My red flag day

As he prepares for the revival of Chicken Soup with Barley, his first play, Arnold Wesker looks back on his 25-year-old self and the first flush of success
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The first play in my Trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley, is being revived at the Nottingham Playhouse from tomorrow night. Why am I anxious about seeing it? I'm anxious because a young man of 25 wrote the play, and I don't know what that same but very different man nearly half a century later will think of it.

The first play in my Trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley, is being revived at the Nottingham Playhouse from tomorrow night. Why am I anxious about seeing it? I'm anxious because a young man of 25 wrote the play, and I don't know what that same but very different man nearly half a century later will think of it.

I last saw it in French, when a group of regional theatres sponsored the mounting of the entire Trilogy for Paris in 1995. On two days, all three plays ran with no intervals between the acts but long intervals between the plays. The impact on the mostly young audience was gratifyingly powerful. Coincidentally, last December there was a Spanish production of Chicken Soup with Barley in Valencia - the third production in that country. After nearly half a century, the play still seems to have relevance.

So, why am I anxious? Giles Croft, artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse, will be directing it; his cast, I'm told, is strong; the play is in safe hands. I think the reason for my anxiety is that at my age, 72, my spirit is fidgety; I have urges to cut and rewrite. BBC Radio 3 is presenting my play Shylock in the autumn, starring David Suchet. I had to cut 20 minutes from it. The cuts came easily, and I was so pleased with some of them that I incorporated them into the stage version. At the same time, an Italian film producer bought the film rights to The Kitchen, and commissioned me to write the film script, which I've done, and which involved more cutting and rejigging. Once again, I so liked some of the cuts that I incorporated them into the stage text.

In 1979, with money from the Film Finance Corporation, I wrote a film script of The Trilogy. It was a fascinating process. The three plays are intensely autobiographical, and I found myself not simply placing them in front of the camera but completely reconsidering the material. I jettisoned a great deal, and called up fresh memories. It was no longer The Trilogy; it was a new fourth work. Needless to say, despite getting to Hollywood to work over the text with the designated director, Ted Kotcheff, the money could not be found. Every so often, someone reads it and says, "This has to be made", but it is still waiting its time. My fantasy is that the film script will one day be staged by an imaginative and courageous director on the epic scale of David Edgar's Nicholas Nickleby.

I have never written anything that I didn't think was more than itself. Chicken Soup with Barley may be autobiographical but I wouldn't have written it simply because it was my story. I wrote it because I knew it was more than my story. If I have a talent it is for identifying metaphors that life throws up to explain itself. I didn't invent a family that disintegrated, as a metaphor for the disintegration of an ideology - I lived it. The two happened side by side. I was the witness. It cried out to be chronicled.

My memory of how and why I wrote Chicken Soup with Barley is clear. I had quarrelled with my mother over politics, raging at her adherence to communism. We quarrelled constantly. I'm ashamed to recall how rarely I resisted a sarcastic observation about the misdemeanours of the Soviet Union. On two occasions, after bitter exchanges, I wrote down what she had said, feeling her words to be a remarkable and moving declaration of faith. I fused them into one speech that I knew would become the speech to end this play that was turning over in my mind. "How can you still remain a communist?" I had screamed. The speech in the play is more or less what she replied. I quote the first lines:

"All right, so I'm still a communist! Shoot me then! I'm a communist! I've always been one - since the time when all the world was a communist. You know that? When you were a baby and there was unemployment and anybody you talked to who was thinking - was a communist. But it's different now. Now the people have forgotten. I sometimes think they're not worth fighting for because they forget so easily. You give them a few shillings in the bank and they can buy a television so they think it's all over, there's nothing more, they don't have to think any more. Is that what you want? A world where people don't think any more? Is that what you want me to be satisfied with, a television set?"

If the disintegration of an ideology was the end of the play, where was the beginning? I had learnt from a voracious reading of novels that, for decline to be felt, my story had to begin when the world was young; the days of hope and innocence had to be chronicled first. And when were those days of innocence? What crisis more than any other in recent history presented itself as black and white, enabling the central figure of the mother to reason in black and white? The days of the Spanish Civil War, of course, and the anti-fascist demonstrations in the East End, when Jews and Gentiles, for an incandescent moment, respected one another, held hands, shared angers, threw barricades across the intersection of Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road, and rolled thousands of marbles into the paths of mounted policemen with batons, toppling their ferocious steeds. That thrilling day when Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirts were thrown off their provocative route through the Jewish streets of London, and many were beguiled into believing that the end of capitalism was imminent, that the millennium was just across the road at Aldgate Pump.

The year was 1936. I was four, aware of nothing; but so electrifying had the riots been for my family, so full of anecdote, of little braveries and farce, of colourful personalities, that it was talked and talked about into my teens, until I felt that I had lived those days with them. The play came out in an easy rush.

The completion of Chicken Soup with Barley whirled me into a high like a dervish dancer, and I came out of my room bursting to read the play to my mother. She was in the front room with her friend, Mrs Harris. I made them stop whatever it was they were doing to listen. These two women were my first audience for this family saga spanning 20 years, and it was read to them by its author in a box room of a council flat off the Upper Clapton Road, E5, some time in mid-November 1957.

When I had finished, my mother smiled her faintly sardonic smile and said something like: "It's very good, no, really, I mean it, it's a big work, a lot of work, but who's going to be interested in any of it, silly boy? It's about us, it's between us. It won't mean anything to anyone else..."

What she hadn't understood was that it was more than about "us". It was about any family that had lost its political or religious faith. At last I had written a work worthy of presenting to a public. It had substance, character, thrust, and rich texture. There is no vanity in saying this. Artists know when the elements come together. Singers, actors, musicians - when every instrument in their body, every pulse and nerve-end functions, they and their audience know it, and they leave the stage dazed but glowing. So it was with me having written the first play of The Trilogy. I left my room dazed and glowing.

Will that early glow still dazzle? I'm anxious but hoping.

©Arnold Wesker 2005

'Chicken Soup with Barley', Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419), tomorrow to 23 April. Arnold Wesker's first novel, 'Honey', will be published by Simon & Schuster in September; his two new plays, 'Groupie' and 'Longitude', are scheduled for 2005/6

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