Arnold Wesker’s greatest plays return again and again to one question: are they about hope or defeat and failure? “All his plays end in disappointment,” said Margaret Drabble, who first saw Roots as a student a Cambridge, but his characters “keep on trying”. At the end of Chicken Soup with Barley (1958) Ronnie Kahn turns on his mother Sarah and says, “The family you always wanted has disintegrated, and the great ideal you always cherished has exploded in front of your eyes.” However, it is Sarah who is given the last words: “Ronnie, if you don’t care you’ll die.”
At the climax of Roots (1959), Beatie Bryant’s family have been waiting for her boyfriend, the same Ronnie Kahn, to arrive. He doesn’t come and they turn on her, her head filled “wi’ high-class squit” and pretentious ideas about art and learning. “I got no roots in nothing,” she responds. “I come from a family of farm labourers yet I ent got no roots — just like town people — just a mass o’ nothin’.” But then she finds her own voice and ends, “I’m beginning, on my own two feet — I’m beginning . . .”
The third work of the Wesker trilogy, I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960), is about the attempt by Ronnie’s sister Ada and her husband Dave to make a new life for themselves in the country. It comes to nothing. Dave reflects, “Here I’ve been, comrade citizen, presenting my offerings, and the world’s rejected them.” Already, at the very beginning of his career, Wesker was asking the question that haunted him for more than 50 years. As he presented his “offerings” had the world “rejected them”? After his death in April, what do we make of his legacy? Was his career essentially a story of success or failure?
But we shouldn’t personalise this. What is missing here are the larger cultural questions which Wesker’s career raises, questions about class, politics and Jewishness in British postwar culture that have generally gone unasked in all the tributes and obituaries. The highpoint of Wesker’s career, the five years between writing The Kitchen (1957) and the production of Chips with Everything (1962), were not just the story of one playwright finding his voice, but of a whole new generation of writers: the so-called “Angry Young Men”, on the Left, debating the issues raised in 1956 by Hungary and Suez, the collapse of faith in Soviet Communism, the end of Empire, the decline of Britain as a great power.
Like Wesker, many of these writers were from working-class backgrounds and were on the Left, emerging after almost a decade of political failure by Labour. They produced new drama, but above all new kinds of voices: working-class characters like Wesker’s kitchen workers, poor East Enders like the Kahns, agricultural labourers like the Bryants, and conscripts doing their military service. And many of these writers and characters, like Wesker, were from the Jewish East End.
Wesker’s heyday was brief but, crucially, so was the cultural moment of the late 1950s and early ’60s. The New Left emerged in the late 1950s: the debates about Hungary and Soviet Communism after 1956 when so many left the Communist Party; the formation of CND and the first march to Aldermaston in 1958; books like Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961), and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963); new journals like The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review, both founded in 1957, which merged to form The New Left Review in 1960. This explosion was well summarised by Perry Anderson in his essay “The Left in the Fifties” in 1965: “The New Left was created in 1956, by the twin crises of Suez and Hungary. It grew rapidly from 1957 onwards, with the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament itself. Its peak was reached in the electric climate of 1960, when the attempt to delete Clause Four was defeated, and unilateralism was victorious at the Scarborough Conference. Thereafter, its strength declined . . .”
Wesker later wrote that his breakthrough play, Chicken Soup with Barley, “was about the decline of idealism, about disillusionment”. Ronnie Kahn represented a young generation sceptical about his parents’ Communism. Like Wesker himself, Ronnie had grown up in a Communist home. “I had quarrelled with my mother over politics,” Wesker wrote later in his autobiography, “raging at her continuing adherence to Communism. We quarrelled constantly.” Produced less than two years after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Chicken Soup with Barley spoke to a generation disillusioned with Communism. The years between the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and 1956, when the play ends, “suggested an arc,” wrote Wesker, “beneath which the disintegration of a family could be poetically charted against the background of disintegrating ideology.” They told the story of the decline of an ideology which looked back to the heroic days of the Spanish Civil War and Cable Street but which seemed discredited after the uprisings in East Europe in the mid-1950s.
At the same time Wesker played a key role in a revolution in British theatre, what the critic Harold Hobson called “The Great Uprising”. In a recent tribute to Wesker, his fellow East Ender and playwright Bernard Kops wrote: “Before, theatre had been a very upper middle-class adventure. There was suddenly this emergence of new playwrights from the working class.” Recalling those days, Kops told me: “It was all so nice and middle class. The usherette would bring you some tea at the interval. A tray with tea, with all the works and china cups and cake. It was a cakey sort of time.” Wesker, Kops and Pinter grew up in East London; John Osborne’s father was a commercial artist and advertising copywriter, his mother a Cockney barmaid; Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) was the daughter of a bus inspector from Salford.
