BBC Radio 3, 20 May 2012
In this Radio 3 Sunday Feature, presented by Matthew Sweet,
Arnold Wesker talked about his life and colourful writing career.
Born in the East End in 1932, Wesker grew up in a politically charged world: although
not a member of the Communist Party himself, he understood how politics influenced ordinary people's lives. This was the principal
theme of Chicken Soup with Barley, first produced in the mid-1950s at the time of the Suez Crisis and the Soviet
invasion of Hungary. Despite coming to prominence with this play, as well as the other two in the Wesker trilogy
- Roots and The Kitchen - Wesker always considered himself something of an outsider in the British
theatrical world. Perhaps this was due to his lack of a university education, or perhaps it was due to his political stance,
which perhaps was not as radical as many of his contemporaries.
This was especially evident in the early 1970s, when Wesker was due to have the play
The Journalists performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but had it withdrawn on account of the actors,
who wrote protest letters claiming that the play was not worth staging. In truth their objections were more political
than artistic: at the time many of the company members were staunchly left wing, and objected to the play's sympathetic
portrayal of Conservative cabinet ministers. Presenter Sweet had obtained access to the RSC's file of the
affair, which was supposed to be sealed until 2040; the material contained inside revealed the actors' prejudices towards
Throughout his career Wesker has always been on the margins; perhaps this is
due to his politics, or perhaps he has just been overlooked by the theatrical establishment. He opened The Merchant
(later renamed Shylock) on Broadway, but the production lasted only ten performances following the death of its original
star Zero Mostel. Danny Kaye apparently offered to step into the role, but Wesker and director John Dexter rejected the idea.
However Wesker's reputation remains high in other countries, particularly Japan.
Recently Wesker has undergone something of a renaissance: as well as the
Royal Court production of Chicken Soup with Barley, the Royal National Theatre have staged The Kitchen,
while his other plays have been revived all over Britain. Wesker himself welcomed this attention: better late
than never, perhaps.