Authors: Arnold Wesker

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works

Drama:

Chicken Soup with Barley, pr. 1958

The Kitchen, pr. 1959, revised pr., pb. 1961

Roots, pr., pb. 1959

I’m Talking About Jerusalem, pr., pb. 1960

The Wesker Trilogy, pb. 1960 (includes Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem)

Chips with Everything, pr., pb. 1962

The Nottingham Captain: A Moral for Narrator, Voices and Orchestra, pr. 1962 (libretto; music by Wilfred Josephs and David Lee)

The Four Seasons, pr. 1965

Their Very Own and Golden City, pr. 1965

The Friends, pr., pb. 1970

The Old Ones, pr. 1972

The Wedding Feast, pr. 1974 (adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevski’s story)

The Journalists, pb. 1975

Love Letters on Blue Paper, pr. 1976 (televised), pr. 1977 (staged; adaptation of his short story)

The Merchant, pr. 1976, revised pb. 1985 (based on William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice)

The Plays of Arnold Wesker, pb. 1976, 1977 (2 volumes)

Caritas, pr., pb. 1981

Four Portraits of Mothers, pr. 1982

Annie Wobbler, pr. 1983 (staged version of the radio play Annie, Anna, Annabella)

The Sullied Hand, pr. 1984

Yardsale, pr. 1984 (radio play), pr. 1987 (staged)

One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round, pr. 1985

Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon, pr. 1986

Badenheim 1939, pr. 1987 (adaptation of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel)

Beorhtel’s Hill, pr. 1989

Little Old Lady, pr. 1989 (for children)

One-Woman Plays, pb. 1989

The Mistress, pb. 1989

Shoeshine, pr. 1989 (for children)

When God Wanted a Son, pr. 1989

The Kitchen, and Other Plays, pb. 1990

Lady Othello, and Other Plays, pb. 1990

Shylock, and Other Plays, pb. 1990

Three Women Talking, pr. 1992

Blood Libel, pb. 1994

Wild Spring, and Other Plays, pb. 1994

Break, My Heart, pr. 1997

Denial, pr. 2000

Short Fiction:

Love Letters on Blue Paper, 1974

Said the Old Man to the Young Man: Three Stories, 1978

Love Letters on Blue Paper, and Other Stories, 1980

The King’s Daughters: Twelve Erotic Stories, 1998

Screenplay:

The Kitchen, 1961

Teleplay:

Menace, 1963

Radio Plays:

Annie, Anna, Annabella, 1983

Bluey, 1985

Nonfiction:

Fears of Fragmentation, 1970

Journey into Journalism, 1977

The Journalists: A Triptych, 1979

Distinctions, 1985

As Much as I Dare, 1994 (autobiography)

The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel, 1997

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Fatlips: A Story for Young People, 1978

Miscellaneous:

Six Sundays in January, 1971 (stories and plays)

Biography

Arnold Wesker, one of the many English dramatists of the stage revolution that began with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, made his reputation with a trio of plays about the working classes called The Wesker Trilogy, composed of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. More to the point, his name became associated with the term “kitchen-sink drama,” owing to the realistic depiction of life in his play The Kitchen, concerning the routine of daily life in a restaurant kitchen. This same realism exists in his play about military life, Chips with Everything, which joins those works previously mentioned as the fifth of Wesker’s best-known plays. All are highly detailed, humorous, and compassionate studies of life among the poor. All are drawn from his own personal and family life and are based on his strong convictions about the necessity for social change.{$I[AN]9810000757}{$I[A]Wesker, Arnold}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Wesker, Arnold}{$I[tim]1932;Wesker, Arnold}

Born in East London (Stepney) to Joseph, a tailor, and Leah Perlmutter Wesker, of Russian-Hungarian-Jewish extraction, Wesker held assorted jobs as carpenter, plumber, bookshop assistant, farmworker, and pastry cook. He spent two years in the Royal Air Force and enrolled in a course at the London School of Film Technique, entering The Kitchen in The Observer play competition in 1956, the year the stage revolution began. Although the play was rejected by theater managers at the time, like so many of his contemporaries whose plays were staged in provincial theaters and who maintained an association with a particular theater, Wesker found his home in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. As a moralist and social activist, he worked hard in Centre 42, an organization with the purpose of bettering life for the working classes, especially in regard to the importance of art in their lives. As a result of his political activism, he spent some time in prison for his part in a protest staged by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Kitchen has its roots in Wesker’s own experiences and in those of his mother, who supplemented the family income with restaurant kitchen jobs. The structure of the play takes on the order in which workers arrive at a restaurant in the course of a day, the rhythms of life in the kitchen increasing to a frenzied pitch with the lunch and dinner rushes.

