The Wesker Trilogy – by Arnold Wesker

The three plays in The Wesker Trilogy are akin to a piece of classical music with three movements. Various themes emerge, disappear and arise again throughout the drama. Some themes are strongly played at certain points, as is hope, conflict and enthusiasm in the first ‘movement’. But other themes such as family influence, the effect of relationship, historical events, also play important parts in the drama.

Regarding the question, if we define idealism as the practice of forming or following ideas, or hopes, that are in some way unrealistic or imaginative rather than realistic,[1] then I see it as uncertain there is much idealism in the plays at all. I say this because the struggles of the Kahn family and even Beatie, were to do with real historical or personal situations or events. They were trying to live something – Socialism – which was already an external reality. If their efforts to do so were at times not effective, that is a different matter.

At the time of the events portrayed Fascism was a very real threat. Being abused in the workplace was also a commonplace experience. Being uneducated and inarticulate left one open to such abuse. Beatie explains this to Jenny when she says that while in-between jobs she was not given unemployment benefit. When she asked for it she was told she did not have enough stamps. She goes on to say that Ronnie, “…. went up and argued for me – he’s just like his mother, she argues with everyone – and I got it. I didn’t know how to talk see, it was all foreign to me.”[2] Developing an understanding and vocabulary brings greater social advantage. Gaining insight into the functioning of politics and world events, was therefor not an idealistic pastime, but an endeavour focussed on realities. I am therefore choosing to explore the question of whether it is idealism or realism portrayed in the plays.

In 1933 anti-Semitism became the official policy of National Socialism (Nazis) in Germany. The opening stage directions of Scene One in Chicken Soup With Barley, give the date as 4th October 1936. That Fascism held a threat to Jews would have been known by then. Communism, according to its manifesto, is a system in which the major resources and means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals. Its aim was an equal sharing of all work, according to ability, and all benefits, according to need.[3] This suggested that all workers and both sexes could find social recognition and equality. For a Jewish family, whose cultural literature and arts carry evidence of thousands of years of persecution, this would be a situation worth fighting for. As Sarah says to Ronnie, “All my life I worked with a party that meant glory and freedom and brotherhood.”[4] In saying this she is stating a prime motivation, one sustaining her through years of difficulty.

Part of the difficulty would be, of course, to have other people recognise the possible benefits of such a social system, and to motivate them toward building it. Without this Socialism would simply remain an idea rather than an established functional thing. This drive to educate others is well documented in the plays. Even Beatie attests to this in her dramatic speech at the end of Roots. “God in heaven, Ronnie! It does work, it’s happening to me, I can feel it’s happened, I’m beginning, on my own two feet – I’m beginning….”[5] Not only is she saying she feels change toward a new relationship with herself and the environment she lives in, but she is also saying that Ronnie’s attempt to show her means of change have worked.

In following this line of argument further, the characters in the plays might be categorised either as representing various ways of relating positively to this desire for a new social order, or as forms of opposition or disinterest. From the very beginning, for instance, we are told that Harry is weak. We find this in the words, “He is amiable but weak”[6] in the very first stage directions. Very shortly afterwards, as a comment on a question asked by Sarah, another stage direction says, “[This is her well meaning but maddening attempt to point out to a weak man his weakness.]”[7] The constant conversational harassment Sarah aims at Harry illustrates the irritation she feels that her husband, representing the forces of lethargy inherent in any system, does not match her effort and enthusiasm with his own. The friction that occurs illustrates the conflict resulting from any effort to change. Explaining how she feels about this, Sarah tells the story of the three men who are incapacitated from suffering a stroke:

“Then one day one of them decided he wanted to live so he gets up and finds himself a job – running a small shoe-mender’s – and he’s earning money now. A miracle! Just like that. But the other one – he wanted to die. … Well, it happened: last week he died. Influenza! … But Harry was not like either of them. He didn’t want to die, but he doesn’t seem to care about living. So! What can you do to help a man like that?”[8]

As the term to live or to be alive is used throughout the plays to mean participation in learning and striving for better personal and social life, Harry’s state fits that of a non-participator – someone who is not ‘alive’. As well as a husband, a possible partner or cooperant, he is also a father, who passes on his physical and perhaps psychological tendencies. In this role he is tradition, the past, part of the matrix we are moulded from. He is habit from the past that might restrict change. He is orthodoxy, retiring non-action, non-confrontational existence, which prefers to let things be as they are, with perhaps a few token gestures toward the new.

