How the Wesker Trilogy assembles a social and political structure between the 30’s and the end of the 50’s?
A mighty piece this Trilogy done by the gorgeous author, Arnold Wesker. He finely knits together a large number of stories and he assembles them in a way that they are all interconnected. I will analyze later how he makes this able and how he uses all the characters to build this network. I will also picture the society of the time and bring up, with quotes of the book, the political situation in the context of the plays. I have found interesting the comparison of the three plays to see on which aspects they coincide, as well as analyzing internally each play.
First I will analyze ‘Roots’, the central pillar of the Trilogy that is built just using nearly three weeks of 1959. We are presented to a family, the Bryant family, in a rural scenario, exactly in Norfolk, a low-lying county in the East of England and has about one-thirtieth the population density of central London. We enter this scenario with Beatie, the daughter of the Bryan’s which has arrived from London, where she’s actually living and working, and casually she’s Ronnie Kahn’s girlfriend, joining one family with the Kahn family which we has been presented to us on the first play, ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’. It’s shown to be totally rural and with no amenities as we can see with Mrs Bryant and stage directions, “(on hearing a bus) There go the half-past-eleven bus to Diss – blust that’s early” (Act 2, Sc 2). We see how she knows which hour it is by the noise of the bus, showing there is no kind of distraction apart from the quotidian things, every day is the same, nearly anything changing. The anxieties of the rural society are brought up by these characters and I would say that apart from living and surviving one day more, they don’t have any concerns with what happens out of that ‘bubble’ in which they are living. Beatie, the central character of this play and one of the daughters of this family, says to her mother Mrs Bryant, “Mother, I’m talking to you. Blust woman it’s always me listening to you telling who’s dead. Just listen a second” (Act 2, Sc 2). Even when the daughter puts on music on the radio she is not interested in it and not even wants to listen to it, as well as being totally out of tune on what is modern at the time, for example when Beatie tells her, “My pick-up. D’you see it?” and she answers back, “I hevn’t touched a thing”. Mrs Bryant, representing the women of a rural area, is totally ignorant on how the World is evolving, nearly reaching the sixties. We also meet her sister, Jenny, just at the beginning, she, being young as her, is as ignorant as their mother, this is shown when, for example she asks Beatie about the strike in London and she’s amused by the fact of how was the city like “wi’out the buses?” (Act 1). Jenny’s husband, Jimmy also seems to be quite plain and distant from the reality outside the countryside, we see this in his words, “Beatie: Ever heard of Chaucer, Jimmy?; Jimmy: No; Beatie: Do you know the MP for this constituency?; Jimmy: What you driving at gal – don’t give me no riddles” (Act 1). Once he realizes that he’s totally unaware of the current political situation and feels attacked by Beatie’s questions he suggests that Beatie is mocking him with her questions. With all this examples we have drawn a little parallel with the reality that happens in the society of the first play, ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’, and compare them two and see the great differences in social nucleus of the same time.
As I said at the beginning, interestingly, Beatie Bryant is Ronnie Kahn’s girlfriend, and she’s gone home so that her family, in two weeks time of her arrival (the beginning of the play), get to know Ronnie after 3 years of them having started a relationship. We are all along the play meeting Ronnie although, not even at the end, physically. Beatie is all the time quoting him, nearly every two phrases she states she must say something that Ronnie taught her or told her once. For example, all the political insights in this play are brought by her, but, always quoting him, for example “Christ he say. Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what go on around you, it¡s being concerned about people and the world. Listen Mother. It’s simple, isn’t it?” (Act 2, Sc 2). She introduces his character little by little, letting know aspects of him that finally the audience/reader piles up and finds out that the Ronnie she’s talking about, her boyfriend, is Ronnie Kahn, for example, “Frank: What do you say he is – a strong socialist?; Beatie: Yes; Frank: And a Jew boy?; Beatie: Yes; Frank (to himself): Well, that’s a queer mixture then” (Act 3). Also she talks about her sister Ada and her husband Dave, which we¡ll meet afterwards, again, on the third play of this Trilogy, “Jimmy: Hev he got any sisters?; Beatie: One married and she live not far from here; Pearl: She live in the country? A town girl? Whatever for?; Beatie: Her husband make furniture by hand; Pearl: Can’t she do that in London?; Beatie: Ronnie say they think London’s an inhuman place; Jimmy: So ’tis, so ’tis” (Act 3). So, right from now we see how both ‘rural’ perspectives, the Bryant’s and the Simmonds (Ada and Dave) have the same perspective of the City, but we will look at this closely when talking about the third play, ‘I’m Talking About Jerusalem’. Much more political insights are shown as for example when Beatie