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Arnold Wesker: His Life and Career in 10 Scenes | reviews, news & interviews

Arnold Wesker: His Life and Career in 10 Scenes

Arnold Wesker: His Life and Career in 10 Scenes

The angry young playwright's career was as dramatic off the stage as on

'My power of imagination is slight': Arnold Wesker

Of all the dramas with the name Arnold Wesker attached to them, the most absorbing ran as long as The Mousetrap, but offstage rather than on. It was in the style of a remorselessly black farce, in which the little man as hero suffers an endless series of blows, reverses and pratfalls.

Some are minor, some cataclysmic, but they all have one thing in common: they fail to deter their victim who, like one of those clown figures mounted on a toy rubber ball, always rolls back into the upright position.

Written up as a play, it should be called Fashion Street, after the address in the East End where the playwright was born into a family of Jewish communists in 1932 and about which he wrote in an autobiographical trilogy of early plays in 1958 that established his reputation for writing sharply about the British class system: Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking about Jerusalem. (“My power of imagination is slight,” he once said in an essay.)

In scene one, the young Wesker is in the RAF doing his National Service, and writing a novel about his experiences. Well-wishers advise him that it is unpublishable. As do publishers. Undeterred, in scene two he turns his attention to the writing of plays, which are initially rejected. But with John Osborne ploughing the furrow for angry young playwrights, they at last find an audience. (Pictured below, Jessica Raine in the Donmar's 2013 production of Roots.)In scene three he writes his fifth play Chips with Everything (1962) – the definitive play about National Service, which he has converted from the unpublishable novel about the RAF. In 1963 it goes to Broadway. Some theatregoers object to a line in which a character says, "You know what happens to Jews? They go to gas chambers." Bookings are cancelled, audiences drop from three-quarters full to half. Wesker argues in his defence that they have not cut the line in Israel. He later discovers that they have. The play closes earlier than expected.

Scene four moves us on a decade to 1972, with the stage split between the National and the RSC. Wesker is 40. His regular director John Dexter is to mount The Old Ones at the National, but Kenneth Tynan withdraws the play, alleging that it cannot be cast from the company. Wesker suspects his play is the victim of a rift between Tynan and Dexter. Meanwhile, in a scenario that could only happen to Wesker, a company of RSC actors refuse to perform his play The Journalists. Wesker suspects that they object to the presence of several intelligent Tory MPs among the dramatis personae. The possibility that they simply hate the play is not contemplated. This is an extreme example of a general trend that can be compositely represented in scene five, in which Wesker complains to a journalist that no one in this country wants to mount his plays any more. It would make thematic sense to have him slag off directors here too.

Scene six apparently brings good news. It is 1977, and a production of Shylock is heading for Broadway. Takings of $2 million are predicted, but then Zero Mostel, a big box-office draw who had appeared in Mel Brooks's The Producers, collapses and dies, and the show goes the same way after nine performances in New York. Dexter and Wesker do not work together again. Having lived off an overdraft for the first 20 years of his career, the playwright will now live off one for at least the next 20. In 1997 he publishes a diary of the debacle entitled The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel. (Pictured below: the National Theatre's 2011 revival of The Kitchen.)Scene seven ushers in the revival phase in the 1990s: an education department production of Roots tours, then goes into the National for a short run; while his debut about working in a kitchen called The Kitchen (1957) is spectacularly mounted at the Royal Court by Stephen Daldry, but for some mysterious reason its author fails to fathom it does not transfer. To publicise this and other later revivals, in interviews Wesker intensifies his complaint that theatres should be mounting his new plays as well as reviving his old ones, while adding that his work is staged all over the world and London is not the only fish in the sea.

In scene eight, the nadir. On the death of Osborne in 1994, Wesker writes an article in the Guardian about their last encounter, at a soiree at Buckingham Palace. Osborne's widow takes offence at Wesker's portrayal of the deceased as a drunkard, and posts his name alongside other personae non gratae on the door at the memorial service, barring entry. It is the most remarkable public humiliation. But very dramatic.In scene nine there would be a conflation of events: a solitary Wesker visits Osborne's grave and explains to his old friend that he at least is mellowing in old age. HTV are filming his play Break, My Heart (1997), about a husband physically abusing his wife, who like Wesker is an autodidact. The channel objects to the amount of swearing and invites its author to lighten the cargo of expletives: they count 62 “fuckings” and one “cunt” and tell Wesker he can have 12 “fuckings” and no “cunt”. He compromises, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Scene 10 covers the last decade. In 2006 Wesker is a guest on Desert Island Discs and given a knighthood. A year earlier he finally makes his debut as a novelist with Honey, which continues the story of Beatie Bryant, the character who illuminated his early trilogy. She is visited again in a pair of revivals either side of the playwright's 80th birthday: Chicken Soup with Barley at the Court in 2011 (pictured above), and finally Roots at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 starring Jessica Raine. Both plays are universally hailed as masterpieces.

Sir Arnold Wesker, 1932-2016

Wesker complained that theatres should be mounting his new plays as well as reviving his old ones

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