Arnold Wesker, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83, was only four years old when the Battle of Cable Street took place. In this clash (which members of Wesker’s own family participated in) London’s largely Jewish and working-class East End community stood up against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts as they attempted to parade through the city.
Whilst most of those who protested were left-leaning, party politics was not the key issue: these were people standing up for their families and their communities, which were under threat. In many ways, then, this event prefigured the major themes of Wesker’s work as a dramatist. First and foremost he was a defender of ordinary people – their communities, their convictions and their beliefs. If there was a political subtext it was a by-product of this, and it was less partisan than is often assumed.
Wesker claims he first knew he wanted to be a writer at the age of 12. Realising he needed a vocation first, he set out to become an actor – but after getting into RADA twice, and both times failing to get a grant from the London County Council to fund his way through the course, he was forced to abandon this dream. Instead he became a furniture maker’s apprentice, and soon after a kitchen porter in Norwich.
Growing up in the Stepney and working as a kitchen porter were to form the subject matters of his first few plays: Roots, Chicken Soup with Barley, and The Kitchen. In 1957 he was to show the latter two to the film and theatre director Lindsay Anderson, after meeting him on a film course he had enrolled on. Anderson was so impressed that he took them straight to his friend, George Devine, artistic director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court.
In many ways, Wesker benefited from the changing tide of the post-war era. John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger changed the face of British theatre: as Kenneth Tynan wrote in his famous review, this was a play about the ‘intelligentisia who live in bed-sitters’. Its ‘drift towards anarchy’ and ‘instinctive leftishness’ signalled a new direction in playwrighting that reflected the seismic social shifts of the post-war era. Soon to follow were Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, set in working-class Salford, and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, set in a run down boarding house on the south coast – both premiering in 1958. Closely connected to this development was the emergence of the Angry Young Men: writers like Osborne, Kingsley Amis and Alan Stillitoe.
And yet whilst Wesker may have benefited from the appetite for so-called kitchen sink drama, he also broke the mould. He routinely refused to be identified as a working-class author, and rejected the claim that he was motivated by anger – instead insisting that he was an optimist.
Other attempts to pigeonhole him as a didactic playwright seem similarly misguided. A recurring theme in his obituaries is that he was a socialist whose political convictions were the driving force behind his work. Yet the plays themselves offer a much more nuanced picture.
There is a telling anecdote, revealing something about Wesker’s identity as a playwright. In 1975 actors at the RSC refused to perform his play The Journalists: a situation that threatened to destroy Wesker’s career, and from which it took him some time to recover. Little explanation was offered at the time, but Wesker was adamant that it was because it contained four intelligent and sympathetically portrayed Tory cabinet ministers – challenging Trotskyist dogmas at the RSC at the time.
Wesker was troubled by the left’s tendency to demonise the right and to make things easy for itself. As a dramatist, he felt it his duty to explore every point of view, and not to demonise. And so he could not possibly be merely a working class writer, or merely an angry writer. Neither could he be didactic. As a playwright, his first duty was to complicate; his second, to understand.
Wesker’s famous trilogy is typical of this natural bent in his writing. The first play in the sequence, Chicken Soup with Barley, tells the story of the Kahn family: in particular Harry and Sarah, who both fought in the Battle of Cable Street, but who struggle to maintain their communist convictions as the world stage is dominated by manifestations of left-wing authoritarianism.
In its sequel, Roots – we follow the girlfriend of Harry and Sarah’s son, Ronnie. Beatie Bryant returns from three years living and working in London to visit her family in Norfolk. She’s received an education in socialism from Ronnie – and spends the first half of the play trying to convince her family to see the light. They’re sceptical, and as Beatie receives a letter from Ronnie telling her he doesn’t want to see her anymore – their doubtfulness is vindicated. The egoism that underwrites Ronnie’s idealism is exposed.
In the final play in the sequel, I’m Talking About Jerusalem, Ronnie’s sister Ada and her husband Dave try to eke out an existence away from the pressures of capitalist society. The play tells the tale of their struggle living a remote, rural existence: the impossibility of escaping privation, and the relationship tensions that arise from their idealism.
Throughout this trilogy, Wesker constantly challenges and overturns expectations about his characters: not in a way that feels calculated to deceive us, but in a manner designed to reveal the complexities of their attempts to negotiate belief alongside the pressures of everyday life. In this sense these plays are about the intersection between the private and the political: how our convictions are challenged by our personal attachments, needs and reservations.
As such, the trilogy is deeply politically ambivalent: there’s an acceptance of the political realities that challenge idealism; there’s an acknowledgment of the potentially corrosive qualities that often underlie conviction; and there’s a questioning of the naive hope that comes with a longing for change.
Closely connected to this, a defining characteristic of these plays is their fidelity to the subjects portrayed. Wesker always wrote about what he knew, and it shows: each character’s perspective and belief counts.
Wesker wrote 50 plays in total. A noticeable feature of the rest of his writing is that it exhibits an interest in representing different lines of work: The Kitchen (examining the lives of kitchen staff); The Journalists; and Chips with Everything (which follows a group of Royal air force recruits). This kind of thing is quite common today – but it has often been argued that The Kitchen was the first British play to popularise dramatisations of work. His plays are also unusual for putting working-class women centre stage.
Perhaps the thing that makes Wesker’s writing most unique, however, is that they are both politically-minded and full of warmth.
For a genre that is so often po-faced, this is sadly atypical. And for us today – living in times of austerity and division – it feels like there’s more need than ever for plays that address pressing subjects in a way that doesn’t alienate by seeming judgmental, preachy and partisan, but that instead embraces an interrogative spirit, depicting the full range of perspectives as sympathetically as possible.
Wesker enjoyed a few big revivals towards the end of his life at the National and the Royal Court, both in 2011 – attesting to his newfound relevance. Here’s hoping that the spirit of his work can be continued for many years to come.