Arnold Wesker Wesker, Arnold (Vol. 3) - Essay

Wesker, Arnold (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wesker, Arnold 1932–

Wesker is an important British playwright and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

If I call Mr. Wesker journalistic, it is not in the sense that I find him an accurate reporter of the contemporary scene. I know little of Jewish households in East London and less of rural life in Norfolk and I have never worked in a restaurant kitchen. With the R.A.F. setting of Chips With Everything I am on firmer ground. In many ways—the miming, the rituals, the telescoping of action—this is a deliberately unrealistic play. I recognize, too, that the curious patois spoken by the officers, however much it weakens any possible claim to serious representational interest, may serve the purpose of indicating how remote and fantastic, or how nightmarish, these Establishment figures are when properly seen into…. [The] air of being hastily translated from some other tongue is endemic to Mr. Wesker's dialogue….

'Bookish', however paradoxical it may seem, is indeed the word for much of Mr. Wesker's dialogue. Among the books he clearly does not know, however, is Cold Comfort Farm, still required reading for anyone who ventures to portray rusticity…. Cries from the heart we doubt ever got cried (we hope they didn't, anyway) stud these pages. They foster the notion that Mr. Wesker's eye and ear for experience are dulled. He cannot even run up a convincing pop lyric; his attempt in Roots fatally resembles the folk songs his characters are perpetually singing to one another. His Jewish families constantly fall into the accents of a TV comedy series—less funny than most; his removal men in I'm Talking About Jerusalem are like Hancock bit-players—only less funny. In particular, the corporal in Chips With Everything is far less funny than many real individuals of the type presumably aimed at—the surly, eccentric, egotistical long-service N.C.O. And we are far now from lamenting a detachable stylistic shortcoming. Mr. Wesker denigrates by his practice the interestingness and intelligence of the life he purports to know and care about.

Kingsley Amis, "Not Talking About Jerusalem" (1962), in his What Became of Jane Austen?, and Other Questions (excerpted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.; © 1970 by Kingsley Amis), Harcourt, 1970, pp. 93-8.

In 1960 Arnold Wesker completed 'the Wesker trilogy'—Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959), I'm Talking about Jerusalem (1960). In these plays there is nothing of the inconsequence of the theatre of the absurd, nor of the personalized misfit mentality of Osborne. While he is entirely committed to the view that the people of his own working class are deprived of the good things of life by various kinds of exploitation, Wesker sees their own shortcomings and is not misled into class-conscious romanticism…. Of the many playwrights of the 1950s it is Wesker more than any other who seemed by the end of the decade to be still in process of development.

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen & Co. Ltd.-University Paperbacks, 1964, p. 141.

In his desperate attempt to produce a working-class literature that would imitate the real life of ordinary people, Wesker has paradoxically been able to produce only a caricature of real life based on all the century-old literary stock situations. He has achieved precisely the opposite of what he wished to achieve. His drama is no more representative of the real life of the working classes than Mr. Crummles's was. Crummles and his type of company puffed out pipe dreams for the working classes so that they could temporarily forget the misery of their reality. Wesker puffs out pipe dreams for our contemporary, unctuously self-conscious "socially aware" intellectuals, who like to see visions of a working class that is both hairy-chested and introspective.

George Wellwarth, "Arnold Wesker: 'Awake and Sing' in Whitechapel," in his The Theatre of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 234-43.

[Arnold] Wesker is the most socially-minded of all the new English dramatists; while Harold Pinter has captured the imagination of the nonsocial critics, Wesker is more warmly debated and discussed in England than any other contemporary British dramatist. (p. 27)

[Wesker] is no clown; he cannot be dispensed with;… he has established himself as a personality on the English scene. He is not merely a young man who writes plays for the edification of whatever public is willing to enter a theater to see his work. To him, the Word has special meaning and power. The theater is a battlefield. His people are, to him, not made-up characters, pallid inventions: they represent individuals, even when they have the weaknesses and the strengths of their class. Wesker believes he has significant things to say. (p. 106)

As a Jewish writer, Wesker is something of a puzzle, for, while he has elected to depict Jewish characters on the stage, his Jews do not have depth as Jews, although Wesker himself is bothered by Jewish traits and attitudes. Here, too, he resembles many of the younger American-Jewish novelists, short story writers, and poets. Karl Shapiro, Philip Roth, Harvey Swados, Herbert Gold, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Norman Fruchter are notable Jewish writers who, like Wesker, are attracted to Jews and yet depict them as alienated, strange, neurotic people. Wesker, who comes from a different society, has chosen to make his Jews politically conscious rebels; yet his Jews are different from those drawn by English novelists like Frederic Raphael and Gerda Charles. (p. 108)

Harold U. Ribalow, in his Arnold Wesker (copyright 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc. and reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, Inc.), Twayne, 1965.

