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date: 22 January 2020

Wesker, Sir Arnoldfree

(1932–2016)
  • William Baker

Sir Arnold Wesker (1932-2016), by Josef Herman, 1968

Portrait by Josef Herman. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Wesker, Sir Arnold (1932–2016), playwright, was born on 24 May 1932 at the Jewish Maternity Hospital (known as Mother Levy’s), 24 Underwood Street, Whitechapel, London, the younger child of Joseph Wesker (1897/8–1959), journeyman tailor, and his wife, (Cecile) Leah, née Perlmutter (1898–1976). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 447A Hackney Road, Bethnal Green. After various moves, they occupied the top floor of 43 Fashion Street, ‘one of the horizontal streets joining Brick Lane to Commercial Street’, where most of his childhood was spent under a ‘sloping attic-type ceiling’, a taste that Wesker retained (Dare, 15–16).

Family and education

Born into a vibrant secular Jewish family, Wesker recalled in his autobiography, As Much as I Dare (1994), that he retained the scar on his forehead as a result of his sister Della (b. 1924) accidentally dropping him ‘when he was very young’. According to Della, the young Wesker was ‘a disruptive and obstinate child’ (Dare, 54).

Wesker inherited his good tenor voice from his father, whose family had fled from pogroms in Dnipropetrovsk (or Ekaterinoslav), in central Ukraine, and landed in Swansea around 1910. They subsequently migrated to the East End of London. Wesker retained sympathy for his father, ‘a little Chaplin of a man’ (Guardian, 13 April 2016), with whom he wrestled and boxed. Not much taller than his diminutive wife, he and she were constantly quarrelling. They had married in 1923, and nine months later to the day Della was born. They separated for two years after Arnold’s birth, with young Arnold and Della brought up by maiden aunts, their father’s sisters Ann and Sarah. His parents’ fractious relationship later appeared in Chicken Soup with Barley (Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 1958). ‘The failure of marriage, the impossibility of sustained love, the changing needs of couples who cannot help but grow apart – it’s all there in plays’, he later wrote (Dare, 53).

Wesker’s mother was roughly four feet eight inches tall and a passionate communist. Wesker was devoted to her. She was born in Gyergyószentmiklos (George St Nicholas), Transylvania, one of fourteen children, three of whom died at birth. She came to England in 1910 at the age of eleven with her two younger brothers to live with an older sister who was already settled in London. Yiddish-speaking, Wesker’s parents influenced his development as a writer and inspired the Kahn family in his trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays. He inherited his mother’s tender nature, her obsessive letter writing, and artistic jotting.

Wesker himself was a mere five foot four inches tall when full grown. Nicknamed Wizzie, he was chubby in build. As a child, he possessed ‘a happy disposition’ (Dare, 156). He recalled that ‘a lively cultural life going on in our attic flat’ distracted him and balanced ‘the distress of squabbling parents. And there were cousins and aunts and uncles who popped in and who we visited’ (Montenero, 93).

In 1942, when Wesker was ten, the family moved from Stepney to Hackney, and he attended Northwold Road Elementary. Failing the eleven plus, he went to Upton House Central School, writing in his autobiography that he left ‘with my bad memory, and inability to spell (which even now only the spell check in my word processor hides), a hazy comprehension of how the English language was constructed (I still cannot name the parts of grammar), and an appetite for books’ (Dare, 91).

National service, work, and marriage

Wesker left Upton House in the summer of 1948 aged sixteen, having failed to secure his school certificate. He wanted to be a writer, but with a responsibility to contribute to the household and having a good pair of hands, he worked for a time as an apprentice to a furniture maker in Norton Folgate. Then he worked in various jobs including a Fleet Street bookshop where he devoured Sean O’Casey’s plays. When not working, he was involved in amateur dramatic performances and political activism, having joined the left-wing young Zionist movement Habonim, in which he remained active for four years. Scrounging money from Sybil Thorndike and others, in April 1949 he attended the World Peace Conference in Paris. ‘Between the ages of seventeen and twenty’ Wesker had a fascination with Don Quixote, whose obsession with ‘people driven by dreams which shatter’ (Dare, 102–3) was reflected in his own work.

