Arnold Wesker Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Arnold Wesker was born May 24, 1932, in Stepney, a working-class neighborhood of sweatshops and immigrants in London’s East End. His parents were Joseph Wesker, a Russian-Jewish tailor, and Leah Perlmutter Wesker, a Hungarian-Jewish communist who often had to work in kitchens to support the family. Chicken Soup with Barley draws on this background. Like other London children, Wesker was evacuated during periods of World War II, living with foster parents in various sections of England and Wales. Failing his eleven-plus examination, which was given to determine whether eleven-year-olds went on to an academic or vocational secondary school, he did some amateur acting.

He left school in 1948 and worked at assorted jobs—as a furniture maker’s apprentice, carpenter’s mate, and bookseller’s assistant. From 1950 to 1952, he was in the Royal Air Force, where he organized an enlisted men’s drama group and started writing. A series of letters, which he originally meant to turn into a novel, later provided material for Chips with Everything.

From 1952 to 1958, he worked at another string of jobs—bookseller’s assistant and plumber’s mate in London, farm laborer, seed sorter, and kitchen porter in Norfolk, then as a pastry cook in London and Paris. With his savings, he studied in 1956 at the London School of Film Technique. He had also continued writing, and in 1957 he showed his work to film director Lindsay Anderson,...

(The entire section is 596 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Arnold Wesker, one of the many English dramatists of the stage revolution that began with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956, made his reputation with a trio of plays about the working classes called The Wesker Trilogy, composed of Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. More to the point, his name became associated with the term “kitchen-sink drama,” owing to the realistic depiction of life in his play The Kitchen, concerning the routine of daily life in a restaurant kitchen. This same realism exists in his play about military life, Chips with Everything, which joins those works previously mentioned as the fifth of Wesker’s best-known plays. All are highly detailed, humorous, and compassionate studies of life among the poor. All are drawn from his own personal and family life and are based on his strong convictions about the necessity for social change.

Born in East London (Stepney) to Joseph, a tailor, and Leah Perlmutter Wesker, of Russian-Hungarian-Jewish extraction, Wesker held assorted jobs as carpenter, plumber, bookshop assistant, farmworker, and pastry cook. He spent two years in the Royal Air Force and enrolled in a course at the London School of Film Technique, entering The Kitchen in The Observer play competition in 1956, the year the stage revolution began. Although the play was rejected by theater managers at the time, like so many of his contemporaries whose plays were staged in provincial theaters and who maintained an association with a particular theater, Wesker found his home in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. As a moralist and social activist, he worked hard in Centre 42, an organization with the purpose of bettering life for the working classes, especially in regard to the importance of art in their lives. As a result of his political activism, he spent some time in prison for his part in a protest staged by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Kitchen has its roots in Wesker’s own experiences and in those of his mother, who supplemented the family income with restaurant kitchen jobs. The structure of the play takes on the order in which workers arrive at a restaurant in the course of a day, the rhythms of life in the kitchen increasing to a frenzied pitch with the lunch and dinner rushes.

Like The Kitchen, Wesker’s trilogy is drawn from his own experience, this time from his own family and community life in London’s East End. In all three...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)