Theatre Review: Twenty Years After
In his play, “Chicken Soup with Barley” (Royal Court Theatre), the young Jewish writer, Arnold Wesker, born of Hungarian-Russian parents in the East End of London, gives us glimpses into the world in which he grew up, through the history of a Jewish family from 1936 to 1956, to show the gradual disintegration of a political ideal—the Communist Party.
The play opens at the time of the Blackshirts’ marches on the Jewish East End. We are immediately caught up in the excitement of young Communists fighting the Fascists on their doorstep and at the same time looking eagerly towards the crusade in Spain, to the front line. It seemed to them as though any fight with the Red Flag flying was the good fight, a blow for the future, whether in the workshops, the streets or on Jarama Ridge. To Sarah Kahn, her family and friends, out of the ceaseless struggle would come—something. And in the East: Moscow. The Red star still glowed as to them the god had not yet failed.
The war plans are bypassed, and with the end of the war the pattern has changed; there is a strange emptiness now. The Communist Party is somewhere in the background, but the group has naturally been broken up by the war. Gradually they go their various ways; a greengrocer’s shop in Manchester, a handicraft furniture in the Cotswolds. The unity and urgency has gone; to each his own salvation. But Sarah Kahn is still the same, carrying on her fight against the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, and against her husband Harry, a drifter of a man who could never hold a job down and to whom even in the old days the party was just something that happened to be around, like his wife and the boys. For Sarah Kahn nothing has changed, life is still fighting and caring.
Her son Ronnie Kahn, now grown up, carries with him the thread of the past, an enthusiasm for the “Left,” together with an ambition to write, to write about the working class life he knows, to express its culture and hopes for the future. One day in 1956 he returns home after working in Paris, a shattered man, one of the many whose belief in the great Russian myth had been destroyed by the Hungarian revolt, and with it, his desire to write. Against Harry, now a paralysed wreck of a man after suffering a strike, Sarah’s struggle is almost over, but her son now stands in his place. At all costs to be saved from becoming as his father had been. But “If you don’t care, you will die,” she says.
This is where the play leaves us, and gives, as its political injunction, that we must simply “care!” The retreat from an illusion has left nothing but a little infused hope that may ease the agony and make life bearable. And perhaps—sometime—who knows?
For thousands a political idea is dead. But those people who take their political philosophy on trust must not be surprised if that trust is forsaken and their ideals turned to ashes. So much for so little. But the tragedy is great.