Arnold Wesker: my 2005 interview with the veteran playwright

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The following Q&A was conducted with veteran playwright Arnold Wesker in 2005, at the time of a Nottingham Playhouse revival of his play Chicken Soup with Barley. He died on April 12, 2016, aged 83, after a long illness.

Where do you live now?
I live in a remote college in the black mountains of Wales, five miles from Hay-on-Wye – a town of second-hand bookshops. But we bought this cottage in 1968, before that all happened. It began as a holiday home, then it was a place where I came to break the back of work I was doing, and now I live here most of the time.

Why did you want to become a writer? And what was your training?
There’s a line in my play Annie Wobbler where one of three characters, a novelist, says, “I began writing in order to affect other people the way writers affected me.” I didn’t have any education, unless being an amateur actor in my teens was training. But I didn’t go to university, and I frequently claim that I was brought up by the BBC and cinema.

What do you consider your first big break career-wise?
There’s no doubt that my first career break was when I asked Lindsay Anderson to read a play of mine called Chicken Soup with Barley. He read it, and he said, “You really are a playwright, aren’t you? Will you let me show this to George Devine at the Royal Court?” He did, though George didn’t do it himself but gave it to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry to do it, who then brought it to the Royal Court for a week as part of a four-week season of repertory theatre there. That was 1958.

What do you consider your career highlights to date?
I suppose wining prizes like the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright for my play Roots. They’re important because they’re notifying the world of achievement. So is being offered the CBE, and being invited to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and being awarded a lifelong pension by the Royal Literary Fund. There’s no doubt that foreign productions are always highlights for me – my work may be homemade wine, but it’s travelling, and if it’s travelling, it must be a good wine.

Who are your favourite actors/actresses & why?
I tend not to have favourite anything – different people, different music, different books all touch one in different ways. We have so many good actors in this country. But the quality I admire in an actor is that of letting the part possess them, rather then imposing their mannerism on the part. And then one thinks of the obvious people like Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, and the late Robert Stephens, but one could go on to name so many more, like David Suchet.
What do you think makes a good director? How closely do you tend to work with directors of your own plays? What other directors do you most admire?

The best relationship in the theatre is that between the director and the author. And what you look for in a director is someone who both understands your play and whose only wish is to somehow get it across the footlights. I wrote a long essay I’ve delivered all around the world called “Interpretation – To Explain or Impose?” And one of the most chilling things I heard was last year when I was invited by the Swedish Union of Playwrights to deliver that lecture, and there was a panel behind me of writers, directors and critics to debate it afterwards. There was one young director who said that a piece of advice they were given at directing school was not to begin your career with a new play, because then all the attentions are on the playwright and not on you. Directors are being taught to judge a play on whether it will enhance their career, but when it works between the writer and director, then both benefit enormously.

I always insist on being at the rehearsals of a first production. For me that’s the place where I can write the final draft. There are always lines which I always discover don’t work, or the director might come up with an idea that is better than mine. I just enjoy the process. With revivals, I make changes too – I can’t stop sometimes. When I directed The Kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1990, I was on top of it again, and also with the radio adaptation of Shylock which had to be cut by about 20 minutes, I liked some of the changes we made so much that I’ve now incorporated them into the stage text. The film rights have just been bought for The Kitchen and they commissioned a new script from me, and I’ve made cuts and changes that I will also incorporate into the stage version now.

Of directors that I think are very good, though it pains me to say so because I so dislike him as a person, Trevor Nunn is obviously a good director; Nicholas Hytner does wonderful work; Edward Hall is good; and Fiona Laird who is directing a play of mine called Longitude, did an excellent production of Oh What A Lovely War for the National. My problem is that I’m stuck here so I don’t get to see as much theatre as I would like, though Malvern isn’t too far away and gets some good tours.

What other playwrights do you most admire? What play (by someone else!) would you most like to have written & why?

The list is endless – plays and playwrights that stay with me are plays like The Crucible, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey into Night, most of Chekhov but especially The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, Oleanna Strindberg’s The Father, Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Osborne’s The Entertainer. 

I’d love to have written The Entertainer — it’s got great sadness and depth and honesty. It’s about the passing of something, and there’s a great sense of loss. I directed it once at Mold, with Frank Barrie as Archie Rice. He was just splendid and was born to play him.

What is it that attracts you to writing primarily for the stage as opposed to other media? Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Why does a painter paint and not sculpt and why does a sculptor sculpt and not paint? The world comes to the painter and makes sense to him in terms of shapes and colours and lines; and I find that the world makes sense to me in the dynamic of dialogue. I just like the way people talk. Their personalities, their intellect, their humour, all comes out through dialogue. 
 Theatre is important for the same reason that all art is important – art defines a society. England is the land of Shakespeare – however important Queen Elizabeth I was politically, you don’t think of England as the land of Queen Elizabeth. Or of Michael Howard or Tony Blair. The arts define a country in a way that almost nothing else can. With Finland, you might think of Nokia, but otherwise you think of Sibelius. And when you think of France, you think of Racine and the French cinema.

