Monday, April 18, 2016

Arnold Wesker (1932-2016)

Playwright Arnold Wesker (1932-2016) at the Durham Book Festival in 2008. (Photo: Simon James)

The angry young man movement, which attacked England’s obstinacy about holding onto its vision of itself as an empire after the Second World War and quarreled with the bourgeois gentility of the mid-century English drama, detonated the British theatre in the mid-1950s. But except for John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer are still performed as Tony Richardson’s film versions continue to represent the exciting early years of the English New Wave, the playwrights who came out of that movement have mostly been forgotten. One of them, Arnold Wesker, died last week at the age of eighty-three. His output included fifty plays as well as fiction, poetry, essays and memoirs, but only in the first five years of his theatrical career did he write plays – five of them – that made both critics and audiences sit up and take notice – though unlike Osborne’s plays or Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, they never developed lives beyond English shores. They were The Kitchen (1957), which the National Theatre revived in 2011, Chips with Everything (1962), and – book-ended by these two – the plays known as “the Wesker trilogy,” Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959) and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960).

The trilogy – in particular the first and third plays – is about the golden promise of socialism and how its true believers handle the fallout when, inevitably, it smashes up against the realities of the world. Political idealism is a great subject, yet only a handful of playwrights have chosen to dramatize it since Sophocles in Antigone. Clifford Odets took up the challenge in Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost, both written in 1935, and John Guare in his Lydie Breeze plays in 1982, and more recently it’s provided one of the themes for Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays (which were written to coincide with significant American political moments) and Temple by the talented young English playwright Steve Waters. The Wesker trilogy is a kind of British equivalent to the Odets plays, and just as Odets found his home with the Group Theatre, the Wesker plays were produced at the Royal Court, the heart and soul of the angry young man movement.

Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2011. (Photo: Johan Pearsson)

In Roots, a young woman named Beatie (Joan Plowright gave her breakthrough performance in the role) prepares her Norfolk family to meet her fiancĂ©, a Londoner named Ronnie Kahn from a Jewish socialist family who has had a profound influence on the way she sees the world. The play is mostly about Beatie’s exasperation with her family and the numbing lives they lead; she’s a little like Beneatha, the college-age daughter in the African-American family of A Raisin in the Sun who has discovered politics and is impatient with everyone around her for not keeping up. But unlike A Raisin in the Sun, an old-fashioned (and rather dull) family play crossed with a social problem play, Roots is a bold attempt at something new. Wesker puts the rhythms of the Norfolk working (farming) class on stage, and he resists any kind of melodramatic contrivance; there’s not much plot, and we never even meet Ronnie. He breaks up with Beatie by letter in the middle of the last scene, before her folks have a chance to meet him. It’s a fascinating play, though when you read it you feel that you’re missing at least half of it by not hearing it spoken.

Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m Talking About Jerusalem, on the other hand, read beautifully: all the poetry Wesker deliberately left out of Roots infuses the dialogue. Set between 1936 and 1959, these plays are about Ronnie and his family: his mother Sarah, who in the opening act of Chicken Soup functions as a mother figure for her entire left-wing community as well as her own family; his father Harry, who absents himself emotionally from both; his labor-organizer aunt Cissie; and his older sister Ada. Ada’s boy friend Dave Simmonds goes to Spain to fight for the Loyalists in Chicken Soup and then comes home to marry her and move to Norfolk to take up a quiet life close to the earth (to practice what Ada calls “our socialism” – a socialism with political ideals but without political entanglements); Ada and Dave’s lives are the subject of Jerusalem. The plays are intriguingly interlaced – all of Jerusalem takes place in and around the time periods covered by the second and third acts of Chicken Soup. Ronnie, who is a child in the first act of Chicken Soup, is the playwright’s version of himself, and he embodies all of Wesker’s political ambivalence: he ends both plays undecided about what he believes and how he wants to lead his life, and that ambivalence is one of the elements that makes these two plays feel so authentic and, more than half a century after they were written, still so fresh. I love both of them dearly, though I’ve yet to see Jersualem staged. The Royal Court mounted a superb revival of Chicken Soup in 2011 that signaled my own introduction to Wesker, but North American audiences have yet to discover him. That moment is surely overdue. I saw the Royal Court show with seventeen college students on a London theater-going trip who were deeply moved by the performance and couldn’t stop talking about it for the next two weeks. Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m Talking About Jerusalem should be considered classics of the modern English repertoire. It would be an appropriate tribute to Wesker if they finally attained that status.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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