Obituary: Sir Arnold Wesker, playwright

Born: 24 May, 1932, in Stepney, London. Died: 12 April, 2016, aged 83.

Playwright Arnold Weskers work was performed to full houses around the world. Picture: AP
Playwright Arnold Weskers work was performed to full houses around the world. Picture: AP

Sir Arnold Wesker was a prolific playwright whose work was performed to full houses around the world and translated into up to 20 different languages.

Yet even as a relatively young man, when he had produced only six plays, he was already being written off as a has-been.

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But his critics had totally misjudged the man. He continued to write successful plays, more than 40 in all, right into his 70s.

In addition to that he wrote four books of short stories, two collections of essays, a book for young people, three more of non-fiction, a collection of poetry and an autobiography.

Wesker was most famous for his trilogy of plays, comprising Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. These were written between 1958 and 1960 and were based on his working-class and impoverished Jewish background.

More than 400,000 copies of this work were sold in book form. Among his other renowned plays were Chips With Everything (1962), based on his service in the Royal Air Force, and his first play The Kitchen (1957), based on his early days as a kitchen porter and pastry cook. The Kitchen was turned into a musical and produced as a world premiere in Japan in 2000.

Arnold Wesker was born on 24 May 1932 and educated at Upton House School in Hackney, east London. He had a string of jobs including furniture maker’s apprentice, carpenter’s mate, bookseller’s assistant, plumber’s mate, farm labourer, seed sorter, kitchen porter and pastry cook, plus national service in the RAF in 1950-52.

After that he embarked on his prolific career as a playwright, scriptwriter and author. In his early years, his name was associated, some say erroneously, with a group of playwrights regarded as Angry Young Men.

His output was by and large not in that mould and was much more varied than the work normally associated with that group.

For instance, he wrote Cinders, based on a biography of the “madam” Cynthia Payne, and unperformable experimental work such as Circles Of Perception.

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One of his later works was Longitude, which explored the trials of John Harrison, a stubborn, self-educated genius from rural 18th century Lincolnshire who devised a clock which could tell the time, and hence one’s position, accurately on the roughest seas.

Harrison was repeatedly denied the prizes due to him by an establishment possibly more mindful of his background than his achievement.

Wesker directed his own plays in Havana, Stockholm, Munich, Aarhus, London, Oslo, Madison and Denison universities in the US, and Rome.

He was once described as “the unique outsider in the British theatre”, but the arts establishment had differing views on his abilities, even though he could pack theatres the world over.

In 1965, Glenda Jackson, the actress and subsequently an MP, left a theatre where his sixth play, The Four Seasons, was showing, and was overheard to say: “Well, that’s the end of Wesker, isn’t it?”

She apparently passed this remark - which turned out to be hopelessly ill-judged - because that play was a love story and totally unlike his earlier, more naturalistic plays.

But Wesker accepted the criticisms in good part. Once he wrote: “’Amazing’, people say to me, ‘that you keep writing’. It’s not amazing that I keep writing, that I keep going on and on and on and on, but that there’s so much in life that keeps asking to be written.”

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At the time of his 70th birthday, Wesker wrote: “And though, like most writers, I fear dying before I write that one masterpiece for which I’ll be remembered, yet I look at the long row of published work that I keep before me on my desk and I think, not bad, Wesker, not bad.”

His debut novel, Honey, was released in 2005 and he received a knighthood in the following year’s New Year’s Honours list. Wesker’s final work, The Rocking Horse, was a radio play commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the BBC World Service in 2007.