Sir Arnold Wesker

b. 1932 – d. 2016

Sir Arnold Wesker was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985.

Sir Arnold Wesker FRSL (24 May 1932 – 12 April 2016) was the author of 50 plays, four volumes of short stories, two volumes of essays, a book on journalism, a children’s book, extensive journalism, poetry, and other assorted writings. His plays have been translated into up to 20 different languages and performed worldwide.

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Sir Arnold Wesker remembered – by Lisa Appignanesi

I first met Arnold Wesker early in my London days. It must have been around 1970. He was high up on a ladder, a paintbrush in hand. Though he was already internationally famous, author of the plays commonly known as the Wesker Trilogy (Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, I’m Talking about Jerusalem), this was no stage set. He was painting walls for an acquaintance of mine who was writing a doctoral thesis about him. He had an infectious grin and a teasing wit. Soon we were all painting, exchanging life stories, passionately arguing ideas, and laughing. By the end of the afternoon we were fast friends.

If I mention this scene, it’s because it characterises so much about Arnold Wesker, his plays as well as his life. He was generous, embracing, a man with a singular talent for friendship, and a doer who never stopped questioning. For him ideas grew out of work and social exchange – and all three ran seamlessly in and out of family life.

In The Kitchen (1959), a cast of characters from everywhere in Europe engages in the daily, well-orchestrated routine of a busy restaurant. The rush of activity, the hierarchy of power, individual dreams and desires emerge and clash to lead to an explosive conclusion. Class, history, politics are all organically bound up in the play’s action and characters. In Chips with Everything (1962), Wesker drew on his own experience of national service to portray an England which demanded change, though perhaps not in the way it was getting it.

Born during the depression, in London’s East End, to a working-class, immigrant, Jewish family for whom communism presented the only hope of change as well as an anti-fascist solidarity, Wesker both imbibed and rebelled against the family ethos. He also transformed it all into drama, portraying the socialist generation that fought Mosley and the disillusionment that came with the Soviet invasion of Hungary, though not for his stubborn firebrand of a mother.

Wesker is often named as one of the ‘angry young men’, along with Harold Pinter and John Osborne, who brought a renaissance to British theatre. What is less often noted is that his women are as angry and often angrier than his young men: from Beatie Bryant in Roots to Portia in his reimagining of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, plus the many women in his later less well-known plays. He wrote over forty in all, not to mention a novel and poems, plus detailed diaries that run over decades – a treasure trove for biographers and theatre historians.

Wesker’s ambitious early dream of a people’s art palace, Centre 42 with its base at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and festivals all over the country, never altogether materialized, at least not for him. Nor did his later plays, which continued to be put on around the world, have the success of his early ones at home. The Journalists, a group piece like The Kitchen, foundered on an actors’ revolt. Zero Mostel, who was to have been the Broadway lead for his Merchant (in which Antonio and Shylock are fast friends), died dramatically along with the play during the out-of-town previews. The momentum of Wesker productions seemed to founder with that.

Recent revivals of his greatest plays have brought him to the eyes of a new generation. At a time of political repositionings, debates about anti-semitism of the casual or overt kind and the first Women’s Equality Party, it may be invigorating to revisit Arnold Wesker, a great writer and a good man.

Lisa Appignanesi Chair of the RSL and author of ‘Trials of Passion’ and ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, amongst other books.