The Donmar Warehouse’s current staging of Arnold Wesker’s psychologically acute and consummately realized play Roots is, among other things, a beautiful riposte to opponents of forms of utopian thinking that draw their strength from the emancipatory potential of high art.
At the centre of the play is Beattie Bryant (acted very affectingly by Jessica Raine), who has grown up among decent and well-meaning but fundamentally rather simple and unreflective Norfolk people. Before the play begins, Beattie has escaped from this into the world of her cultivated, metropolitan boyfriend Ronnie, and after three years of living with him she is returning to Norfolk, both to share the life-changing effects of his wisdom and aesthetic tastes, and to introduce him to her family.
The lives of ordinary people in Wesker’s Britain in 1959 are neither romanticized nor impugned. He observes in a note to actors and producers that ‘the picture I have drawn is a harsh one, yet my tone is not one of disgust […]. I am at one with these people: it is only that I am annoyed, with them and myself.’ A great deal of this annoyance is directed at the meagre mass-produced slops of the culture industry. The people are tired, bored, inexpressive, uncommunicative, drones. ‘Oh yes,’ Beattie says, and as she might still say in 2013, ‘we turn on a radio or a TV set maybe, or we go to the pictures – if them’s love stories or gangsters – but isn’t that the easiest way out? Anything so long as we don’t have to make an effort.’
The banality of their culture makes understanding of their own situation, and the ability to empathize with and act to help others almost impossible. At first, this banality is played for laughs. Early in the play, Beattie’s sister Jenny and brother-in-law Jimmy discuss a pain in his shoulders. Jenny reports her mother as saying that ‘some people get indigestion so bad it go right through their stomach to the back’, and when Jimmy says that’s daft, she says that she told her mother as much, but was told ‘Don’t you tell me […] I hed it!’. Jimmy retorts ‘What hevn’t she hed.’ When the shoulder pain is mentioned again, first Beattie and then, much later, her mother make precisely the same responses to the same stimuli. We laugh at their inability to respond differently at different times, instead repeating exactly the same form of words, but stopping with the laughter is only ‘the easiest way out’. The consequence of the family’s inability to be original, even about relatively trivial things, is a general failure of apprehension and communication.
Beattie’s parents don’t speak to each other in a meaningful sense, and are afraid of communicating to anyone else. Mrs Bryant doesn’t know how much Mr Bryant earns above the pocket money he gives her to provide food for the family. He, too, is ill, yet he won’t tell the doctor, because to speak to a professional of his illness would be to acknowledge that his body is the only thing he can sell to provide for his family. The new farm manager notices his increasing decrepitude, and puts him onto casual labour. This is, as Beattie alone can say, a catastrophe for the family. Yet they will not discuss it. Jenny says ‘It’s no good upsettin’ yourself Beattie. It happen all the time’, and her mother (Linda Bassett, tragically reprising something like her role in BBC TV’s ‘Grandma’s House’) dismisses it and changes the subject: ‘We’ll worry on it later. We always manage. It’s gettin’ late look.’ Not just economic difficulty but personal sorrow presents impossibilities for articulation too. Mr Bryant can only say of a much-loved neighbour’s death that it is ‘rum’, while his wife weeps silently, her back to the audience and her daughter, at the kitchen sink. The impoverishment of their language limits and ultimately incarcerates them: without the resources to grasp their own situation or that of others, they are completely incapable of sustaining the effective and caring social relations which, as a family, they fool themselves that they already somehow enjoy.
Beattie believes that, with her lover Ronnie, she has found a means of escaping all this, and she wants to share it with her family. At bottom, the means of escape is the pursuit of a social-democratic politics, and she breathlessly summarizes Ronnie’s political vision to her mother as she dances to a recording of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne suite (this protracted exchange between the production’s two most compelling performers provides a moving conclusion to Act 2).
Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what go on around you, it’s being concerned about people and the world.
Far from the caricature of the elitist entertainment of the ruling class, high culture for Beattie is ‘not highbrow, but it’s full of living. And that’s what […] socialism is.’ It is this which has enabled her escape into a relationship with a man whom she presumes to know everything. He is an idealist who thinks the poor can be lifted out of their material predicament, a socialist – even a communist. Such people are, even today (especially today), ridiculed for their infantile, unrealistic leftism. If only they would live in the real world instead of their ivory towers, preaching their high culture, they would see that theirs is an essentially patronizing attitude. The poor don’t need Bizet, and Shakespeare isn’t going to do them a blind bit of good. All these high-culture theorists like Adorno (whose views of the culture industry we may presume that Ronnie has taken on board) just provide a reassuring leftist fig-leaf for an essentially elitist programme of cultural domination. Wesker provides that perspective in the play, but his presentation is subtle.
