Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker dies aged 83

The playwright, author of Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley, passed away after a long illness.


Leading British Jewish playwright Sir Arnold Wesker has died aged 83.

He passed away on Tuesday evening after a long illness, his wife, Lady Wesker, said.

Sir Arnold came to prominence in 1957 with his play Chicken Soup with Barley. It was part of his famous trilogy, along with Roots, which was first performed the following year, and I’m Talking about Jerusalem.

Among his most noted subsequent 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.

Born in Stepney in 1932, he and his sister Della were brought up by their parents Leah, a cook, and Joseph, a tailor's machinist.

The family lived in Spitalfields and later Hackney. Sir Arnold initially worked in menial jobs before landing a place at the London School of Film Technique.

Writing in the JC in 2012 , he reflected on his Jewish background and life.

"My mother was Jewish. Her mother was Jewish. And her mother was Jewish. My father was Jewish. His mother was… and so on," Sir Arnold wrote.

"Shouldn't this be enough to encourage me to think I'm Jewish? Orthodox Jewry wouldn't think so. Only those, say the Orthodox, who adhere to the prescribed rituals and laws of the Torah can claim the mantle of Jewishness."

Sir Arnold lived with his wife, Dusty, in Hove, Sussex. He had four children.

Tributes were paid to him today, including a mention from Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister's Questions.

Mr Corbyn said the playwright had "changed the face of our country".

Olivier award-winning actress Samantha Spiro tweeted: “Very sad to hear Arnold Wesker has died. Thank you Arnold for your brilliant plays and your passion.”

Journalist and JC columnist David Aaronovitch said that Sir Arnold “was a man I deeply admired and who was generous to me. I will miss him.”

Fellow JC columnist Jonathan Freedland added that he was “saddened” by the playwright’s passing, saying he had studied his work as a child, “corresponded with him as an adult” and “admired him very much”.

Further tributes were paid by comedian Jenny Eclair, who said that Sir Arnold “approved of my filth, which was lovely” and activist Susie Orbach, who said: “Another great leaves us. Sad. His work lives.”

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