Thursday, August 4, 2016
Douglas Messerli | "Work, Eat, and Die" (on Arnold Wesker's Roots)
work, eat, and die
by Douglas Messerli
Arnold Wesker Roots (London: Bloomsbury, 1959, 2001)
Arnold Wesker’s 1958 kitchen-sink drama Roots (the second part of his early trilogy) has not aged well. Its apostrophe-filled Norfolk dialect, stuffed with “yit”s, “git”s, and “blust”s, makes me think of Henry Higgins’ line in My Fair Lady, “Whenever an Englishman speaks he makes some other Englishman despise him.” And the characters spend most of their time on stage—when the central figure Beatie is not spouting the words of her London boyfriend, Ronnie—peeling potatoes, cutting up runner beans, and frying up liver. In short, the play demonstrates the family’s lack of “roots” by refusing to dig any deeper than gossiping about the neighbors (including a pub owner who is accused of “accosting” another man) and complaining of a “pain in the guts."
When Beatie (the wonderful Joan Plowright in the original production) returns home to Norfolk for a short vacation, she is appalled by their refusal to even think. And while waiting for Ronnie to arrive and meet them, she grows increasing embarrassed for their stubborn stupidity. Yet, she herself admits she does not quite understand those in Ronnie’s crowd, and still does not comprehend how to ask questions when she doesn’t know what is being said. Ronnie describes words as being like “bridges,” as paths between human beings, and Beatie clearly is intrigued by the idea. But having grown up in a world where, as her mother puts it, “Words never mean anything,” Beatie is clearly out of her element in London.
Yet her mind has been opened, and seeing her sister and her husband, her mother and father, and various neighbors once more, she finds herself dissatisfied with their lives and, most importantly, with herself. And in her recreation of Ronnie for her family, even her mother vaguely recognizes “you do bring a little life with you anyway.”
Unfortunately, it’s a quoted life, a life she cannot yet herself experience. It’s clear that Ronnie has begun to influence her, but the words she repeats are something alien to both her and her family, as she were speaking another language.
During her visit a beloved neighbor dies and her father loses most of his income as he is demoted on the farm on which he works to “casual labour.” Equally irritating to Beatie, particularly since Ronnie is an active socialist, is the fact that her family simply accepts these facts—men working themselves to death and having most of their income taken away by the powers that be—without any protest and even serious commentary.
Yet gradually we discover that the renowned Ronnie and his friends, in some respects, are not that different from her own family. At one point she lets out the fact that Ronnie and his friends have all failed their exams and work at hard labor not so very different from her own father and brother-in-law. And while her family has gathered to await her boyfriend’s arrival, a letter is delivered that honestly accesses the truth:
My dear Beatie. It wouldn’t really work would it? My
ideas about handing on a new kind of life are quite
useless and romantic if I’m really honest. If I were a
healthy human being it might have been all right but
most of us intellectuals are pretty sick and neurotic—
as you have often observed—and we couldn’t build
a world even if we were given the reins of government—
not yet any rate. I don’t blame you for being stubborn,
I don’t blame you for ignoring every suggestion I ever
made—I only blame myself for encouraging you to
believe we could make a go of it and now two weeks
of your not being here has given me the cowardly chance
to think about it and decide and I—
It takes the shock of their breakup to suddenly make Beatie see that she has behaved no differently from her family. That Ronnie has attempted to teach her to type, to add figures into her painting, or even to read a book, she has, as she puts it “taken no heed.” Admittedly, she “never discussed things”: “I never knew patience.”
But to her own surprise, she now becomes angry, turning on her mother, demanding some words of comfort, to which her mother, in her continued stubbornness, denies her: “I can’t help you my gal, no that I can’t, and you get used to that once and for all.”
And with those words Beatie perceives their problem. Despite their ties with the land, they have never realized that they too, as human beings, needed deep roots, something to “push up from” in order the change things, to make life better.
It’s the passivity of their lives that makes their living so meaningless, and leaves them powerless. But in the very perception of these facts and her speaking of it to her family, she has, quite miraculously, come alive, has actually begun to think for herself. Yet, as Wesker makes clear, there can be no changing for them, and he ends the play by having her standing alone, perhaps stronger and more perceptive now that even Ronnie, as the others rush to the table to eat.
We cannot know what will happen to her, but surely she will no longer be able to bear Norfolk, and certainly she will now put down roots somewhere, hoping to pass them on to another generation.
In the end, however, Beatie’s perception—and the author’s revelation—is such a modest one that it seems almost insignificant, as if Wesker has put all his energies into expressing a simple cliché: we must learn to communicate with one another, a variation of the lament “can’t we all get on together?”
The class tensions implied by this play must have seemed more shocking and dynamic when it was first presented, yet today the issues seem tame and vague. And the realism that may have enchanted so many viewers when this play was so well-received in British theaters is today as pale as a David Belasco production. Realism, it is clear, isn’t reality, and reality just ain’t what it used to be.
Los Angeles, August 4, 2016