In an attempt to get her family to think and offer an opinion on something, Beattie poses a very interesting moral problem in the form of a weird tale. There is a river with two huts on each side, with a ferryman operating a service between the banks. On one side lives a girl and a wise man, on the other two men, Archie (whom the girl loves, but who does not love the girl), and Tom (who loves the girl, but whom the girl does not love). The girl hears that Archie is going to America, so she wants to cross and spend one last night with him. The ferryman says he’s willing to take her, but she must remove all her clothes first. She asks the wise man what to do and he says ‘you must do whatever you think best’. She decides to strip, and the ferryman takes her across the river. She spends the night with Archie (who doesn’t love her but wants to take advantage of her), but he has gone – abandoning her – in the morning. In despair, naked, she runs to Tom (who loves her) and asks for help, but ‘soon ever he knowed what she’ve done, he chuck her out’. The question she poses is: who is to blame for the girl’s plight, and the interpretation she offers with Ronnie’s imprimatur is that the girl is only to blame for taking off her clothes, and in that she is guiltless because she is in love. After that she is the victim of two phoney men: one who takes advantage of her, one who professes to love her but won’t help her – with the latter being the more culpable because he was the last person she could turn to.
The morality tale is, of course, a kind of key to the play, but Wesker avoids crude parallels. Beattie is the girl who has crossed the river – inevitably this suggests either the Rubicon, since it’s a decision she cannot undo, or, given the fatalism and the ferryman, the Styx – laying herself bare to what will follow. For the entire length of the play we wait, with the family, for Ronnie to turn up, but like Godot, except more redemptively, he does not. Instead he sends a letter, ending their relationship and saying ‘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.’ In this he is Archie, taking his pleasure before abandoning the girl. Beattie is stricken, but her family (here taking the part of Tom) is no help. Her mother attacks her outright, because Ronnie’s promised redemption has been ‘proved’ wrong, while her siblings simply want to know more about details of their former relationship. For all their love of her, they will not – cannot, because they do not have the language to do so – help her.
But the really key figure in the morality tale, and one that nobody, not even Ronnie, discusses, is the wise man. He represents the other aspect of Ronnie, not the lover but the man who is supposed to know. He knows about art and politics; he knows how to change the world; he knows how to rescue people from the poverty of their environment and set them free. Yet the wise man’s advice smacks of Polonius (‘to thine own self be true’), and is as stupid as his: ‘you must do whatever you think best’ might be correct in a purely formal sense, but aren’t the wise meant to see through difficulties and present a way ahead for those who are less wise? If his advice is empty, then so, we are normally told, is the advice of all such posers who fancy themselves to know it all. The wise man here is the perfect embodiment of the cultured elitist who, at best, simply chucks attractive but useless baubles at the mass of humanity which needs much more.
Yet in rejecting Beattie, and in abandoning his belief that high culture and the ‘new kind of life’ can help the poor, Ronnie performs an essential function. Beattie’s family are, as we have seen, prevented by their inarticulacy from breaking out of their symbolic bonds; Ronnie seems to offer the cultural and linguistic key, the means for a universal enlightenment and emancipation. The problem is that Beattie believes that this power lies in him. She believes that there is a position of absolute knowledge, a person who has all the answers. By declaring to her that this absolute knowledge is phoney, by abandoning her to her former prison, Ronnie acts out the even more troubling truth that there is no such position of absolute knowledge, no form of expression that can entirely free us from the limitations of our symbolically hedged-in world. Not even, to pick two plausible examples out of the air, a university tutor or a TV scientist. Of course the conservative tutor who refuses the challenge to think theoretically possesses no absolute knowledge; it is doubtful whether such a person is an intellectual at all. But not even the theorist, not even the most profound and radical thinker has all the answers. We’re on our own. And yet there’s hope.
Learning, Beattie says, is not the accumulation of facts: on the contrary, it is the action of asking questions, forever. The idealist Ronnie gives up, because he sees that what he thought was reliable knowledge of a utopian possibility is useless. (People who say they were radicals in their youth but gave it up to become ‘realistic’ when they got older are just like Ronnie.) But Beattie finds her voice. Throughout the play she has quoted Ronnie’s maxims and opinions, and been ceaselessly ribbed for it. Then, after his rejection, she starts to offer her own opinions for the first time. She analyses her family’s tragedy, and sees a way out.
Bernard Levin described this moment, Beattie’s ‘final triumphant budding’, as ‘the most heart-lifting single moment I have ever seen upon a stage.’ But her enlightenment requires a double rejection, first of her family, which trapped her in inarticulacy, and then of her lover, whose presumed wisdom had led her to depend too much on another, on a subject supposed to know. One rejection is hard enough: leaving behind the limiting expectations of a family background, say, and allowing university to open one’s mind. But to reject the thing that seems to promise salvation, and to acknowledge that there is nobody to rely on and nothing to depend on but a need for constant questioning: that is a daunting prospect.
In Beattie we see what Ronnie, and what every conservative, fails to see, because they don’t see beyond the failure that opens up the possibility of triumph (the good old Beckett line that Žižek is very fond of: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’). Enlightenment comes. High culture emancipates. The poor are insulted, impoverished, and trapped by the culture industry. Standing apart from her family, who cannot understand what is happening to her, or how it could help them too, Beattie begins to live for herself. She has no answers any more, neither her family’s simple ones nor Ronnie’s impossible ones, but she has learned to see life, to articulate her own position and its suffering. She has obtained the only kind of wisdom that counts.