Sunday, January 11, 2015

An unbalanced diet (1997)

Theatre Review from the November 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Chips With Everything by Arnold Wesker

Chips With Everything, currently revived by the National Theatre, is about power and social class. Based on Wesker's own experience of National service in the RAF in the early 1950s, this stunning production makes compulsive viewing. In it we follow the fate of a group of young conscripts in the first weeks of training as they are taught systematically to respond to orders without thinking; to defer to officers as though the latter were possessed of infinite wit and intelligence; and to be brutalised by constant drilling. The officers have power but this is for the most part not manifest directly in their contacts with recruits. Rather it is dispensed through the agency of their lackeys, the sergeants, corporals, lance-corporals and other non-commissioned officers. Officers kick NCOs, who in turn kick the recruits and other ranks. It must have all been very familiar to young recruits with previous experience of factory work. In most factories orders are given not by grey-suited men in remote offices, but by large-as-life foremen and chargehands who patrol the workplace. The word chargehand is apt. Chargehands are in charge. But this group of young recruits is different. One of its number, Pip, is not an apprentice or recent school leaver, but a public schoolboy, the son of a general. Why is he here? Why hasn't he taken the opportunities presented by his privileged background and school cadet experience, to transfer for officer training? Wesker hints that Pip's behaviour is fired by a desire to rebel against his father, but more than this Wesker also intriguingly suggests that Pip, too, may be interested in power. Familiar with the intentions and strategies of the officers, Pip uses his knowledge to thwart authority: frustrating an attempt by the officers to get the recruits drunk at a Christmas party; and leading them on a daring raid on a coal dump when they find themselves shivering in their barracks on a icy midwinter night. In so doing he is instrumental in changing the recruits' perception of themselves; in increasing their confidence and self-worth, and suggesting the possibilities of growth and change. Yet this apparent desire to escape from his father's influence leads him to cast the officers as pseudo-father figures and, paradoxically, to manipulate his fellow recruits in much the same way as his father seemingly manipulates him. Pip finally gets his comeuppance when the officer in charge finds a way of coercing him into applying for officer training, leaving the other recruits bereft.

Wesker is clearly intent on registering something in which social divisions are part and parcel of life in the armed forces, and giving us a glimpse into their nature and the way in which they are perpetuated. This he manages, very well, especially when—as in this production—he is well served by a skillful cast, excellent production staff and imaginative director. But whilst social class divisions are, so to speak, centre stage, Wesker does little more than describe and delimit some of their effects. He fails to talk about the origins of social class and, crucially, he makes no mention of economic class as primary.

Whilst social classifications may be useful they are hardly sufficient. If we want to understand something about the life chances of children—that is, the likelihood that they will be healthy and wealthy, even if they are not wise—then it is best to take note of the economic class of the parents. Children born to members of the capitalist class will in general live longer than those of the working class and enjoy a higher standard of living. Social classifications per se may be useful to an extent, but they have relatively little of the explanatory or predictive power of classifications based on the economic division of capitalist and worker. The predictive power of the kind of social classifications which inform Chips With Everything is limited, and it is also rooted, exclusively, in capitalist society.

In a socialist society it may well be helpful to classify people on the basis of activities such as reading, attendance at opera performances, frequency of consumption of Indian curries, and so on—not least if the intention is to try to meet the needs of readers, opera buffs and curry eaters. Even in today's capitalist society it is certainly the case that within the working class it is possible to find correlations between these activities and length and nature of formal schooling, occupation, and income, etc. But if we really want to understand such things as how the world works at a macro level, the origins of power, and how to resolve the antagonisms that lie at the heart of the kind of relationships that Wesker describes, we must look beyond mere social classifications however useful they may be at the margins to the more profound economic realities below.

At one level Chips With Everything works very well. It makes some telling points about the nature of social hierarchies and offers some encouraging (and for this viewer, inspiring) evidence of the capacity of young people to resist the brutal conditioning of life in the armed forces; and it is difficult to see how the present production could be bettered. However, because Wesker hasn't widened his focus to look beyond social classifications, at another and deeper level, his play turns out to be as inadequate as what the words of its title imply.
Michael Gill

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