24 May 2012
Posted in Theatre
A birthday tribute from David Edgar, President of the Writers' Guild
(Photo of Arnold Wesker by Leon Kreel)
Today is the 80th birthday of one of the greatest playwrights of the last 60 years. For me, it's also the birthday of a friend, with whom I have broken bread, addressed conferences, traversed Eastern Europe and, on occasions, done all three. Along with all my colleagues at the Writers' Guild, I offer heartiest congratulations to Arnold Wesker.
Properly, this event has been marked by a Weskerfest. Along with a celebration of his work at the King's Head, revivals of three of his most enduring plays (The Kitchen at the National Theatre, Chicken Soup With Barley at the Royal Court and Roots at Theatre Clwyd) have reminded audiences how central Arnold's work was to the golden era of playwriting at the Royal Court in the late 1950s, and has remained to the British theatre which flowed from it. Arnold and his colleagues put the character of contemporary British society at the centre of the British stage, where it has remained ever since.
Arnold is keen to point out that his career has not been without difficulties. Two of the three plays about socialist idealism which form the Wesker trilogy (Chicken Soup With Barley and Roots) were premiered not at the Royal Court but in Coventry; his first hit, The Kitchen, started life at a Sunday performance without decor; his battle with the RSC over the acting company's refusal to present his play The Journalists in 1972 led to a bitter conflict from which his career as a London dramatist never fully recovered. His response to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, then called The Merchant and later retitled Shylock, closed early on Broadway following the death of its star Zero Mostel.
However, looked at from a wider perspective, Wesker has never gone away. The best-known, early plays (including his play about his period of national service, Chips With Everything) are frequently revived. Although unproduced in London, important plays like The Merchant and The Wedding Feast received major productions at the Birmingham Rep, where Wesker premiered his series of monologues Annie Wobbler. His play about a medieval anchoress, Caritas, was premiered at the National; an effective adaptation of Longditude went on at Greenwich. He has had an impressive international career, has written two fine memoirs, and has been a source of experience and wisdom to me and other writers who followed him.
The truth is that few playwrights manage to occupy the eye of the zeitgeist throughout their careers. The British theatre has not used Arnold's talent as well as it might, but his position at its heart is assured.
Sadly, what should have been a time of full-throated celebration for Arnold and his wife Dusty has been touched by tragedy: the sudden death of their daughter Tanya. His colleagues and friends in the Guild must send condolences as well as congratulations to him today.