Better than chicken soup - Arnold Wesker, Britain's Ibsen

At 79, the playwright is enjoying a resurgence of interest in his work


Ali probably does not know it, but the red-brick Victorian flat above Ali's Superstore in Fashion Street, Spitalfields, was once home to a toddler who is now a key figure in 20th-century British drama.

I am betting that one day it will have a blue plaque declaring that playwright Sir Arnold Wesker lived there. It might also say that this is the East End location that Wesker had in mind when he wrote Chicken Soup With Barley, the first play in his famous trilogy.

This week Chicken Soup gets a major revival at the Royal Court, the theatre where it was first seen in London in 1958. Spanning the period from the anti-fascist Cable Street riots of 1936 up to the Soviet invasion of Hungary 20 years later, the play follows the fortunes of the Jewish, communist Kahn family, whose heroic matriarch Sarah (Samantha Spiro in the Royal Court production) is based on Wesker's Hungarian mother Leah.

And later this year the National Theatre is staging Wesker's first play, The Kitchen, from 1957, which is based on all the kitchens Wesker worked in before he made it as a playwright, including his stint as a pastry chef in Paris.

What the plaque will probably not say, even if it has room, is that for much of the period since Wesker's most conspicuous successes in the late 1950s and '60s, the playwright was neglected and rejected by the British theatre establishment. Not that being marginalised ever stopped him from being heard.


BORN: Stepney, May 24 1932
EARLY LIFE: Wesker and his sister Della were brought up by his parents Leah, a cook, and Joseph, a tailor’s machinist. Lived in Spitalfields and later Hackney. Worked in a number of menial jobs before getting a place at the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School)
CAREER: Came to prominence with his 1957 play, Chicken Soup with Barley, part of his famous trilogy with Roots, which was first performed the following year, and I’m Talking about Jerusalem. Among his most noted plays were Chips with Everything, about class attitudes in the early 1960s and Shylock, which retells The Merchant of Venice from Shylock’s point of view . He sued the Royal Shakespeare Company after it refused to stage his play, The Journalists
PERSONAL LIFE: Lives with his wife, Dusty, in Hove, Sussex. He has four children

For where he perceives injustice, Wesker sounds off - about Israel's policies towards Palestinians; about Arab and international attitudes towards Israel; about what he calls "troubled Gentiles", a well-meaning group whose prejudices are distinct from that of "old fashioned antisemites" but are still anti-Jewish; and, of course, about injustices directed towards Wesker himself which left him resentful of British theatre even while his plays - 17 of them - received world premieres abroad.

Wesker sees his - how shall we put it, "unfashionable period" - as being partly down to the arrogance of artistic directors, and partly down to a mild form of antisemitism that for large chunks of his career, he says, has set British theatre against sympathetic or even neutral portrayals of Jews and Israel. He cites one mainstream director as telling a mutual friend that "the trouble with Arnold is that he can't be objective about his Jewishness", something that, as Wesker says, could not possibly have been said of a black or Irish writer.

But rejection happens to lots to writers. It even happened to the quintessentially English dramatist Terence Rattigan, whose reputation has this year - the centenary of his birth - been thoroughly rehabilitated with productions of plays that were considered stuffy and outdated. So are not most writers just sometimes left behind?

"I always had the feeling that I wasn't left behind but that I had raced ahead," says Wesker in that familiar even voice. "I mean, after the trilogy, Chips With Everything and The Kitchen, I wrote The Four Seasons, a love story, and Their Very Own And Golden City in 1966 with two groups of actors who play the same characters as young and old. I used flash-forward techniques. I didn't know anyone who had done that. I was experimenting in structure and content. Maybe they were just waiting for me to repeat Chicken Soup. But I never felt left behind."

Even so, being ahead of your time can be as dispiriting as being behind it. The 2006 knighthood for services to drama would have helped, even though Wesker says it has made no difference to his life.

I decide that over the years there has been enough cordial contact between us for me to drop the "Sir". There is no hint of resentment from Wesker when I do. In fact, the reputation for being difficult belies the experience of many who have met him. OK, perhaps he should not have sued the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1972 for going back on its agreement to stage his play, The Journalists. But when I reviewed his only novel, Honey, a few years ago, I took issue with a passage of dialogue, and instead of responding in the traditional way - either ignoring the review or putting critics on a hit list as Stephen Berkoff and Wesker's fellow Royal Court writer, John Osborne, did - Wesker rewrote the passage and sent it to me. It was the most generous response I have ever had to a review. But it also reveals the thing about Wesker that has so often been misinterpreted. What many see as truculence is, most of the time, simply a desire to engage in good old-fashioned verbal or written sparring. He loves an argument. And, as anyone who loves an argument knows, there is nothing more annoying than not being argued with.

We are a long way in every sense from Fashion Street and the attic in which the young Wesker lived with his parents and his sister Della. We are sitting in a sunlit but small basement room in the house in Hove that Wesker's wife Dusty bought when they were separated. The hope, says Dusty when I arrive, was that Wesker and I could have talked on the beach. But there are muscular clouds bowling in from the Channel and anyway, these days the 10-minute walk to the sea is not as simple for Wesker as it once was.

For although Dusty and Arnold never stopped caring for each other, the thing that has brought them back together is not so much love as Parkinson's Disease. Wesker was diagnosed about 18 months ago. Walking outside is a pain. "Inside, I do what I call furniture walking," he says as he gingerly takes his seat, "holding onto pieces of furniture as I go. So that's the reason why I can't be in Wales any more."