Every writer has his favorite stage set: some hotel lobby or colliery or back room which forms the perfect setting to his act: sometimes, sometimes not, a replica of the place where he saw his first vision.

For Arnold Wesker, this shrine will always be a restaurant-kitchen. Even when, for variety's sake, Wesker writes about something else, it usually manages to sound a lot like a kitchen. His plays have titles like Roots and Chips with Everything—foodsome, kitcheny titles. He is a master at conveying steamy desperation, the cramp and twitch of work in hot places. The rooms have a way of being a little too warm and crowded in a Wesker play. His characters flare up and subside like gas jets. The orders come pouring in from the faceless carnivores outside. All the world's a kitchen, where the poor work in squalor and ugliness to feed the faces of the rich….

Yet to be engaged in a common enterprise, even a debased one, is a step toward fraternity: and between meals the kitchen people grope toward the Wesker ideal: "friendship." It is central to Wesker's thesis that the working class has some memory of purity that is kept in severe check by the demands of middle-class culture; but whereas in Chips he sentimentalized this thesis outrageously, [in The Kitchen] he understates it almost out of existence.

Wilfrid Sheed, "The Kitchen" (1966), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; copyright © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword copyright © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 135-.

Any theatregoer with half an eye can pick holes in Arnold Wesker's plays, and many do; but he seems to me still comfortably on the right side of that line which, to put it no more strongly separates good bad plays from bad bad plays, even though it is many years since he has written what could be roundly described as a good play. His latest, The Old Ones … has like its predecessor The Friends been given a pretty rough reception, in tones varying from weary contempt to stertorous irritation—and despite all its shortcomings, its loose ends, its repeated losses of dramatic focus I can't really see why this should have been so…. Mr. Wesker has written scenes of a humanity and understanding I should [think] any playgoer would be grateful for.

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Winter, 1972, pp. 14-15.

"The Old Ones," Arnold Wesker's latest effort is an affectionate, often bitter, but ultimately ingratiating assemblage of vignettes, which he bills as a comedy and [which] almost becomes a play. It's virtually plotless, but despite this and other minor faults involving loose ends and untidy construction, it's an endearing work which deserves to be seen….

Although Wesker provides almost no plot, and at times his characters tend to declaim, rather than act out, their themes self-consciously, his play is nevertheless oft-moving, almost always appealing.

Variety, August 23, 1972.

'The Old Ones' is Wesker's ninth full-length play…. While it would be wrong to say that 'The Old Ones' is a kind of postscript to his famous Trilogy ['Chicken Soup with Barley,' 'Roots,' and 'I'm Talking About Jerusalem']—unless each new work a writer produces is considered a postscript to the one which preceded it—this new play is an extension of the family situation we have encountered in his earlier plays: the same close-knit Jewish family of second and third generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, with their quarrels and questioning, their ambitions and dreams and shattered hopes. Wesker remained true to his origin, his background, to himself.

At 40, he seems to be obsessed with Old Age, and 'The Old Ones' is essentially about ageing, about lives unfulfilled….

Wesker's achievement is that his characters are accepted, not as some eccentrics arousing one's curiosity, but as real people—unusual perhaps, but real nevertheless. That they are Jewish is taken for granted as is the fact that Wesker himself, is so unmistakably Jewish. If 'Jewish' in his sense means caring for one's fellow men, so be it! If it means accepting evil, hatred, and ignorance as facts of life, it is only one side of it; the other is goodness and happiness. 'The Old Ones', after all, can teach the young, and the young can learn from them, if only they would listen….

Some critics may find faults in the play's construction, others may consider it too sentimental and vague. One critic at least considered the play of sufficient importance to return to it a second time, having reviewed it after the first showing, to discern a new trend in this kind of dramatic presentation. In his new play Wesker, retains his fine sense of dialogue, his compassion, his social involvement, adding to it a newly acquired insight into Jewishness no longer limited to locality, which was absent from his earlier plays.

Jacob Sonntag, "The World of Arnold Wesker," in The Jewish Quarterly, Autumn, 1972, pp. 37-8.

Despite early success, Wesker has always gone against the prevailing current, and in the past few years, the current has seemed to buffet him mercilessly. The decisive crunch probably came in 1970, when he directed The Friends, his richest play to date….