I see the plays directly considering this situation of the ‘given’. In present times there is an open and continuing debate about what is nature (given), and what is nurture, (received during growth or achieved by personal effort). The debate includes discussion of how much influence genetic structure has on behaviour. Apart from genes having been isolated that deal with colour of eyes or physical build and skin colour, there is also the stated possibility that genes influence sexual preference and life decisions. The study of some identical twins separated at birth, who show enormous similarities in life choices, suggests such possibilities. But my argument is not that genes are responsible, only that the plays actively debate this issue through the interaction of the characters, their dialogue, and the events. When Beatie’s mother, Mrs Bryant asks her to speak something novel, something she has thought for herself, Beatie replies, “I can’t mother, you’re right – the apple don’t fall far from the tree do it? You’re right, I’m like you. Stubborn, empty, wi’ no tools for livin’.”

This inhibiting influence toward change, personal or social, is particularly dramatised by Ronnie. He summarises this in his dialogue with Dave at the end of I’m Talking About Jerusalem. “But you’re right.” He says, “There isn’t anything I’ve seen through to the end … Isn’t that curious? I say all the right things, I think all the right things, but somewhere, some bloody where I fail as a human being. Like my father – just like poor old Harry.”[9]

From such scenes with Ronnie and Beatie I see the portrayal of a struggle with themselves as being agents of change. But the plays are many dimensional in considering both the possibilities of change, and the factors resisting such desired change. Dave and Ada, for example, portray changing strategies. At first they are active and perhaps militant, certainly with Dave who goes to fight in Spain and in the Second World War. But experience changes their approach. In attempting to explain to her mother the beginning of her change, she says, “Six years in and out of offices, auditing books and working with young girls who are morons – lipsticked, giggling morons. And Dave’s experience is the same – fighting with men who he says did not know what the war was about.”[10] 

The change Ada and Dave make is toward a more family centred statement of their attempts to make a difference, rather than a socio-centred activity such as political activism. But their life and work do not become a nucleus around which dynamic change develops.

Whether we look at Sarah’s persevering against odds, with constant and unchanging attitudes; Ronnie’s self-doubt and constant re-appraisal of things, or Ada and Dave’s change arising from experience, the trilogy does not in the end make the statement that any of the approaches are effective. At the end of I’m Talking About Jerusalem, Dave says, “Face it – as an essential member of society I don’t really count.”[11] Nevertheless Dave and Ada, true to their form as adapting to need, are once more changing their lifestyle to accommodate what they have learnt. If there is any overall comment in the plays it is in the response Ada makes to Dave in the closing scene of the trilogy. Ronnie is on his knees in utter despair. Ada moves to comfort him, then Sarah does the same. Dave indicates restraint to both. He says to Ada, “Darling, did you post those letters off?” The stage direction here says, “[she understands that they must indicate that they are going on]” Ada then replies, “Yes, Dave, and the estimates went off too.”[12]

This return to the commonplace, to the ordinary affairs of everyday needs, seems to be as reality based as their original motivation to support and sustain Socialism. There is a suggestion that Socialism itself must evolve and adapt to change. The personal struggle, failures and success may not be the indication of ineffectual idealism, but of ordinary life with its constant shifting and uncertainty. Although the trilogy is about Socialism and family life, it doesn’t appear to present any rigid theory of progression. It comes back to ordinary people striving to survive in changing situations. People bruised but not broken. Robbed by events and experience of old values, but beginning to form new.


Concise Oxford Dictionary.  (c) Oxford University Press – Software, UK, 1992.


Infopedia. Funk & Wagnall’s 28-volume Encyclopaedia on CD-ROM, 1994, USA.

Wesker, Arnold. The Wesker Trilogy. Published by Penguin Books, UK, 1979 – originally 1959. ISBN: 014048048X


[1] Paraphrased from the Concise Oxford Dictionary.  (c) Oxford University Press – Software.

[2] Page 90 – top.

[3] Paraphrased from Infopedia. Funk & Wagnall’s 28-volume Encyclopaedia on CD-ROM, 1994, USA.

[4] Page 73.

[5] Page 146.

[6] Page 13.

[7] Page 14.

[8] Page 60.

[9] Page 217.

[10] Page 43.

[11] Page 216.

[12] Page 217.

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