New York — In the ‘70s I lived with my wife and daughter for a couple of years in London. We made some lasting friendships, and also became acquainted through friends with some remarkable people who appeared and then disappeared from our lives after we returned to New York. But the memories remain.
One of them was the playwright Sir Arnold Wesker — a strikingly eloquent, emotionally expressive and direct, impulsive and somewhat narcissistic writer whose Highgate house we were invited to a couple of times for bountiful breakfasts and dinners — that were prepared by his wife Dusty, a gifted cook.
Wesker, a Jewish working class socialist and self-taught intellectual from London’s East End, died at the age of 83, this April. He rose to fame in the late ‘50s as one of a wave of English playwrights including John Arden and John Osborne, working and middle class playwrights labeled as “angry young men” who expressed disenchantment with British society. It was a category most of these playwrights dismissed, feeling like most labels, it failed to define their work, and the differences between them as writers were often greater than the similarities.
Wesker wrote more than 40 plays that were translated into 18 languages, and his work became a staple of the English secondary school curriculum. He was best known for his early semi- autobiographical works, but if his later plays failed to get major London productions (which enraged him, because he felt that the London theater establishment had become antipathetic to his work) they continued to be produced on the London fringe and in Europe and Japan. He was productive, prolific, and nothing but tenacious.
If Wesker’s career sometimes seemed, in his words, “frozen in the trilogy of the 1960s,” those plays and two other early plays “The Kitchen” (1959) and “Chips with Everything” (1962) deserved being feted. The trilogy – “Chicken Soup with Barley” (1958), “Roots” (1959) and “I’m Talking about Jerusalem” (1960), as well as the other two plays, were both vividly grounded in daily life that evoked, among other themes, what it meant to be working class in a class-delimited, class-obsessed and class-dominated England.
Wesker’s trilogy derived from his experience growing up in a Jewish Communist family. “Chicken Soup with Barley” opens when the faith in the Party is strongest, as one character is off to Spain to fight in the Civil War against Franco, and the central family (the Kahns, modeled after Wesker’s family) and their friends are excitedly preparing to blockade an East End street in order to halt the progress of Mosley’s marching black-shirted, native fascists. It’s the mother, the nagging, redoubtable, loving Sarah, who provides one of the more sympathetic (though undermined by history) definitions of what it means to be a communist I have read: “You have to start with love. How can you talk about socialism otherwise.”
Still, when the play leaps to 1946, the Party’s hold has begun to weaken for some of the family members. Ada, the daughter, has turned from the Left to going back-to-the-land in the Cotswolds with her husband, rejecting political activism, and postwar industrial society, for something she sees as cleaner and purer. The weak father, Harry, who can’t hold a job is stuck in the same place, and is continually criticized by Sarah, who struggles to keep the family together.
In the third act set in 1956, the clever, intellectually questing Ronnie (the Kahn son and Wesker’s vibrant alter ego) returns from his job as a cook in Paris for a powerful emotional confrontation with Sara about the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising. She is conscious of what happened, but holds to her faith: “If you don’t care, you’ll die.”
Ronnie/Wesker has the last word: “The family you always wanted has disintegrated and the great ideal you always cherished has exploded in front of your eyes.”
Wesker’s play powerfully dramatizes the failure of the communist dream, and its impact on his family. However that’s his intellect talking because the play is filled with empathy for the loyal communist Sarah, who believes in “socialism as her light” -– “a way of life.” In retrospect her convictions were wrongheaded, but Wesker saw her warm heart and social commitment as worthy of profound respect. And Wesker’s love for his mother (Sarah) permeates the play.
“Chicken Soup and Barley,” “Roots” and “The Kitchen” were revived at the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse, and the Royal Court, respectively, in recent years. Though the neglect of his later work still angered Wesker, it was good to see some of his major works revived in prime London venues.
More than forty years later, rereading “Chicken Soup and Barley,” I am stunned how well this deeply feeling, large-minded play holds up. Yes, Wesker plays speechify and at moments can be sentimental, but this is a fine play that calls for an American production. Actually, a number of his plays do.