On turning eighteen, Wesker began his national service. The same year, he wrote his first play, ‘And After Today’, and a proto-autobiography, ‘Portrait of a Man’, about his father, and containing the seeds of Chicken Soup. During national service he started a drama society with officers and men at RAF Moreton-in-Marsh and directed productions, but kept on being moved to other camps, as he was regarded as ‘likely to be a troublemaker’ (Dare, 231). He kept a record, in the form of lengthy letters, wrote short stories, poems, and a novel, ‘The Reed That Bent’. Completed in August 1951, it was used as the basis for Chips with Everything (Royal Court, 1962).

Following discharge from the RAF in 1952 and a series of jobs, Wesker performed in amateur dramatics. In August 1953, having failed to get a grant for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he joined Della and her husband, Ralph, in Norfolk, becoming a kitchen porter in the Bell Hotel, Norwich. There he met Doreen Cecile (Dusty) Bicker (b. 1936), a waitress at the hotel, and daughter of Edwin Bicker, farm labourer. Wesker worked at the Bell Hotel for fourteen months, read voraciously, went to the local drama productions, learned to become a cook, fell in love, and wrote without success. His morning experiences at the Bell formed the basis for episodes in his first play, The Kitchen (Royal Court, 1959). At the Bell, he stumbled upon some of the themes for a lifetime of writing: lives wasted; people accepting second-best; lives of vulnerability from inadequate nourishment, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually; lives stultified from the wrong choices based on chimeric dreams and self-delusion.

In 1955 Wesker left the Bell to return to London, and later that year found a position as trainee pastry cook at the Hungaria restaurant at 16 Lower Regent Street, where he ‘learned how to bake pastries and concoct desserts’ (Dare, 395). While working there, he wrote his first published story, ‘Pools’. It appeared in the Jewish Quarterly of winter 1958–9 and subsequently became part of Wesker’s short story collection, Six Sundays in January (1971).

Meanwhile, three days after Wesker’s twenty-fourth birthday in 1956, he and Dusty left for Paris, where Dusty worked as au pair while Wesker spent six months working as a pastry chef at Restaurant Le Rallye. This inspired other episodes in The Kitchen, which despite its large cast of thirty was the one most performed—in at least sixty cities, twenty-five countries, and eighteen languages by the time of Wesker’s death. In Paris they found a long-stay apartment in the far from luxurious Hotel Windsor, saving enough money to return to London. Wesker then entered the embryonic London School of Film Technique, where he saw many films and formed friendships. He and Dusty married at the register office in Hackney on 14 November 1958. Her agricultural Norfolk family and its complex relationships formed the background and inspiration for Roots (Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 1959), the second part of Wesker’s trilogy. The mother of their three children (two sons, Lindsay and Daniel, and a daughter, Tanya), Dusty was Wesker’s companion for nearly fifty years and ‘an anchor within my family, loved and depended upon by friends’ (Dare, 359).

Early successes

Wesker owed his discovery to the director Lindsay Anderson, who read his short story ‘Pools’ with a view to adapting it as a film script. This didn’t materialize, but Anderson also read Chicken Soup with Barley, the first in what became a trilogy drawing upon Wesker’s childhood and subsequent experiences, and The Kitchen, based on his work experience; the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry performed Chicken Soup on 7 July 1958, directed by John Dexter, who went on to direct Wesker’s first five plays and with whom Wesker had a complex relationship. Anderson brought Chicken Soup to the Royal Court Theatre in London for a successful run. A family saga covering the years 1936 to 1956, the play powerfully drew upon Wesker’s early experiences and especially the events of 4 October 1936, the day on which fascists planned to ‘march up to Aldgate, down commercial Road to Salmon Lane in Limehouse’ (Chicken Soup with Barley, 1959, 17), intending to hold a meeting in the centre of the Jewish area, at Victoria Park. Wesker was four years old at the time when the events he presented on the stage with such burning intensity took place.

A consequence of the play’s success was a grant of a £300 from the Arts Council of Great Britain, which Wesker and Dusty spent on getting married. Anderson had sent The Kitchen to George Devine, who was looking for talent at the Royal Court. The play opened on 13 December 1959 with a large cast of thirty-three actors, some requiring training in preparing food, resulting in production difficulties.

