Life & Culture

Tributes to Sir Arnold Wesker: A gentle man who fought for his ideals


If ever there was a man born to live life to the fullest and determined to resist death to the last, it was dramatist Sir Arnold Wesker, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83.

On top of the Parkinson's Disease from which he had suffered for many years, several strokes had combined to put him on life support, and when his wife Dusty consented to the tubes being removed, doctors were amazed that he clung on for another six days. Anyone who knew him would not have been.

There was not an argument or a fight which Wesker believed that he avoided. What was true of the man was also true of his work. Of his 40 or more plays, his most famous were informed with struggle. The characters in what would become known as the Wesker Trilogy fight to elevate their lives above the political, financial or cultural circumstances into which they were born.

In Chicken Soup With Barley (1957), based on Wesker's own East End, communist and Jewish family, the fight is with fascists; in Roots, Beattie, the character based on his future wife Dusty, finds her voice - the struggle is to have aspirations higher than the limiting expectations of others.

It was this notion that lay behind Wesker's founding of Centre 42 in 1960 at Camden's Roundhouse, which was designed to make the best culture available to the working classes.

Meanwhile, in the trilogy's third play, I'm Talking About Jerusalem, the struggle is to live a life of political ideals. And one of his longest running plays, Chips With Everything, which was performed on Broadway and in the West End, addresses class struggle so vividly the Sunday Times writer Harold Hobson described it as "the first play of which the establishment need be afraid".

So it was that Wesker became known as one of the Royal Court's Angry Young Men of British theatre and a peer and contemporary of Look Back in Anger's John Osborne.

But Wesker's relationship with the establishment, especially in British theatre, was never an easy one. When the Royal Shakespeare Company went back on an agreement to stage his play The Journalists in 1972, he sued them. It was this bloody-minded, though no-doubt in Wesker's mind justified, act that probably led to his being known in the industry as "difficult", which is the kind of reputation that can kill a career. But for many who worked with him, such as Stephen Daldry, the relationship was always productive.

Samantha Spiro is an actress

Ann Mayer, Wesker's publicist and friend, said: "He was charming, friendly, interested in other people and always gracious. I never knew the man others described as 'difficult'."

That too was my experience. When I reviewed his only novel Honey - which furthered his exploration of the character Beattie - I took issue with a passage of dialogue, and his response was not to complain or arrogantly dismiss it, but to rewrite the passage and send it to me as an insert for the book. It's hard to think how a response to a criticism could be more gracious.

But for Wesker there was another problem. He could never shake the suspicion that some used the term "difficult" as a euphemism for Jewish. For unlike a good number of British Jewish artists who become adults in the post-war and Holocaust era, Wesker didn't distance himself from his Jewishness in the way Pinter did. He expressed it.

When I met him in Hove five years ago, where he lived after Parkinson's drove him from his self imposed Lear-like existence in the wilderness (actually, a country cottage near Hay-on-Wye) and back to life with his generous and loyal wife, he told me of one well-known British director who said to a mutual friend: "The trouble with Arnold is that he can't be objective about his Jewishness."

Quite what the director had in mind isn't clear, but Wesker knew it was something that could never be said of a black writer without sounding racist.

For Wesker it was indicative of the way his Jewishness appeared not only to define much of his career but to hamper it. His insistence that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was antisemitic must have made gentile directors feel uncomfortable.

He had something like contempt for the way in which British directors (and the theatrical establishment) strain every sinew to justify the Jewish cruelty in the play. Instead of corrupting Shakespeare, it would be better to stage a more balanced version, such his own play Shylock, which was all set to be played by the great American Jewish performer Zero Mostel on Broadway until the star died after the first preview in Philadelphia.

The play had a small scale outing in Britain. But Wesker was convinced it deserved to be staged in conjunction with Shakespeare's play. "I want them to do Shylock before I die," he told me. The frustration that only a fraction of his plays had made it into the regularly produced canon was balanced by the fact that during the fallow years in Britain he was regularly performed abroad.

Wesker lived long enough to see exuberant revivals of some of his most famous plays, including a terrific production of Chicken Soup starring Samantha Spiro at the Royal Court and an amazingly balletic version of The Kitchen directed by Bijan Sheibani, commissioned by Nicholas Hytner.

For that, I remember seeing Wesker watch his own play on the opening night, chin resting on his walking stick, and wondering, with the knighthood and all the confirmation that a playwright could want that his plays will have a rich life after his own, whether that will to fight might at last be mellowing. Those six final days without life support suggest not.

Bernard Kops is a British dramatist, poet and novelist

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