It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 46: Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley (1958)
I’m about half way through The Wesker Trilogy (made up of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking about Jerusalem). Overtly political, and taking a sympathetic and sometimes critical lens to working class lives, they are three of the most famous kitchen sink dramas to come out of the Royal Court Theatre.
To give you an idea of the setup, Chicken Soup with Barley is about the Khan family, a working class, socialist, Jewish family in London. Act one is set in the thirties amidst a time of political urgency. Acts two and three, the former just after WWII and the latter in the fifties, sees that sense of excitement and faith in communism in decline along with the Khan family itself. Furthermore, in mapping the changing dynamics of the Khans and their friends, Wesker chronicles a nation’s drastic changes post-war.
The characters – their dreams, what they stand for, and how that changes – are minutely portrayed. The play opens with Sarah, Jewish and about 37 in the 1936 setting of act one. She’s always seen cooking or making tea and her ‘movements indicate great energy and vitality’ (p.11). Vitality is the cornerstone to this play (and I recommend Dan Rebellato’s analysis on this in 1956 and All That): some characters speak with bundles of passion and Wesker often equates characters having vigour in their personality with their physical well being. Harry’s, Sarah’s husband, impotence as a husband, father, worker and political activist eventually sees him all but give up on life and his body cease up. (On the other hand, the elderly Stann Mann in Roots shows his plentiful energy for life by dying). In the first act, nearly all of the characters are infused with a buzz for the communist revolt in which they are partaking. A revolutionary song plays, the red flag is waved, and they all hold a strong belief in their cause and hope for a changing political society. ‘[S]how a young person what socialism means’, Harry cries to his comrades, ‘and he recognises life! A future!’ (p.31).
Sarah, too, insists that socialism is about love and brotherhood. Their son Ronnie, 15 in act two when they’ve moved to a block of flats and have recently voted in a Labour government, is also enthusiastic and delivers pamphlets. But things have already begun to change in the play. Ada, their daughter, is beginning to grow cynical of socialism’s practicalities and her father’s real motives. Characters are moving apart and setting up their own businesses in the country or in Manchester. Those passions are diminished even more in the third act even from Ronnie, apart from in Sarah whose passion is no less conveyed (perhaps grasped on to) than in the final moments, maybe not politically but as a mother and wife. Indeed, her closing lines, ‘Please Ronnie, don’t let me finish this life thinking I lived for nothing’, are reminiscent of a not too dissimilar character from Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! (1935, p.77). It’s an emotionally rousing ending to the play. There are times when you think Wesker is patronising or mocking his characters but he precedes the plays by saying that that isn’t his intention, but there’s no denying his sharp observations and the vitality of his dialogue.