Kitchen Sink Realism

We all spend a fair amount of our daily lives in the kitchen. It's the space where we bump into our friends, family, or house-mates. Where we eat our meals and spend hours procrastinating by gazing into the fridge. 

Kitchen Sink Realism Kitchen Sink Realism

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Table of contents

    In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of post-modernist writers began to focus their work on the domestic lives of working class Britons, the world of the 'kitchen sink' (or home).

    Post-modernism: a literary movement that developed in opposition to modernism, focusing on intertextuality, metafiction, and self-reflection.

    Kitchen Sink Realism definition

    Kitchen Sink Realism is part of the broader social realism genre, reflecting a shift away from theatre and literature which intended to act as an escape from reality.

    Social realism: a genre of literature and art that seeks to highlight the socio-political conditions and challenges faced by the working class, with the intention to critique social inequalities.

    Kitchen Sink Realism refers to a section of post-modernist theatre, literature, and art that evolved during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This literary genre intended to present the realities of everyday life in a brutally honest way. Works associated with this genre commonly focused on the lives of the working class, and explored taboo topics such as abortion, poverty, and sexuality.

    Kitchen Sink Realism: a literary genre focused on portraying the everyday lives and struggles of the working class.

    Unlike the 'well-made plays' of the 19th century, Kitchen Sink dramas focused on portraying real-life situations and challenges in a simplistic and honest way. This stood in stark contrast to the standardised structures and plots which characterised 'well-made plays'.

    Kitchen Sink Realism origin

    In 1954 art critic David Sylvester used the term 'Kitchen Sink School' to describe the Beaux Arts Quartet, a group of painters from the social realism genre who presented scenes of domestic life in their artwork.

    Beaux Arts Quartet: A group of four young painters (John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, and Jack Smith) whose realist artwork was exhibited at the Beaux Arts gallery in London.

    As a literary genre, Kitchen Sink Realism emerged in opposition to stereotypical portrayals of the working class, and the dominance of traditional 'well-made plays' in the theatre world. Such plays were either completely removed from the everyday realities of the post-war world, or depicted the working class as a source of comedic relief.

    John Osborne's 1956 play Look Back in Anger is considered to be the first instance of the Kitchen Sink Realism genre on stage. This production, alongside Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play, and 1961 film, A Taste of Honey, are the two most prominent and famous pieces associated with Kitchen Sink Realism that played a significant role in forming this literary genre.

    John Osborne was an English writer and actor who lived from 1929 to 1994. Osborne was best known for his work which critiqued established socio-political values and systems.

    Shelagh Delaney was an English writer who lived from 1938 to 2011. Delaney is best known for her 1958 play A Taste of Honey, which later became a motion picture in 1961.

    Playwrights associated with the origin of Kitchen Sink Realism, have been placed under the term of The 'angry young men', a group of British writers in the 1950s who expressed their feelings of disillusionment toward British society in their works.

    Did you know? The term 'angry young men' first appeared in the Royal Court Theatre's production of Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

    Today, Kitchen Sink dramas are most notably present in soap operas such as EastEnders (1985-), Coronation Street (1960-), and Hollyoaks (1995-).

    Kitchen Sink Realism examples

    Kitchen Sink Realism refers to art, literature, film, and theatre which portrayed the daily lives of the working class in an honest manner.

    Kitchen Sink Realism books

    Literature that contributed to the Kitchen Sink genre gained notable popularity in the 1960s, resulting in film adaptations of popular works such as Arthur La Bern's It Always Rains on Sunday (1945), released as a film in 1947, and John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), released as a film in 1959.

    It Always Rains on Sunday (1945), Arthur La Bern

    It Always Rains on Sunday follows the events of a rainy Sunday in 1939, in the East End of London. La Bern presents the lives of the Sandigate family, alongside other residents of Coronet Grove, just before the outbreak of World War Two.

    The novel focuses on Rose Sandigate, who is now married with a family, but used to be involved with criminal Tommy Swann. It Always Rains on Sunday allows the reader to gain a glimpse into the lives of those who reside in Coronet Grove. From the local pub to the local church, La Bern portrays a range of characters, exploring their identities and lives.

    Room at the Top (1957), John Braine

    Room at the Top follows the story of Joe Lampton, a young man with ambitions for a better life in post-war Britain. Braine presents the struggles faced by the younger generation in the post-war era in a clear manner.

    Despite his socio-economic disadvantages, Lampton works to obtain his dream future, in which he has a wealthy lifestyle. The title of the novel itself acts as an extended metaphor for Lampton's ambitions; in the novel he rents a room with a middle class couple living in 'T'top', the wealthier area of town. Lampton moves into this 'Room at the' 'T'top' as he works toward moving up in society.

    Extended metaphor: a metaphor which is longer than a single line or sentence. This type of metaphor can extend across an entire poem, chapter, or book.

    In 1962 Braine published Life at the Top, a sequel to Room at the Top, in which Joe Lampton's dissatisfaction with his 'life at the top' leads to further trouble. Lampton's characterisation as a working class figure who makes their way up through the social classes provides an insight into the lives and issues of both working class and middle class Britons.