Like The Kitchen, Wesker’s trilogy is drawn from his own experience, this time from his own family and community life in London’s East End. In all three plays, characters of the same family continue from one generation to the next. The first of the three plays to be staged, Chicken Soup with Barley, begins in the 1930’s in the context of the fascistic anticommunist marches that took place in the Jewish East End. Despite the domestic quarrels of the family of Harry and Sarah Kahn, larger issues and events unify them and their idealistic son and daughter, Ronnie and Ada. World War II, the Russian invasion of Hungary, Harry’s paralyzing stroke, Sarah’s desperate attempt to keep the family together–all these events affect the moral and political idealism of Ronnie. In the second play of the trilogy, Roots, the scene is Norfolk, where Beatie Bryant and her family are awaiting the arrival of her fiancé, Ronnie, who upsets the expectations of the family by his decision not to marry Beatie. She, in turn, has experienced her own self-discovery, in contrast with the narrow-mindedness of her family and neighbors. I’m Talking About Jerusalem continues the Kahn family chronicles, this time in Norfolk, where Ronnie is helping Ada and her husband Dave move into a new home. More disillusionment sets in as all three, along with an old friend who is visiting them, confront a variety of personal failures. Dave is involved in petty thievery; Ronnie talks about his failed relationship with Beatie; Harry is confined to a mental institution; and a voice on the radio announces the Conservative victory of 1959. The four friends in their current situation present a vivid contrast with their optimistic idealism in Chicken Soup with Barley, a play in which their vision of a humane society based on brotherhood had been so strong. Despite the anguish in all of them, their idealism, although diminished, remains in the form of their recognition of the small gains that have been realized.

Originally written as a novel, Chips with Everything is based on Wesker’s experience in the Royal Air Force. Written in Brechtian style, the play is drawn from Wesker’s own letters. Pip Thompson, the main character, although middle-class, is an idealist who insists on forgoing his middle-class prerogatives for a commissioned rank. His sympathies for the military underclass and his opposition to authority, on the other hand, are challenged by officers and by his own personal revulsion to the vulgarity of the very class he champions. Chips with Everything was hailed by New Critics such as Kenneth Tynan and rejected as proselytizing propaganda by critics who opposed Wesker’s left-wing view of the outdated English class system. Between the two extremes are those critics who see Wesker’s plays as compassionate, humane, and moral.

Wesker’s later plays are clearly distinguished from his early plays by the focus on personal relationships, bordering at times on the sentimental or fanciful. The Friends, for example, is concerned with a group of friends who react to the central character, Esther, who is dying of leukemia. All of Esther’s friends are in the interior decorating industry, and their aesthetic community is the integrating principle of the drama. A Chekhovian situation prevails as the idea of death is the catalyst that drives various characters into revealing their inner selves. The vision here is highly personalized, and the sharp focus of the early plays seems diffused. Lyrical in tone and poetic in imagery, the style of the later plays contrasts sharply with the realism and social criticism of the early dramas. Yet the strong affirmation of family, community, and social idealism remains the thematic hallmark throughout Wesker’s plays. Wesker has received several honors. In 1985 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature, and in 1989 he was made an honorary Litt.D. of the University of East Anglia.

BibliographyAlter, Iska. “‘Barbaric Laws, Barbaric Bonds’: Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant.” Modern Drama 31 (December, 1988): 536-547. Traces some of the intertextual ambiguities, especially concerning the insistent use of the law by Shylock. Wesker’s historical research is noted to shift the play from Romance to political realism.Brown, John Russell. Theatre Language: A Study of Arden, Osborne, Pinter, and Wesker. London: Allen Lane, 1972. Brown analyzes the language of Roots, The Kitchen, and Chips with Everything, dealing particularly with the way Wesker maintains theatricality by substituting talk for action in his drama.Dornan, Reade W. Arnold Wekser Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1994. An overview of the critical reception of Wekser’s major works, biographical chapters, and a useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Dornan, Reade W., ed. Arnold Wesker. New York: Garland, 1998. One of the Casebook series, it consists of eighteen essays on various aspects of Wesker’s plays by an international array of critics.Hayman, Ronald. Arnold Wesker. 3d ed. London: Heinemann, 1979. This volume in the Contemporary Playwrights series includes chapters on specific plays, two interviews with Wesker, and a clearly written, informative introduction to the earlier Wesker. Bibliography, biographical outline, and photographs.Leeming, Glenda. “Articulacy and Awareness: The Modulation of Familiar Themes in Wesker’s Plays of the Seventies.” In Contemporary English Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981. Leeming reviews the development of Wesker’s drama from The Old Ones through The Merchant. She sees particularly an interiorization of a number of themes. The protagonists’ awareness of their own suffering is located as the axis for the development.Leeming, Glenda, ed. Wesker the Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1983. This volume is probably the fullest account of Wesker’s work written up to the date of its publication. Contains a chapter on each of his plays, an appendix, a select bibliography, an index, and photographs.Leeming, Glenda, ed. Wesker on File. New York: Methuen, 1985. This invaluable small collection consists both of reviewers’ and Wesker’s own comments on his plays as well as on his work in general. Chronology and select bibliographies.Wilcher, Robert. Understanding Arnold Wesker. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An analysis of the plays and stories. Originally a series of lectures by the Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, England.
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