Arnold Wesker

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For the Batman villain Arnold Wesker, see Ventriloquist (comics).
Arnold Wesker
Arnold Wesker.jpg
Wesker at the Durham Book Festival in 2008
Born (1932-05-24) 24 May 1932 (age 83)
Stepney, London

Sir Arnold Wesker (born 24 May 1932)[1] is a British dramatist known for his contributions to world drama. He is the author of 50 plays, 4 volumes of short stories, 2 volumes of essays, a book on journalism, a children's book, extensive journalism, poetry and other assorted writings. His plays have been translated into 17 languages and performed worldwide.

Life and career[edit]

Wesker was born in Stepney, London, the son of Leah (née Perlmutter), a cook, and Joseph Wesker, a tailor's machinist.[2] He was delivered by the father of Oliver Sacks.[3] His early plays Roots, The Kitchen, and Their Very Own and Golden City were staged by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre under the management of George Devine and later William Gaskill.

His inspiration for The Kitchen came when he was working at the Bell Hotel in Norwich, which was later made into a film. It was while working here that he also met his future wife Dusty. Roots is also set in Norfolk. Wesker's plays have dealt with themes ranging from self-discovery, love, confronting death, political disillusion and much else. Wesker joined with enthusiasm the Royal Court group on the Aldermaston March in 1959. Another of the Royal Court contingent, Lindsay Anderson, made a short documentary film (March to Aldermaston) about the event.

He was an active member of the Committee of 100 and, with other prominent members, was jailed in 1961 for his part in its campaign of mass nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons.

He founded the Roundhouse's first theatre, called Centre 42, in 1964. He co-founded the Writers & Readers Publishing Cooperative Ltd with a group of writers that included John Berger, Lisa Appignanesi, Richard Appignanesi Chris Searle and Glenn Thompson, in 1974.[4]

Wesker's play The Merchant (which he later renamed Shylock) uses the same three stories used by Shakespeare for his play The Merchant of Venice. In this retelling, Shylock and Antonio are fast friends bound by a mutual love of books, culture and a disdain for the crass antisemitism of the Christian community's laws. They make the bond in defiant mockery of the Christian establishment, never anticipating that the bond might become forfeit. When it does, the play argues, Shylock must carry through on the letter of the law or jeopardize the scant legal security of the entire Jewish community. He is, therefore, quite as grateful as Antonio when Portia, as in Shakespeare's play, shows the legal way out. The play received its American premiere on 16 November 1977 at New York's Plymouth Theatre with Joseph Leon as Shylock, Marian Seldes as Shylock's sister Rivka and Roberta Maxwell as Portia. This production had a challenging history in previews on the road, culminating (after the first night out of town in Philadelphia on 8 September 1977) with the death of the exuberant Broadway star Zero Mostel, who was initially cast as Shylock. Wesker wrote a book, The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel, chronicling the entire process from initial submissions and rejections of the play through to rehearsals, Zero's death, and the disappointment of the critical reception for the Broadway opening. The book reveals much about the playwright's relationship to director John Dexter (who had been the earliest, near-familial interpreter of Wesker's works), to criticism, to casting, and to the ephemeral process of collaboration through which the text of any play must pass.[5]

In 2005, he published his first novel, Honey, which recounted the experiences of Beatie Bryant, the heroine of his earlier play Roots. The novel broke from the previously established chronology. Roots was set in the early 1960s and Beatie is 22, in Honey she has only aged 3 years yet the action has been transplanted into the 1980s. Other oddities are that the timeframe includes the Rushdie affair and John Major's fall as recent events and yet the action is concerned with the dotcom boom.

In 2008 Arnold Wesker published his first collection of poetry, All Things Tire of Themselves (Flambard Press). The collection dates back many years and represents what he considers his best and most characteristic poems. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Jewish Renaissance magazine.[6]

He is a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres[7]

He was knighted in the 2006 New Year's Honours list. He was the castaway on Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 17 December 2006.


  • The Kitchen, 1957
  • Chicken Soup with Barley, 1958
  • Roots, 1958
  • I'm talking about Jerusalem, 1958
  • Menace, 1961 (For Television)
  • Chips with Everything, 1962
  • The Nottingham Captain, 1962
  • Four Seasons, 1965
  • Their Very Own and Golden City, 1966
  • The Friends, 1970
  • The Old Ones, 1970
  • The Journalist, 1972
  • The Wedding Feast, 1974
  • Shylock, 1976
  • Love Letters on Blue Paper, 1976
  • Phoenix, 1980
  • Caritas, 1980
  • Words on the Wind, 1980
  • One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round, 1980
  • Breakfast, 1981
  • Sullied Hand, 1981
  • Four Portraits - Of Mothers, 1982
  • Annie Wobbler, 1982
  • Yardsale, 1983
  • Cinders, 1983
  • The Merchant, 1983
  • Say Goodbye: You May Never See Them Again, 1983 (with Josh Allin)
  • Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon?, 1986
  • When God Wanted a Son, 1986
  • Lady Othello, 1987
  • Little Old Lady & Shoeshine, 1987
  • Badenheim 1939, 1987
  • The Mistress, 1988
  • Beorhtel's Hill, 1988 (Community Play for Basildon)
  • Men Die Women Survive, 1990
  • Letter To A Daughter, 1990
  • Blood Libel, 1991
  • Wild Spring, 1992
  • Bluey, 1993
  • The Confession, 1993
  • Circles of Perception, 1996
  • Break, My Heart, 1997
  • Denial, 1997
  • The King's Daughters, 1998
  • Barabbas, 2000
  • The Kitchen Musical, 2000
  • Groupie, 2001
  • Longitude, 2002
  • Honey, 2005 (novel)
  • The Rocking Horse, 2007 (Commissioned by the BBC World Service)



External links[edit]