ask her husband for a divorce.

There are some calm periods and lighthearted moments, but as the pace of work increases in preparation for the midday meal, tension mounts between various members of the staff. It is heightened by the arrival of the elderly, work-obsessed proprietor, Mr. Marango. Hans, a sensitive young German at the frying station, has an accident in the steam room, and his face is scalded.

Part 1 reaches a dynamic climax with the serving of the midday meal. Waitresses gathering at the various stations shout their orders, and the cooks shout back in repetition. Plates are passed to and fro. Tempers flare. Movements become increasingly frenetic; Kevin, an Irish newcomer struggling to keep pace, asks, “Have you all gone barking-raving-bloody-mad?” The tempo mounts until the waitresses are going around in a frenzied circle; the noise of the ovens crescendos. Finally, the lights dim, and calls for orders continue in the darkness until the stage is clear.

The interlude covers the afternoon break. Some of the younger men have gone out. In a mood of quiet philosophizing among those who are left, the idea of the kitchen as a symbol for the world outside takes shape. At a key point in the discussion, Peter asks each man in turn to express his dreams. Dmitri, a Cypriot kitchen porter, thinks of a workshop where he could mend radios. Hans dreams of money; Raymond, an Italian pastry-cook, of women; Kevin, who is stretched out on a bench, completely exhausted, of sleep.

In an important speech, Paul, a Jewish pastry-cook, says that he wishes he could find people to be less like pigs and more like friends. When Peter is asked to express his own dreams, he refuses and leaves suddenly with Monique. Others follow. The four Cypriots who are left move into a leisurely Greek dance, bringing the interlude slowly to an end. The dance merges into part 2, which is quite short.

The younger men drift back and talk about how they have spent the afternoon. Peter enters in...

(This entire section contains 903 words.)

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a bitter mood; he has quarreled with Monique again, and she tells him that she will not leave her husband after all.

The Chef catches Peter surreptitiously passing some meat cutlets to a tramp and threatens him with the sack. Paul and Kevin bait him further, reminding him that he was unable to think up a dream. “I can’t dream in a kitchen,” he retorts angrily. There is a disturbance at the back of the kitchen, and it emerges from the dialogue that Winnie, like several of the other women, including Monique, has been taking abortion pills. She is having a miscarriage and is rushed off to the hospital.

The waitresses begin to come in with their evening meal orders, and a queue of them forms by Peter’s station, shouting their orders. Peter, already choking with resentment, refuses to serve them until he is ready, and Violet, a new waitress, tries to help herself. In the row that develops, Violet calls Peter a “bloody German.”

For Peter, this is the last straw. He goes berserk. Breaking away from the restraining hands of his colleagues, he grabs a large chopper and smashes the main gas pipe under the serving counter. For the first time in the play, the ovens are silent. Peter continues to create mayhem, smashing crockery and glass; he is finally brought under control, covered in blood and in intense pain.

Mr. Marango, summoned by the Chef, cannot understand what has happened. “You have stopped my whole world,” he cries out to Peter. He is genuinely baffled as to why anyone should be dissatisfied, since he gives them work and pays them well. “What more do you want?” he asks Peter, who sadly shakes his head. The play ends with Marango repeating again and again, “What is there more?”

Dramatic Devices

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The setting of this play is its central metaphor. The kitchen is not merely a background; it is the dominant force in the drama, controlling the lighting, the volume of sound, the pace of movement, the relationship between the characters, and all of their moods and actions. The fact that the ovens—the basic machinery of the workplace—govern the lighting and the background noise makes a strong political point. When Peter severs the mains, the sudden silence of the ovens has a striking dramatic impact.

From the moment the kitchen staff enter, they are working to strict routines, controlled by the jobs they have been trained to do, the specialties of their stations, and the orders given by the waitresses. In the production notes, every kitchen worker is assigned to a specific part of the menu and to particular tasks related to it. The waitresses are under the same tight constraints.

Although the ovens, crockery, grills, chopping boards, plates, and knives are real, there is no actual food. All the work, from preparation to serving, is mimed. The contrast between the play’s overall naturalism and the stylization of the food processes produces an atmosphere of alienation.

Peter’s frustrated creativity, which he cannot express in words, is represented visually by an archlike edifice that he builds with kitchen utensils during the calm of the afternoon break. When he returns in the afternoon, it is broken, and he smashes it completely in the end. Peter’s song, Hans’s singing and guitar playing, and the Greek dance that links the interlude with part 2 are counterposed against the mounting intensity and violence during work periods.

The violence of Peter’s final, desperate outburst is prepared for in stages, beginning with the account of the previous evening’s fight, followed by Hans’s accident in the steam room, and then by Winnie’s agony through her self-induced abortion.


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Sources for Further Study

Barker, Clive. “Arnold Wesker.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Cohen, Mark. “The World of Wesker.” Jewish Quarterly, Winter, 1960-1961, 45.

Leeming, Glenda. Wesker on File. London: Methuen, 1985.

Leeming, Glenda, and Simon Trussler. The Plays of Arnold Wesker. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Pritchett, V. S. “A World of Kitchens.” New Statesman 62 (July 7, 1961): 24.

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

Ribalow, Harold U. “The Plays of Arnold Wesker.” Chicago Jewish Forum, Winter, 1962-1963, 127-131.

Taylor, John Russell. Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. Rev. ed. London: Eyre Methuen, 1977.

Wilcher, Robert. Understanding Arnold Wesker. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Woodrofe, K. S. “Mr. Wesker’s Kitchen.” Hibbert Journal 62 (1964): 148-151.


Critical Essays