By Wales he means his self-imposed Lear-like time in the wilderness - well, at his country house near Hay-on-Wye. He is still to find a buyer for it after two years on the market, but as he cannot bear the thought of never being there again, the lack of interest is not altogether unwelcome.

"I had visions of me dying there, of me sitting outside in front of my study, looking at the sunset which is immediately west and listening to Elgar's Dream of Gerontius," he says.

Still, there is good news too. With the revivals of Chicken Soup and The Kitchen (you can see why he once thought of opening a restaurant in the East End), there are surely exciting things to look forward to in London.

"Yes, it's going to be interesting," he admits. "But do you know, I wasn't excited until a couple of days ago." And after a slightly plaintive pause, he adds. "I want them to do Shylock before I die."

Shylock is Wesker's response to the villainous Jew in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Wesker cannot be doing with productions that distort the original in the hope of hiding the antisemitism embedded in Shakespeare's text. So he wrote his own version. Zero Mostel was going to star in the play on Broadway until the actor died after the first preview in Philadelphia. If Shylock is to be revived Wesker agrees that ideally his and Shakespeare's play should be paired with the same cast. It is, we agree, a little bit crazy that no artistic director has tried this and Wesker knows who he wants to play Shylock in both versions. But the name escapes him.

"Dusty," he calls up the stairs. "What's the name of the actor we thought should play Shylock?"

"Oh, my goodness," replies Dusty after a panicky pause. "Give me a clue."

"He was in, er, that Hollywood movie," says Wesker. "Large, begins with 'A'."

The three of us rack our brains for a big, English, Hollywood actor whose name begins with "A". About 10 minutes later, as Wesker is giving Trevor Nunn's celebrated 2000 production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Henry Goodman, a good kicking, Dusty appears holding a piece of paper on which she has written the letter "M". Wesker has not seen her yet.

"Hateful," he says of Nunn's prodcution, an opinion he later admits is partly informed by Nunn's refusal to stage Shylock when Nunn was running the National.

Not wanting to interrupt, Dusty coughs. Wesker and I look at the "M". Nothing comes, and we fall into silence again. And then, just when all hope seems lost, Dusty's already big eyes widen and a smile plays over her face.

"Alfred Molina," says Dusty. The name hangs in the air. They are right. Molina, who recently played the Jewish New York painter Mark Rothko on stage in London and New York, could be a brutal and brilliant Shylock.

Dusty returns with bagels and smoked salmon insisting that visitors from London always eat. The conversation turns to reputations and whether writers get the status they deserve, and I remember a question about Wesker that has nagged at me for a while. It was prompted by this year's revivals of Rattigan, a playwright who, like Wesker, deeply resented being frozen out by the theatre establishment. The history most often trotted out is that Rattigan was swept aside in the '50s by the John Osborne-led revolution of Angry Young Men, one of whom was Wesker. So did Wesker feel any empathy for the playwright who, it is said, was silenced by him and his fellow young dramatists?

What I did not know as I asked the question was that Wesker had recently unearthed letters written to him by

"Do you want to see them?" he asks, knowing full well their significance. They are in good enough condition to have been sent yesterday. Rattigan's hand-written words slant elegantly across several pages. I ask Wesker to read them out. The first begins: "Dear Arnold Wesker, I think 'Chicken Soup and Barley' [sic] is a fine and moving play."

Over the next few pages, the playwright tells Wesker that although there is much to admire in the work of Osborne, Harold Pinter and John Mortimer, only Wesker's work among contemporary writers has made Rattigan cry. He goes on to say that Wesker has the makings of a very fine dramatist - "Ibsen class".

"Lovely", says Wesker, looking up wistfully. "It's just lovely. I wish I kept copies of the letters I'd written to him."

He reads out the second letter in which Rattigan eloquently sets out the role of the dramatist - or at least the good dramatists such as he and Wesker. "If you want it in a nutshell and you must certainly don't, the human predicament is our proper concern".

"That's right," says Wesker. "That's what I believe."

The letters are astounding, all the more so when you consider that they were written by an Oxford- educated son of a British diplomat to a self-educated son of Jewish East End immigrants. So, no, says Wesker, there was no plan to sweep Rattigan aside. The revolution that started with Osborne's Look Back in Anger was not planned.

"I don't remember being unhappy with theatre. I had no sense of sweeping away the old establishment. I've always maintained that there wasn't a revolution. I simply wrote plays that contributed to the mainstream of British theatre, going back to Shakespeare. And I've been lucky enough to be part of it. You have to understand, at the time I was an innocent - a Jewish boy from the East End. I didn't go to university, I didn't have any of the connections of many of my contemporaries, most of whom were university boys. John Dexter [who directed Wesker's trilogy] didn't go to university either and I remember Dexter saying to me once: 'You don't really know how they despise you up there'. They think you're an upstart because you didn't go to university, so to have received a letter like that from Terence Rattigan, I could only have been thrilled and encouraged."

Funny how old insecurities hang around. Even now Wesker makes no assumption about his place in British drama. "I'm waiting for the reviews that are going to say: 'What was all the fuss about?'", he says. And as he sees me to the door, he asks: "How much space have they given you for this interview? Half a page?", as if he still expects to be

"I think it'll be a little more than that," I say.

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