quotes, again, Ronnie, “You know I’m right. Education isn’t only books and music – it’s asking questions, all the time. There are millions of us, all over the country and no one, not one of us, is asking questions, all taking the easiest way out. Everyone I ever worked with took the easiest way out. We don’t fight for anything, we’re so mentally lazy we might as well be dead” (Act 3) and here starts a confrontation between Beatie and her mother when she acuses her of not giving her the opportunity of learning new things and giving her a good education, “Beatie: God in heaven Mother, you live in the country but you got no – no- no majesty. Your mind’s cluttered up with nothing and you shut the world! What kind of life did you give me? […] You didn’t open one door for me. Even Ronnie’s mother cared more for me than what you did. Did you care what job I took up or whether I learned things? You didn’t even think it was necessary; Mrs Bryant: I fed you. I clothed you. I took you out to the sea. What more d’you want. We’re only country folk you know. We ent got no big things here you know; Beatie: Squit! Squit! It makes no difference country or town” (Act 3). Here, we see two different perspectives, one of a countryside woman which hasn’t gone outside this rural nucleus and a young woman which has been living in both, urban and rural areas, and at this point she has returned from the city back ‘in time’ into her original rural environment and sees the clear difference. A good example of different life perspectives and how society really was. This quote finally takes me to the point in which the author introduces the title of the play into the speech. This time it’s Beatie, the main character, claiming “I got no roots. I come from a family o’ farm laborers yet I ent got no roots – just like town people – just a mass o’ nothin” (Act 3). I see this as a rebellious moment in which she’s enervated by the whole situation and she has distanced herself from her ‘real roots’ and sees a great difference between them in all aspects. For me, this plays shows us the readers or the audience the theme of ‘self-discovery’, how little by little Beatie discovers her self under Ronnie’s words, culminated by the moment in which she’s attacking her family for not giving her ‘roots’ and the comfort she needs at the moment, but that as she feels displaced from this scenario now, she can’t find. At this moment, seemingly quoting Ronnie, she discovers that what she’s saying is her’s, “I’m talking. Jenny, Frankie, Mother – I’m not quoting no more” (Act 3).
Now, jumping onto the next play of the Trilogy, ‘I’m Talking About Jerusalem’. Here we meet again with the Kahn family but, now the focus is seen under another perspective. The play starts with the arrival of Ada Simmonds and Dave Simmonds, together with the help of her brother Ronnie and mother Sarah, to the Norfolks, exactly to “the Shambles” (Act 1 Sc1), as Ronnie and aunt Esther, “ – the Shambles, a very inviting name” (Act 2 Sc 2), informs us. Ironically this word is synonymous of mess or disorder, just how their lives are here in the countryside. They have decided, as we see on ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’ on Act 2 Scene 2 Ada says, “When Dave comes back we shall leave London and live in the country. That’ll be our socialism”, to move to the countryside searching for the peace they can’t find in “our horrible industrial civilization. We hate the large, inhuman cities. Back to nature” (Act 1 Sc 2). With Ada and Dave we view the ‘rural life’ with a distinct perspective than the one we can see on the previous play, ‘Roots’. This couple are young urbanites which are literate and have a certain domain in political and social theories. They have both been involved in socialist movements, Dave even participated in the Spanish Civil War. Anyone understands how spontaneously, now, they just want to leave all of their political circles and forget about their life, convert into farmers and not getting involved anymore in any kind of political movement. They are visited by one old friend, Libby Dobson, and he says “two ex-communists! There’s nothing more pathetic! […] There is nothing wrong with idealism, only when it’s soft and flabby. Go home. Be good children and go home, because you’ll never make the beautiful, rustic, estate” (Act 1 Sc 2). They are again questioned and seen as ridiculous by their aunts Esther and Cissie, one of them claims, “that’s something I don’t understand. So where’s the ideals gone all of a sudden?” (Act 2, Sc 2). There is no one that understands their decision of moving into the countryside and leaving aside their past life. They can’t understand this immediate disconnection they’ve decided to take, they see it irrational. In my opinion, I can more or less understand them, they are absolutely disgusted by the fact that their ideals, followed by other people in the city, can’t see any result. Specially Ada, on the first play she claims “No more political activity. It’s always the beginning for the Party. Every defeat is victory and every victory is the beginning. I do not believe in the right of organizing people. And anyway I’m not sure that I love them enough to want to organize them. I’m tired, Mother. I spent eighteen months waiting for Dave to return from Spain and waited six years for him to come home from a war against Fascism and I’m tired. And Dave’s experience is the same – fighting with men who he says did not know what the war was about. The only rotten society is an industrial