Roots, the second play in Wesker’s autobiographical trilogy, was commissioned by the Royal Court and first produced at the Belgrade in Coventry on 25 May 1959, again directed by Dexter. Joan Plowright played the central mother figure of Beatie Bryant in a highly praised performance that transferred to the Royal Court on 30 June. Wesker was now internationally recognized, and became associated with John Osborne, Bernard Kops, Harold Pinter, and others as important ‘realist’ dramatists, the so-called ‘angry young men’ who broke on to the British dramatic scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The third play in the Wesker trilogy, I’m Talking about Jerusalem, was written in 1958–9. Its first production on 4 April 1960 was again at the Belgrade, Coventry, transferring to the Royal Court on 27 July. Covering the years 1946 to 1949, it focused on the fortunes of the Kahn family with Ada and her husband (based on Wesker’s sister and her husband) moving from London to the depths of the Norfolk countryside, where they planned to build the New Jerusalem. Wesker achieved commercial success with Chips With Everything, based upon his RAF experiences. It opened at the Royal Court on 27 June 1962, transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre later that year, and was voted the best play of 1962.

Increasingly active in left-wing causes, Arnold and Dusty Wesker, along with John Dexter, participated in the anti-nuclear marches in April 1958 from Aldermaston to London. A member of the committee of one hundred advocating acts of civil disobedience, he was arrested and with others spent a month in 1961 in Drake Hall open prison in Staffordshire. Later that year he accepted the directorship of Centre 42, an operation funded by the trade unions and aiming to bring the arts, theatre, and other activities to working-class audiences. The lack of funding and personality clashes resulted in Wesker’s ‘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 materializing and left a bitter taste (Appignanesi, ‘Sir Arnold Wesker remembered’).

Later neglect

Wesker’s four-part drama The Four Seasons, written around 1964, marked a transition, with his work becoming less overtly ideological and more personal. In this drama, the focus is on an emotionally wounded middle-aged couple trying to start afresh, but previous mistakes are repeated, and their relationship dissipates with the coming of autumn, heralding the death of love. The play was produced at the Belgrade in Coventry on 24 August 1965, transferring to the Golder’s Green Hippodrome on 9 September 1965 and then to the Savile in the West End for a short run and a hostile critical reception.

Wesker spent two months of 1971 working at the Sunday Times, amassing information for what became the two-act The Journalists, first published in Polish in the magazine Dialog in March 1974 and a year later in England. Actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company refused to perform it, arguing that it made too many demands. Wesker sued the company and subsequent legal proceedings ground on and were not resolved until 1980, with Wesker winning a hollow victory. Its first professional production took place in Germany in October 1981. For Wesker, the play ‘is not about journalism. It is about the poisonous human need to cut better men down to … size [that] corrupts such necessary and serious human activities as government, love, revolution or journalism’ (‘Introduction’, The Journalists, 1975, 11–12).

The Old Ones was scheduled for the National Theatre; however, its influential literary manager Kenneth Tynan used casting problems as an excuse for withdrawing the planned production. Its producer, Dexter, took the play to the Royal Court, where it opened on 8 August 1972 with a powerful performance from Max Wall as the central character.

Wesker’s The Merchant, a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, reflected his deep awareness of his Jewishness and of anti-Semitism. The initial production was in Stockholm in October 1976, and the first English production took place under Dexter’s direction in New York in November 1977: Wesker and Dexter irrevocably severed their relationship at its end. Wesker’s account of this and the death of its lead prior to its Broadway opening is found in his The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel: Diary of a Play (1997).

Another two-act play, One More Ride on the Merry Go Round, written in 1978, had to wait for its first performance until April 1985, when it was produced at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester. Reflecting Wesker’s life, it dealt with impending old age, the consequences of separation from a wife, living alone, resigning from a job. A historical play written in 1980, set in Norfolk between July 1377 and July 1381, Caritas was first performed in October 1981 at the Cottesloe Theatre on the South Bank in London. In common with many of Wesker’s late dramas, the play focused upon a female figure. These included Four Portraits—Of Mothers, written for a Tokyo one-act festival and initially performed there in July 1982. It received its British premiere at the 1984 Edinburgh Festival. The earlier Annie Wobbler, written in 1980–81, consisted of three monologues spoken by the Cockney Annie, a ‘part-time tramp, part-time cleaning woman’ (Arnold Wesker Plays 2: One-Woman Plays, 2001, 3). It was broadcast in German by Suddeutscher Rundfunk on 3 February 1983 and first performed in English at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in July 1983 under Wesker’s direction.

Recognition of sorts

The 1990s witnessed revivals of The Kitchen in 1994 under Stephen Daldry’s direction at the Royal Court and Chips With Everything in 1997 at the National Theatre. This didn’t satisfy a prolific Wesker, who was enraged about the neglect of his subsequent work. Emphasis on his early work ignored some fine later dramas such as Denial, a powerful depiction of the ‘false memory syndrome’ that premiered at the Bristol Old Vic in 2000, and Phoenix, Phoenix Burning Bright (2006), exhibiting Wesker’s ‘ultimate scepticism about imprisoning doctrines and endorsement of liberal humanism’ (Guardian, 10 Oct 2016).

