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Summary Article: Wesker, Arnold
From Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

One of the original “Angry Young Men,” a label he denies, Wesker’s substantial contribution to the explosion of new British playwriting in the late 1950s earned him lasting international renown. A prolific and earnest dramatist whose best work demonstrates both his passion for social justice and compassion for humanity in general, Wesker has remained active in the face of declining interest in his work, at least in the U.K.

Wesker’s working-class Jewish upbringing in London’s East End informs many of his plays’ depictions of tight-knit communities. With his first play, The Kitchen (perf. 1959; pub. 1960), Wesker drew on his own experience as a pastry chef, placing the world of work on stage with thrilling theatricality and treating his characters as professional, social beings rather than isolated individuals. Wesker’s next three works are known collectively as The Wesker Trilogy, would prove his best known. The first part, Chicken Soup with Barley (perf. 1958; pub. 1959), grippingly evoked clashes between the Jewish working class and Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement in 1930s London. The second, Roots (1959), showed Beatie, a country girl, struggling first to communicate, then to overcome, the influence of her intellectual, city-dwelling boyfriend, its final scene in which she at last finds her own voice being among the period’s most memorable. I’m Talking about Jerusalem (1960) concludes the trilogy with a philosophical exploration of defeated idealism.

Wesker’s next play, Chips with Everything (1962), brought his greatest commercial success, its presentation of the transformation of conscripted civilians into well-drilled airmen providing a theatrical counterpoint to the play’s critique of military dehumanization. By contrast, The Four Seasons (1965) tracks the arc of a love affair over the course of a year, while Their Very Own and Golden City (1966) is a study of idealistic young architects that flashes forward to reveal the compromises they will go on to make.

In the late 1960s, Wesker’s career began to lose impetus. The Friends, written in 1967, did not receive a British production until 1970, though its confrontation of the reality of death makes for a brave, unsettling work. Written in 1971, The Journalists (1975) is a return to the work-based drama of The Kitchen commissioned but not performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, due to the cast’s extraordinary refusal to play it. The Old Ones (perf. 1972; pub. 1980) examined the fears and rewards of old age with a compassionate eye, though without much narrative drive.

Wesker returned to form with The Wedding Feast (perf. 1977; pub. 1980), a comic but telling fable of labor relations, and The Merchant, later renamed Shylock (perf. 1977; pub. 1980). In this important work, Wesker reworks William SHAKESPEARE’s original sources for The Merchant of Venice to redress what he sees as the slander of Shylock propagated by the latter play. Unfortunately, The Merchant’s chances of Broadway success were scuppered by the death of its star, an experience later recounted in the memoir The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel (1997).

In succeeding decades, Wesker’s output has not slackened, and he has moved into new areas with the compassionate study of Christian self-sacrifice Caritas (1981), the bawdy comedy One More Ride on the Merry Go Round (perf. 1985; pub. 1990), and the cross-race sexual romance Lady Othello (1990). He has achieved some success with a series of one-woman plays, notably Annie Wobbler (perf. 1985; pub. 1989) and Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon? (perf. 1987; pub. 1989), and performances of later plays such as Blood Libel (perf. 1996; pub. 1994) and When God Wanted a Son (perf. 1997; pub. 1990) have complemented successful revivals of earlier works at the Royal Court and National Theatre. His recently staged piece Denial (perf. 2000) confronts the emotive issue of “recovered memory syndrome” and the effects of accusations of child abuse on the family unit. Wesker has also published volumes of essays (Fears of Fragmentation, 1973, and Distinctions, 1985), short stories (Love Letters on Blue Paper, 1974, and Said the Old Man to the Young Man, 1978) and writings for young people (Fatlips, 1978).

Wesker has made no secret of his frustration that much of his later work has not been professionally staged in Britain, documenting with apparent bewilderment and increasing bitterness a series of professional setbacks that a more circumspect writer might have left undisclosed. In his later years, volumes such as his bemusedly received collection of fairy-tale erotica (The King’s Daughters, 1998) and his unremittingly and uncomfortably candid autobiography (As Much as I Dare, 1994) have done little to revive his fortunes. His contribution to British theater, however, is a substantial one, and the international interest shown in his work both old and new indicates that there is a lasting demand for his brave and committed drama.

Bibliography Dornon, R. W., ed., A. W. (1998); Leeming, G., ed., W. on File (1985); Wilcher, R., Understanding A. W. (1991)

Harry Derbyshire

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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