society. It wasn’t the Trotskyist or the Social Democrat who did the damage. It was Progress!” (Act 2 Sc 1). Because of what they have had to live, the part of politics which they have suffered, they now see it in another perspective, anymore as something that will help them. As she says, progress is the one involved in all the negatives and problems, the search of this ideals has been the cause of all battles and have taken the life of many. So for them, the solution is to move into the ‘anti-progress’, to the undeveloped countryside of the 50’s. This is the motive that moves this couple to try and forget their past life and start from cero in “an old house in the middle of the fields. A large kitchen in the house, the garden, and the end part of an old barn” (Stage Directions). They try really hard to find their place in this rural environment, Dave adopting a job as furniture manufacturer but, in my opinion, a ‘socialist’ action he makes, takes him to get fired from his working place, and this is when he takes home “some old lino the Colonel threw away. I saw it lying around in the shed. It’s been there for months” (Act 1, Sc 2), this is what Dave says to Ada when she asks him what was what he brought home. Taking something ‘abandoned’, in his opinion, from his employer, as if he had the right on taking something that he imagines the Colonel doesn’t want. When the Colonel realizes he goes to the Simmond’s house and this is their conversation, “Colonel: Good Evening. This is not a social visit, Simmonds. You’re making difficult for me. I’ve treated you well, Simmonds, haven’t I?; Dave: I’m very grateful but – ; Colonel: You don’t show it; Dave: I don’t know what you’re talking about ; Colonel: The lino, the lino!! That’s what I’m talking about. You’re and intelligent man and I didn’t expect you to lie. Still I don’t expect you to steal from me, but you did. In fact I don’t understand you at all. What did you come to the country for? It’s different way of life here, y’know. They’re a slow people, the country people – slow, but sound. I know where I am with them, and they know their place with me. but with you I could never – ; Dave: Never get the right sort of master-servant relationship?; Colonel: Yes, if you like. But you didn’t like, did you? You spoke to me as if I were a – a – ; Dave: An equal; Colonel: I don’t like it Simmonds. I’m not a slave driver, but I believe each person has his place. Listen Simmonds, I’ve got to sack you” (Act 1, Sc2). Here we see how Dave has been adopting a very socialist behavior with his boss, he hasn’t changed his idea of all person being the same, no social class differences, and this has been the error of going to countryside thinking that there won’t be any differences between people, that everyone is at the same level. He has acted as if he was the owner of all, as the Colonel, and this has taken him to loose the job. At this point what I asked to myself was, does Dave really forget all those ideals he claims to hate and repudiate? And my answer is no, a rotund no. He has tried to cover his inner ideals with this admirable and humble life, but his most profund thoughts have emerged with his inconscient actions, which he now regrets, “Oh my God! I feel so ashamed. Jesus, I feel so ashamed. Ada I’m sorry…” (Act 1, Sc 2). He apologizes to his wife as he has failed in leaving apart the political ideals. He has deceived her by bringing back what she most hated and the motive for which they seeked a new life in the country, to leave behind this kind of problems.
In this play we are constantly, with some images and commentaries of the characters that come in and go out of scene, going back to the other plays. In my opinion, this is the play in which it relates most and mentions more moments that are seen on the plays that come earlier. Some examples are, when they’ve arrived to the countryside for the forest time and Sarah says to the rest “You know, it reminds me of Hungary, where I was born” (Act 1, Sc 2). If you know the rest of the plays, we have already been told this information on ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’. Also, at the beginning of the second act Ada is told to be coming back home from visiting her parents in London, when Harry Kahn, Ada’s father has got worse, “Not well at all poor Harry. This is his second stroke” (Act 2, Sc 1) says Dave to his co-worker Sammy. When Ada meets her husband at home she tells him how is her Dad “The second stroke affected his brain. He didn’t recognize me at first. He was lying on his back. He kept shouting in Yiddish, calling for his mother and his sister Cissie. Mummy told me he was talking about Russia” (Act 2, Sc2). On ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’ this happens on Act 3 but, curiously, the part in which Ada visit them doesn’t appear, not even mentioned. This play is also linked with ‘Roots’ as it also mentions Beatie Bryant the main character of that play and that was Ronnie’s girlfriend, “Did you ever hear what happened to Beatie Bryant, Ronnie? The girl you wanted to change.” (At 2, Sc 3). As well as some ‘mirror’ imagery, on how it reflects something that had already happened in the past, for example, the characters of the removal men, how they are the ones that bring them and their things to the countryside and also the ones that will take them back to London, 2nd Removal Man says, “Like vicars aren’t we? Brought you into the world now we’re taking you out!” (Act 2, Sc 3). Also, politically, as Ronnie says, “Well, you’ve