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Wesker, Arnold


WESKER, ARNOLD (1932– ), English playwright. Born of immigrant Yiddish-speaking parents (the father was a tailor) in London's East End, Wesker held various jobs after he left school, including kitchen porter and pastry cook. These laid the foundations of his early plays, which have an autobiographical content. The Kitchen (1960), for example, is at once a literal representation of life behind the scenes in a restaurant and an allegory of the struggle, competition, and near-slavery of the social world. Wesker is best known for the trilogy of plays entitled Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I'm Talking about Jerusalem (1959–60). These constitute an ambitious attempt to probe the symptoms of a sick society. Chicken Soup with Barley deals with Jewish society in the East End of London during the 1930s and 1940s; it shows the idealistic socialism, which was the main barricade against Sir Oswald Mosley's fascist movement, giving way to an easy, postwar conformity. Roots represents these same decadent values subsisting in a country community. In I'm Talking About Jerusalem, Wesker shows a young couple endeavoring to establish an ideal community in the country in the immediate postwar period of 1946. These plays are written in realistic prose with a poetic undercurrent. Though partly inspired by the disillusionment of his time, Wesker also exhibits a visionary quality and a desire for reform and renewal.

In Chips with Everything (1962), apparently based upon Wesker's own period of national service in the Royal Air Force, the characters are shallow stereotypes, the officers tyrants and decadents, the men simple philistines or easily led slaves. In the 1960s a great deal of Wesker's energy went into forming and administering "Centre 42." This organization, named after a Trade Union Congress resolution supporting the arts, was intended to sponsor festivals and eventually to institute its own cultural program. Its cultural basis at the beginning rested solidly on Wesker's own plays, which took an unashamedly propagandist turn in Their Very Own and Golden City (1966). A late play is Denial (2000).

Six Sundays in January has some Jewish interest. The title is that of the first story in the volume and was published in the Jewish Quarterly in 1958 and in Modern Jewish Stories in 1963. Wesker's writings have been translated into 17 languages. With Harold *Pinter, he is probably the best-known contemporary Anglo-Jewish playwright. He has written an autobiography, As Much As I Dare (1994).


G. Leeming and S. Trussler, The Plays of Arnold Wesker: An Assessment (1972). add. bibliography: R.W. Dornan, Arnold Wesker Revisited (1995); idem. (ed.), Arnold Wesker: A Casebook (1998); G. Leeming, Arnold WeskerThe Playwright (1982); R. Wilcher, Understanding Arnold Wesker (1991).

[Philip D. Hobsbaum]

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