In his book Anger and After (1962), John Russell Taylor summarised this new generation of playwrights: “Arnold Wesker is the son of a Jewish tailor in the East End, and Harold Pinter, too, comes from an East End Jewish family; Shelagh Delaney . . . comes from Salford and did not even manage to scrape into the local grammar school; Alun Owen is Liverpool-Welsh . . . he and several others, John Osborne, Clive Exton, and Harold Pinter among them, have worked their way up from the ranks, as it were, after periods spent with varying degrees of success as humble repertory actors.” This was a world away from the drawing-room drama of Somerset Maugham, Rattigan and Coward, all born before the First World War. In just a few years British theatre moved from the drawing room to the kitchen (a crucial room in every early Wesker play).
The late 1950s didn’t just see the emergence of a new generation of working-class playwrights. It saw new theatres and critics, keen to champion the new wave. Each play of Wesker’s trilogy was produced at the brand-new Belgrade Theatre in Coventry (which had opened in 1958). They then transferred to the Royal Court, home of the new English Stage Company (based at the Royal Court since 1956), which is where John Osborne’s breakthrough plays were first put on. Wesker saw Look Back in Anger in a touring Royal Court production before he had written a single play. It was the Court which still championed Wesker late in his career: Stephen Daldry revived The Kitchen in 1994 and Dominic Cooke directed Chicken Soup with Barley there in 2011.
New critics like Kenneth Tynan at the Observer, Harold Hobson at the Sunday Times and Bernard Levin championed Wesker and the new generation of playwrights. Levin was barely 30 when he wrote a rave review of Roots in the Daily Express: “I have seen this great shining play three times, and it seems to have grown visibly in stature each time. Beatie Bryant’s betrayal by her Ronnie is still poignant beyond the reach of anything but the very greatest poetry, and her final triumphant budding is still the most heart-lifting single moment I have seen upon a stage.” Tynan was in his early thirties when he praised Chips with Everything. Hobson, the oldest of the three, called it “the left-wing drama’s first real breakthrough, the first anti-establishment play of which the establishment has cause to be afraid. This is something to be discussed and re-discussed, admired, feared.”
Young critics and young audiences warmed to Wesker’s preoccupation with generational conflict and the voice of the young, Beatie Bryant and Ronnie Kahn, as much as Jimmy Porter in Look Back with Anger. When Ronnie turns on his mother, Sarah Kahn, and when Beatie rebels against her family and finds her own voice at the end of Roots, they were speaking for a new generation, rather young than angry. Looking back, 60 years later, Kops told me: “Things were changing and we felt part of that rolling wave of change. The posh people who once ruled — this was all ending.”
Wesker was part of a new generation of Anglo-Jewish writers and playwrights, also finding their voice. This was unprecedented in British culture. It included playwrights like Kops, Pinter and Steven Berkoff, novelists like Bernice Rubens, Brian Glanville, Frederic Raphael and Alec Baron, and poets like Dannie Abse, Jon Silkin and Ruth Fainlight. Wesker’s first play, The Kitchen, was written in the same year as The Birthday Party. Roots appeared in the same year as Kops’s The Hamlet of Stepney Green and a year before The Caretaker.
Wesker’s huge impact in the late Fifties and early Sixties was not simply a personal achievement. He was part of a generational shift in the culture.
So what happened from the early Sixties, both to Wesker and to this new wave? The New Left continued through the Sixties and Seventies and a new generation of left-wing playwrights emerged, including Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton, David Edgar and David Hare. However, Wesker’s politics seemed outdated and in many respects he was never really a political playwright compared with this younger generation. His best work was intensely autobiographical. Like the characters in The Kitchen, he had worked in a kitchen as a young man. The Wesker trilogy was really the story of Wesker and his family: he was Ronnie Kahn, battling with his passionately Communist mother, drawn into a farming family in Norfolk (based on his wife’s family) and observing his older sister’s idealism as she and her husband moved to the country to find a new life. Chips with Everything was based on his experience of National Service. In his early work, his experience resonated with the times. His later work didn’t. He had nothing to say about the Sixties counter-culture or Thatcherism.
One of Wesker’s great subjects was class, not because he was on the Left but because that was the world he grew up in. His characters included kitchen workers, farm labourers, working-class Jews from the East End. These were people he knew. It is no coincidence that so many of the great writers of the 1950s — Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky and Saul Bellow in America, Wesker and Pinter in Britain — all gave voice to the poor: Miller’s salesmen and dockers, Pinter’s tramps and lonely lodgers, Chayefsky’s Marty, the lonely butcher. Within a few years these working-class characters were no longer fashionable, except in TV dramas. Instead, the great characters of late-20th-century British theatre were academic philosophers (Jumpers), upper-class men of letters (No Man’s Land), Bennett’s spies educated at public school and Cambridge (Single Spies) and Hare’s murmuring judges. Wesker’s labourers and East Enders were out of fashion as surely as Sillitoe’s cross-country runner and factory workers or Keith Waterhouse’s northern Billy Liar, or in art, Eva Frankfurther’s immigrant waitresses, Lowry’s northern factory workers or Joan Eardley’s working-class children from the tenements of Glasgow. That moment in Fifties theatre, cinema and art had gone.