An affair with the Swedish journalist Disa Håstad (b. 1940) resulted in a daughter, Elsa. Dusty and Arnold Wesker became estranged. Wesker went to live alone in a remote cottage near Blaendigeddi, in the Black Mountains in Wales. There, he worked seven days a week. In addition to plays, he wrote volumes of diaries, poetry, and his first novel. He also drew.

Official recognition came late, with a knighthood in 2006. In 1985 Wesker had become a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and various honorary doctorates came his way, too. Honey: A Novel, written when he was seventy-two, was published by Scribner in 2005. Four hundred and thirty pages long, its focus is Beatie Bryant in Roots and her self-discovery. His autobiography, As Much As I Dare (1994), was dedicated to his grandchildren. Protracted negotiations resulted in 2000 in his extensive papers going to the University of Texas at Austin. In the first decade of the new century, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he moved from Wales to the Sussex coast, to Hove, where he was looked after by his long-suffering wife, Dusty. He died on 12 April 2016 at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, from bronchopneumonia, Alzheimer’s, and cerebrovascular disease. He was survived by three children, his daughter Tanya having predeceased him in 2012.

Wesker was remembered by Lisa Appignanesi, the writer, novelist, and former president of English PEN, as ‘generous, embracing, a man with a singular talent for friendship, and a doer who never stopped questioning’ (Appignanesi, ‘Sir Arnold Wesker remembered’). His other obituaries, while on the whole generous, did not shy away from Wesker’s contentious nature, his impulsiveness, nervous energy, contradictions, and, in the words of Julia Pascal, ‘an elevated libido’ (Guardian, 13 April 2016). A celebration of his life and work was held at the Royal Court Theatre at the end of the first week of October 2016, when a plea was made for the presentation of his neglected or unknown work.

Sources

  • A. Wesker, Chicken soup with barley (1960)
  • A. Wesker, The journalists: a triptych (1979)
  • G. Leeming, Wesker the playwright (1983)
  • G. Leeming, ed., Wesker on file (1985)
  • R. Wilcher, Understanding Arnold Wesker (1991)
  • A. Wesker, As much as I dare: an autobiography (1932-1959) (1994)
  • R.W. Dorman, Arnold Wesker revisited (1994)
  • The Observer (26 May 2002)
  • C. Montenero, Ambivalences: a portrait of Arnold Wesker from A to W (2011)
  • The Guardian (13 April 2016); (18 April 2016); (10 Oct 2016)
  • Financial Times (13 April 2016)
  • New York Times (13 April 2016)
  • The Times (14 April 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (14 April 2016)
  • The Stage (14 April 2016)
  • L. Appignanesi, ‘Sir Arnold Wesker remembered’, Royal Society of Literature, rsliterature.org/fellow/sir-arnold-wesker-3/, accessed 11 July 2019
  • arnoldwesker.com, accessed 11 July 2019
  • WW (2016)

Archives

Film

  • current affairs, interview, documentary, light entertainment, and performance footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

Likenesses

  • D. Wesker, photograph, arnoldwesker.com, accessed 11 July 2019
  • D. Low, four drawings, c. 1950s, NPG
  • F. Topolski, charcoal drawing, 1961, NPG
  • J. Herman, oils, 1968, NPG [see illus.]
  • N. Vogel, four bromide prints, c. 1960s, NPG
  • C. Beaton, bromide print, 1962, NPG
  • F. Godwin, bromide print, 1974, NPG
  • M. Gerson, cibachrome print, 1992, NPG
  • P. Arnold, linocut, 1977, NPG
  • M. Tomlinson, oils, MOMA, Machynlleth
  • R. Mayne, bromide print, 1958, NPG/Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • R. Mayne, two photographs, c. 1961, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • R. Mayne, photograph, group portrait, on the anti-Polaris campaign, 1961, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • R. Mayne, photograph, group portrait, ‘Best dressed girl competition’, 1961, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • R. Mayne, photograph, group portrait, on the Aldermaston March, 1959, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • R. Mayne, two photographs, group portraits, during the Centre 42 ‘arts into factories’ movement, 1961, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • obituary photographs
University of Leeds Library
marriage certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
British Film Institute, London
birth certificate
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas
(1849–)
death certificate