[The] play, in a rather tentative performance, drew some of the most vitriolic notices penned by London critics….

Wesker withdrew, to emerge in the spring of 1971 with Casual Condemnations, a closely-argued dissection of the criteria, or lack of them, behind the onslaught on The Friends, and on the legend which he felt the media had attached to him to make their demolition task easier. Most playwrights would have dodged the temptation to reply to critics, taking their punishment on the chin, as it were. But Wesker rebelled against what he saw as 'the intolerable implication of silence: namely, that the artist is to be the obedient puppy who should be grateful for pats and dumbly accept kicks, depending on the master's mood, the one being the price of the other and both being part of the hazards of the game.' In the conclusion of his article, something approaching the howl of pain of a cornered man can be heard: 'All such defences (of one's work) involve apparent indignity but the alternative of silence is not in my nature and I hope sufficient charity exists, still, to permit me a loyalty to that.' It is the bitterness of a man convinced that no matter what action he takes, it will be interpreted as a corroboration of a false legend about himself.

1972, Wesker's fortieth year to heaven, looked like an annus mirablilis on paper. Surfacing from his post-Friends stalemate, he had completed The Old Ones and The Journalists, two plays which, he believed, would confirm his stature as a playwright at forty….

Since then, he's completed another play The Wedding Feast, prompted by a Dostoevsky short story; directed a favourably-received production of The Old Ones in Munich; and written a set of short stories. And this is the halfway house Wesker's reached: as if beached, becalmed, stranded, with a shrinking native horizon and the surrounding current apparently going in a different direction from the way it used to go. The recent stories, shortly to be published, like his earlier story of the pang and poignancy of English Sundays, Six Sundays in January, give clues to his state of mind. One is called The Man Who Became Afraid, two others deal with dying people. It's as if the underside of the ameliorative crusading of which he is so often accused were a sharp apprehension of ageing, of the shrinking span of life, very different from the stereotype of banner-bearing Weskerisms. In his stories this realisation seems currently uppermost in his consciousness, yet awareness of the precariousness of life, once the barrier of novelty and innocence has been passed, is evident in his plays, as far back as Their Very Own and Golden City (produced 1966), in which Andy Cobham, told by his wife that being thirty isn't an old man, replies 'It's a bad age, thirty. At twenty-nine you're still a young man; at thirty, well, it's a halfway point between there and never'. And in The Friends, Manfred speaks even more decisive goodbyes: 'I'll reach out to recapture or remember—but the first ecstasy of all things? Never again. So, it's important I must know. What do I really love? What do I dare to say I despise?'…

Wesker as a man and a writer provisionally out of tune with the current climate of British theatre may well be obsessed with thoughts of diminution and dying; but the combative sting in the tail of Manfred's speech, and the accumulative patterning of his latest plays show that in his work he is, to adapt Stevie Smith's phrase, not drowning but waving. The quality of that waving deserves more attention than it has so far received, burdened by a mythology of Wesker-the-soapbox-orator, Wesker-the-naïve-crusader. A few emendations, under four headings: Technique, Time, Philosophy, Messianism.

Technique: Technique is, of course, inseparable from content; and the standing criticism against Wesker's content is that it is too naïvely uplifting, too simply affirmative. Yet an examination of most of the passages in his work criticised as 'embarrassing' shows that there's a continual awareness of the dangers of elated affirmation….

Indeed technically, his plays from The Friends onwards have gradually perfected a constructional principle which is also a philosophical attitude. They're constructed like mobiles, like music, like collages. Breathe on an Alexander Calder mobile and the pieces fluctuate in response to each other, shift at each other's behest, alter but still cohere. Such is the construction of The Friends, a series of interlacing pursuits which sometimes collide abruptly, yet shake down into a new, if uncomfortable, order. The action of this play, and of The Old Ones, also resembles polyphonic music, where alien themes cross over each other, yet, like a shaken kaleidoscope, settle into a recognisable order, incorporating even the most refractory elements. It's a method which is very demanding in terms of stagecraft, the mechanics of acting and production, for it seems to deny the brute materiality of the stage. Like a collage, it can transmute material which is banal, irredeemably everyday—The Journalists chiefly consists of tiny documentary fragments of newspaper office life almost papering over a minimal plot. To make this dramaturgical method succeed demands courage and confidence that flat, disparate things can be yoked together into something more than themselves—which perhaps explains the hesitancy of theatre people about The Journalists.