The heyday of Anglo-Jewish writing receded just as quickly. Writers like Alec Baron, Gerda Charles, Wolf Mankowitz and Bernard Kops are little known today. Brian Glanville is best known as a football writer, not as a novelist. Apart from Frederic Raphael, only Howard Jacobson and the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had major careers in the late 20th century. The two great exceptions in British theatre were Pinter and Stoppard, Jewish by birth but not Jewish writers in their themes or rhythms. Unlike Wesker, they were “Jewish Lite”, in Steven Berkoff’s memorable phrase.
Again, it was partly a matter of class. Many of the best Jewish writers of the 1950s had grown up, like Wesker, in poor neighbourhoods like the East End and that gave a tension, an energy, to their writing, between immigrant, working-class, often Yiddish-speaking parents and their children, moving away. That was a world in flux as the old immigrant, Yiddish East End passed away and Jewish families moved out to Essex and the suburbs. The Fifties saw the heyday of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal in Stratford. They too never reached those heights again.
There was another factor which proved difficult for the careers of so many Anglo-Jewish writers like Wesker. Britain never had the same number of Jewish literary editors and critics as America, figures comparable to Irving Howe or Lionel Trilling, or Adam Kirsch today — with the notable exception of John Gross, another East End boy, who went on to edit the Times Literary Supplement — or magazines with the reputation of Partisan Review and Commentary. It never had the sheer number of Jewish readers that would buy books by Bellow and Roth in such huge numbers.
But how Jewish was Wesker? He came from an intensely Jewish background in the East End, the son of immigrants, but only one of his best-known plays, Chicken Soup with Barley, was as Jewish as the great works of his Jewish-American contemporaries, Bellow’s Herzog with its Yiddishisms or Roth brooding over Israel, the Holocaust and Anne Frank.
Wesker did not belong to movements or groups, whether of the Left or Jewish. This takes us to a central point about his career. Towards the end of his passionate autobiography As Much as I Dare (1994) he quotes an angry letter he wrote in 1959 to the New Statesman in response to T.C. Worsley’s review of the transfer of A Taste of Honey to the West End. “Here we are,” he writes about the young playwrights of the late Fifties, “having just started, most of us with only one play performed, we are just getting into our stride and beginning to learn about it all, and now some ‘fashion-conscious’ young smoothy comes along and declares with a bored yawn that ‘We’ve really had enough darling!’”
There’s plenty more of this, some of it addressed angrily to leading figures in British theatre like George Devine and Tony Richardson.
It is pure Wesker. He was a difficult man. His memoir is full of run-ins, angry exchanges, feuds, bitterness and animosity. He was nearly expelled from school, had trouble during his National Service, had nasty fall-outs with Kingsley Amis, John Dexter, George Devine at the Royal Court (“Dear Arnold, forget it! Yours, George”), Pinter and Richard Eyre, when the latter was Director of the National Theatre. He describes writing to Pinter and asking, “What am I doing wrong?” Pinter didn’t respond.
These were not insignificant enemies. “I am an angry old man,” he wrote. “I feel like a leper, conscious of a furtive, embarrassed moving away, a shunning.” This is a recurring theme in the book. He didn’t seem to understand how much he offended people, often big players in the theatrical world, and that this might have consequences.
It has often been said that Wesker never reached the heights of his early work. That is not entirely true. There were acclaimed revivals of his best plays at the Royal Court and at the National Theatre, and he wrote an outstanding TV drama, Love Letters on Blue Paper (1976). Had Zero Mostel lived to play Shylock in his play The Merchant in the 1970s and not died after one performance, perhaps that might have kick-started Wesker’s career on Broadway. “The play,” he wrote 20 years later, “was going to be a crowning glory for all three of us — Zero, [John] Dexter and myself.”
However, his heyday was brief. But that is also true of the New Left, the Angry Young Men and the golden age of Anglo-Jewish writing. Which of these names — apart from Pinter, of course — endured through the following decades? Wesker was not the only one to fall out of the limelight (although he was knighted in 2006). He was astonishingly prolific, continuing to pour out plays, around 50 in over half a century. But they gradually lost their appeal despite acclaimed revivals. This wasn’t a personal matter, although for decades he took it very personally indeed. It was a larger cultural change. That extraordinary moment was over in a few years. Arnold Wesker’s career looks very different when we see it in context.