Arnold Wesker – Political Playwright

Wesker

L to R – Chips With Everything – Arnold Wesker – Chicken Soup With Barley.

With the taught element of the MA in Modernities coming to an end this week and the beginning of the dissertation process, Dr Anne Etienne’s recent seminar presentation, ‘Vision Doesn’t Work? Questioning Wesker’s work and interdisciplinary methodology’, couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Having begun the MA with a vague intention to complete my dissertation on Cormac McCarthy with his novels No Country For Old Men and The Road as its subject, I have found myself drawn back to my first love, Samuel Beckett, and my first experience of his work; those small, strange, difficult late plays I first saw in the Granary Theatre all those years ago. At this point, about to commit my academic future to the study of modern drama, a talk on an important playwright has only further cemented my deepening re-engagement with theatrical form.

Before Dr. Etienne’s talk I had never heard of Arnold Wesker but in the spirit of ensuring I took as much as possible from her presentation I decide to read two of Wesker’s better known plays, Chicken Soup with Barley and Chips with Everything. Two elements in particular immediately struck me about these works. In both plays Wesker makes use of singing and song as part of his theatrical methodology. In a world where serious theatre and musical theatre have become more and more estranged, with musical theatre unarguably gaining the upper hand both in the public consciousness and in a commercial sense, this was deeply interesting. Secondly Wesker’s plays are acutely political, concerning themselves with class politics and the problematic socialist struggle of his working class protagonists. Wesker’s socialism is painted brightly across his work.

National Theatre Production of The Kitchen.

It is with this political aspect of Wesker’s work Dr. Etienne chiefly concerned herself, beginning with the labelling of Wesker as one of the Angry Young Men sweeping through London Theatre in the 1960s. Wesker, although initially writing in the ‘Kitchen Sink’ paradigm so associated with these playwrights, especially in his Trilogy, quickly moved beyond this, engaging in a much more overt political theatre. Wesker was one of the main movers in the establishment and running of Centre 42 at the Roundhouse Theatre in London.

While the aims and ambitions of this initiative were undoubtedly noble Dr. Etienne very clearly illustrated how this political project had a detrimental effect on Wesker’s career. Two key issues impinged on his critical reception. Firstly, Wesker’s political engagement and the day to day management of Centre 42 inevitably took its toll on his energies, but secondly and even more interesting for me, as someone deeply interested in the production of theatre, when he tried to move beyond socialist realism, his established audience and critics alike, were not ready for the change. Two plays The Four Seasons and Their Very Own And Golden City are particular examples of this. Both failed with their initial productions in the 1960s. Both have subsequently regained their reputation in the theatrical canon, first abroad and then within England.

Playwrights Speak On Politics.

In the intervening years committed political theatre has still been pursued by such companies as Scottish, left-wing, agitprop, theatre group 7:84, which ceased production in 2008. This project and practise is still highly problematic. While all artistic output is political at some level, at least in my estimation one is either a playwright, who engages with political themes, or a political activist who writes plays. They are not the same exercise and I would suggest that inevitably it is the former which creates the greater plays.

Works Citied

National Theatre’s ‘The Kitchen’ TrailerYoutube.com. 15 Sep. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.

Politics in TheatreYoutube.com. 16 Sep. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.

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