Time: Time is one of the most potent devices of dramatic poetry, and for Wesker it has always been something which he moulds with great subtlety, binding even the most instant, here-and-now events or realisations into an unfolding continuum of experience….

From the outset, Wesker's had a sense of the almost aimless unfolding of everyday time, the non-momentous moments of inactivity, vacancy, rest or pleasure—a break in work, preparing food, laying a table. The weight of this unemphatic duration both adds to and cools down the more clearly argumentative climaxes of his plays—you feel that, however much the dramatic temperature rises, ordinary life and time will take over after the high-spot.

Like his polyphonic construction, Wesker's time-sense springs from an attitude to experience. He refuses to sever a dramatic action from the wear and tear of 'nontheatrical' life. He will not overheat a situation for effect….

Philosophy: 'To avoid building up those little heavyweight philosophies out of my own personal disappointments; to avoid confusing self-hatred with hatred of all men; to face the fact that though I'd failed, others hadn't.' (Macey in The Friends.) In our culture today there is so much knowingness, so little insight; plenty of opinions, a poverty of philosophy. Our theatre is full of the avoidance of thought, or of tiny thoughts elaborately costumed. Just as he avoids pinched time-schemes, so Wesker won't accept truncated thinking, intellectual short-cuts….

It's difficult not to speak of Wesker's plays in the way one talks about nineteenth-century English or Russian novels, with their comprehensive social sweep and aspiration to render the moral temper of a whole culture. Such a stance—however unfashionable it may be in this time of intense but narrow insights—lies behind all his work. He's a long-distance runner in a theatre of sprinters, and this annoys us, so we put him down as a 'moraliser'.

Messianism: The accusation that sticks most tenaciously to Wesker and all his works is that of being a Messianic crusader. He's always sounding off, so the myth goes, about Jerusalem revived, milk and honey, sweetness, joy, time redeemed. People resent the implied sense of superiority in the prophetic role they assign to him.

The fact is that, especially in some of the pronouncements he made during the Centre 42 festivals, Wesker was not immune to the temptation of resounding phrase-making, and many of his statements about the role of the arts are influenced by the oratorical formulations of his much-be-loved John Ruskin—although Wesker's admiration of Ruskin is very much a question of 'disentangling that which has proved rich from what has atrophied'….

The Messianic accusation … must be met in relation to Wesker's plays. They do contain preachers, visionaries, elated seers. But the way in which they contain them is always critical, distanced, tempered. They are never allowed to walk away with the theatrical honours. All are in some sense failures….

Examined carefully, there's neither easy optimism nor facile defeatism in the plays, more a stubborn groping towards a livable equilibrium. Perhaps the prevalent blindness to the texture of this element in Wesker's plays comes from our unsatisfied thirst for some public communal lead in our lives, what Jake Latham asks for: 'What, since we have failed, is there that holds men in a movement through all time?' Childishly, we thirst for a simple Messiah, and are prepared to subscribe and inflate any slightly messianic sentiment out of proportion. At the same time, we're ashamed of this thirst, prefer not to acknowledge it. So we cut those we have yearningly elected as heroes down to size. The warning given in The Journalists to a bitchy columnist could apply to these prevalent, and largely mystified reactions: 'You might want to deflate the egos of self-styled Gods but be careful you don't crack the confidence of good men.'

In England now, we have no vision of what a Messianic age, a time of time redeemed, might be. Our image of redemption is confined to the cadences of Handel's Messiah. But the Messianic undertow in Wesker's works is much less comforting, more like the rigorous view of the rabbi who said 'In the age of the Messiah man will not quarrel with his fellow, but with himself.'…

It is the contention of these notes that Arnold Wesker has suffered unduly from the weight of an undeserved legend, which has led to superficial readings of his plays, obscuring their real advances of technique and content. The sense of suspension and withdrawal, of inward-turning, in his latest plays and stories is both the natural reassessment of a writer in mid-route, and the enforced defensiveness—cherishing and polishing emblems of value he is reluctant to abandon—of a playwright who seems to have been left out by a headstrong and often mindless theatre, and also made a scapegoat for its unfulfilled promise.

That there are limitations and insufficiencies in Wesker's work—fruits of a moral rather than a furiously poetic imagination—he himself would probably be the last to deny. But the faults are inseparable from the qualities, and the qualities, above all the sense of the potential moral stature of theatre, are ones we sorely need.

Michael Kustow, "Wesker at the Half-way House," in Plays and Players, October, 1973, pp. 32-5.