chosen the right time to return anyway. You came in with them and you go out with them” (Act 2, Sc3), he’s talking about the Labour Party leaders being in Parliament. Lastly the image of the ‘basement’ also curious that the Trilogy starts with ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’, placing the main action in a basement with all the Kahn’s and it ends also in a basement, Ada and Dave going back to London and going to live in a basement, “Curious, a basement! The man who started work singing ‘Linden Lea’ in open air returns to a basement” (Act 2, Sc 3). Finally, something interesting about this author, in general, is the way in which he introduces the main words, of the title of his plays, inside the text. In this case the word ‘Jerusalem’ and many aspects that you can relate with it, as when Dave claims “you call me a prophet and laugh do you? Well, I’ll tell you. I am a prophet. Me” (Act 2, Sc 3). As well as just at the beginning, a biblical reference, it’s Ronnie comparing Ada and Dave with biblical characters, “Water for these brave people, a well! A biblical well. I can see you Ada, like Miriam at the well and Dave will come like Moses and drive away the strangers and you shall love him” (Act 1, Sc 1). The word ‘Jerusalem’ is brought up first by Ada’s friend Libby Dobson when he says “I believe in Jerusalem […] You want Jerusalem? Order it with an iron hand-” (Act 1, Sc 2), in my opinion, I interpret this word, Jerusalem, as the dream, what Ada and Dave have being trying to achieve, converting their life into a countryside lifestyle, and the fact that the Kahn’s are actually Jews, from two different origins, Yiddish and Hungarian, but they are Jews, and Jerusalem being the holiest land for them as Solomon’s Temple is situated here and it’s important because it is where the manuscript that contained Moses Ten Commandments.
To sum up all the three plays, I will try to list all the points I see that they have interestingly in common and how they develop them. To start with I find really intelligent how Wesker is able to bond the three plays, basically, by just using one character, Ronnie Kahn. He’s the only character that appears in the three plays and he has in all of the an important part of the story line. In ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’ and in ‘I’m Taliking About Jerusalem’ he is one of the main characters that appears in all the plot, but in ‘Roots’, although he doesn’t physically appear, he’s one of the main pillars in the story, as the main character, Beatie, his current girlfriend along the plot, is all the time talking about him and she’s gone back home, basically, so that her family get to know Ronnie. He is the youngest character of all and this could be meaningful as he is also the only one that doesn’t change in all the years that pass from the 30’s until nearly the 60’s. I also find interesting the different scenarios and social combinations he uses in each of the play. He presents the first play, ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’ in East End London with urbanites; then for ‘Roots’ he uses a rural site with a farmer family, just introduces the urban ideals with their daughter having half of her heart on the city and the other half on the countryside. He develops their problems and their life inquiries to let us see the real picture of how life works. Finally, for ‘I’m Talking About Jerusalem’ he uses both, a rural scenario, but, a urban family. With this he shows how one thing doesn’t fit inside another one, by this i mean that each society must live in their environment if not, it is shown by this three characters, each in their different surrounding, that if you come from the city you must stay there and if you have grown up in the countryside, if you try to live in a very populated area as it is London, you won’t ‘survive’. Dave and Ada have exactly this ‘death’ when they venture searching for a ‘uninfected’ life on the countryside, but they fail, and finally they have to return to their roots. Also, I can draw some similarities with the names of the plays and it’s contents. When I read ‘Chicken Soup With Barley’ and thought about the story that is told I immediately thought of a family meeting, all eating some kind of soup that your grandmother may have done, and this is exactly what it is done in this play, as the Kahn’s are always together, discussing and having family fights, but always bonded together. For ‘Roots’ it’s absolutely clear, Beatie Bryant tries to take her Londoner boyfriend to where she comes from, to where her roots are, although she is betrayed by him, and he never reaches to know them, and she enters in cholera as at this point of the story she feels she has no kind of attachment with this people that are her family. Finally for ‘I’m Talking About Jerusalem’, with this one I use a little bit more my imagination. Before reading it I couldn’t find any kind of link, apart from the fact that the characters are Jews. But after taking a closer look to the text I found out that maybe, why Wesker used this name is to show that for the Jews, in this case we would say Ada and Dave, the Shambles are the holiest place in the World where they have to build up their life and grow up their children. That’s why the whole story talks and it’s set on the rural site and not on the urban site, because they are showing, talking, about their own Jerusalem, their own Holly place.
Academic year 2013/2014
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© María Traver Boix