    Kitchen Sink Realism plays

    Alongside being a genre of novel, Kitchen Sink Realism also had a notable impact on the theatre world. Productions categorised as Kitchen Sink Realism broke free of the traditional stories that theatre explored - the lives of the upper class, or the lives of unrelatable fantasy or historical characters.

    Many Kitchen Sink Realism plays also received film adaptations, with Look back in Anger (1956) and a Taste of Honey (1958) being released in cinemas in 1959, and 1961 consecutively.

    Look Back in Anger (1956), John Osborne

    To many, Look Back in Anger paved the way for Kitchen Sink Realism as a theatrical genre.1 The play follows the character of Jimmy Porter, who was born into a working class family but married an upper middle class woman, Alison. Throughout the play, Jimmy struggles with the class divide between him and Alison's family, which contributes to Jimmy's steadily growing resentment toward Alison. As the play progresses, Jimmy becomes an increasingly aggressive and debaucherous character, physically intimidating Alison and having sexual relations with her friend Helena. The cruelty Jimmy displays toward Alison is embodied by his line in Act One in which he states;

    If you could have a child, and it would die...if only I could watch you face that.

    Considering that Jimmy and Alison are husband and wife, at a time in which the nuclear family was a prevalent social norm, the venomous statement that Jimmy would want to watch Alison suffer as she loses a child comes across as both unsettling and subversive of social expectations. Additionally, later in the play, Alison does lose her child after having a miscarriage, adding a sense of dramatic irony to this moment.

    Dramatic irony: when the reader or audience knows something that the character does not.

    Although the play concludes with Jimmy and Alison's relationship being restored, it does so with their marital issues still being unresolved, producing a critical, yet honest, narrative on real-world relationships.

    A Taste of Honey (1958), Shelagh Delaney

    A Taste of Honey follows the story of seventeen-year-old Jo and her mother Helen. After Jo becomes pregnant as a result of her relations with Jimmie, she leaves home and moves in with her friend Geoffrey. Throughout the play, Jo struggles with her relationship with herself and her mother who appears to always abandon her when needed.

    Class is a dominant theme in A Taste of Honey. For instance, at the play's opening as they unpack their possessions in a new flat, Jo complains about the conditions they live in, to which Helen responds;

    When I find somewhere for us to live I have to consider something far more important than your feelings . . . the rent. It’s all I can afford.

    Jo and Helen's financial struggles are evident from the play's opening. The prioritisation of the rent over Jo's 'feelings' indicate how the financial hardships faced by these characters have fed into Helen's resentful and harsh personality. Whenever faced with a choice, Helen places herself and her success first, a trait that the audience would not traditionally expect from a mother character.

    Kitchen Sink drama characteristics

    • Working-class characters, settings, and subject matter.
    • Commonly set in the industrial North of England.
    • The use of Northern accents and colloquialisms to capture the setting.
    • Focused on portraying relevant socio-political issues and subjects.
    • Tackling of taboo issues such as classism and sexuality.

    Kitchen Sink Realism today

    Although Kitchen Sink Realism emerged and reached its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the genre is still present in literature and theatre today.

    In May 2022, The House of Shades by Beth Steel had its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London. This production followed four generations of a working-class family, from the 1950s to the 1990s, with the play's entire plot being set within the constraints of the family's home and hometown. Significant, and controversial, socio-political issues were covered by the play including; poverty, classism, and abortion.

    The House of Shades received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award and had fairly strong reviews across the board. Despite being written and performed over fifty years since Kitchen Sink Realism first emerged and gained popularity, The House of Shades is an interesting example of how this genre is still present in literature and art today!

    Kitchen Sink Realism - Key takeaways

    • Kitchen Sink Realism is defined as a literary genre focused on portraying the everyday lives and struggles of the working class.
    • Kitchen Sink Realism is part of the broader social realism genre.
    • Room at the Top (John Osborne, 1957) and It Always Rains on Sunday (Arthur La Bern, 1945) are two books that fit into the Kitchen Sink Realism genre.
    • Key characteristics of Kitchen Sink Realism include; working-class characters, settings and subject matter, and the portrayal of relevant or taboo socio-political issues.

    References

    1. The British Library, 'Look Back in Anger' in All Discovering Literature: 20th century works, bl.uk
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kitchen Sink Realism

    What is Kitchen Sink Realism?

    A literary genre focused on portraying the everyday lives and struggles of the working class.

    Why is it called Kitchen Sink Realism?

    In art and literature, Kitchen Sink Realism refers to work which focuses in on everyday objects and instances in domestic life. The phrasing of this term intends to instantly connect to the home and the everyday nature of this genre.

    Who coined the term Kitchen Sink Realism?

    In 1954 art critic David Sylvester used the term 'Kitchen Sink School' to describe the Beaux Arts Quartet, a group of painters from the social realism genre who presented scenes of domestic life in their art work. 

    What is Kitchen Sink literature?

    Literature which portrays the everyday lives and struggles of the working class of Britain, in an honest and harsh light. 

    What is an example of Kitchen Sink Realism?

    One of the best known plays which make up Kitchen Sink Realism is A Taste of Honey (1958) by Shelagh Delaney.

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