What did you think of the “angry young men” label attached to you and many of your Royal Court peers in the late-1950s/early 1960s? How do you believe that British theatre has changed since then? 

There was no such thing as the angry young men. In Osborne’s autobiography, he tells the story of how the press officer at the Royal Court called him aside one day and said I don’t like your play, but I’ve got to publicise it so do you mind if I call you an angry young man? Osborne replied, I don’t care what you all me as long as you publicise the play! But the phrase hung around and both academics and journalists make their lives easier by hanging onto labels. But it means nothing – we didn’t really know each other. It didn’t exist but it hangs around.

What happened at the Royal Court at that time, though, focused attention on the theatre in a way that it hadn’t been focused there before. But there’s a very interesting study at Leicester University that isn’t so much debunking the notion of a theatrical revolution but pointing out that there were plays that existed before Look Back in Anger that were also really strong and experimental, like Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners, which I saw long before Look Back in Anger performed in a church, and it was a revelation.

I’m not sure that I know that British theatre has changed since then. Whenever I go to the theatre, I get the feeling that nothing has changed. Even watching a play like Shopping and Fucking, apart from the fact that you couldn’t have words like that in the title then, I don’t see it as progress of any significance. It’s a good play, but it’s an old fashioned one – I’m not saying that pejoratively, but rather that it belongs to a tradition of plays about miserable lives which says there’ssomething better out there.

What advice would you give the government – or the industry – to secure the future of British theatre?
They’re discovering the importance of healthy food in schools; they say that taking away the fizzes and the fat is not simply producing healthier children but more alert children, less destructive children — kids who generally get more out of life. But the arts are a kind of food for the spirit, and are just as important for the health of the nation.
If you hadn’t become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?

I would like to have been a composer, but I don’t have a melody in my body. I nearly became an actor. I twice got into RADA – I passed the RADA examinations, but twice I failed to get a grant. I made my acting debut a few months ago, though, on television, in Waking the Dead, playing a rabbi. It was great fun. I did it because the director Andy Hay had directed one of my recent plays, Denial at the Bristol Old Vic that he was then running, and he rang me up – there’s this part, he said, and you must play it. I did, but I haven’t had any offers from Hollywood since!

What’s the first thing you recall seeing on stage that had an impact on you? And the last thing? Why did you enjoy them?
I suppose the first thing was A Sleep with Prisoners. The plays I’d seen up to then were plays done on a stage; but this play was done in a church at the back of Regent’s Street, and I’d never seen one done in a church before. And then Look Back In Anger, I suppose, made a big impact that set me off writing plays.  The things most recently that have had an impact on me have been films – like Ladies in Lavender, Vera Drake and Sideways. I see more films than theatre, and I was brought up on them rather than theatre. The last play that really made me sit up was Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom; it was a great play. More recently, I quite liked Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
It would have to be Shakespeare – just to feel that language running around in your head!

What are your favourite books?
You can’t have favourites when there is so much good writing. There are so many minor books that impress me, and you’ve probably never heard of, like Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud and Djuna Woods’ Nightwood. They’re not the mighty books of Lawrence or George Eliot – I shall never forget reading George Eliot as a lad – but they made an impression.

Do you have any favourite holiday destinations?
I don’t have holidays. I don’t know what to do on them. We used to have them with the children, taking them to Italy or Cornwall. I suppose that if I had the money, I would like to buy a house in Tuscany.

Chicken Soup with Barley was the first play in your semi-autobiographical Wesker Trilogy. What was so significant about that period in your life? And, why in particular did your experiences inspire a full trilogy?

I didn’t plan it as a trilogy. I wrote Chicken Soup with Barley because of a moment in my relationship with my mother with whom I quarrelled endlessly about politics in which she said something rather startling. I wrote it down and realised this was going to be part of a play one day. It was to do with her saying that because communism had failed in the Soviet Union, that was no reason to give up socialism. It was a very moving statement and heartfelt. She sensed that they had been betrayed, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go of the original ideal. So my play became about the disintegration of an ideology. 

After Chicken Soup, the Court commissioned me to write another play, and I outlined the one that became Roots. Having written that, which was about the boy that the girl falls in love with in Chicken Soup, I thought, there’s a third play here, about the daughter now. Of course, I had to go back over one or two spots in each to make it consistent.

How important is the exploration of your Jewish identity in this play? And in your other work? 

Actually, Jewish identity is not explored in Chicken Soup with Barley — they just happen to be Jews. No Irish playwright would write a play that denied that the characters were Irish. I once heard from someone that Max Stafford-Clark had said that the trouble with Arnold is that he’s too Jewish; what an extraordinary thing to say! You wouldn’t say that a black or Irish playwright was too black or too Irish! But I have explored Jewish identity in some of my other plays, like The Old Ones, When God Wanted a Son and Shylock.

It’s been more than 20 years since a major UK production of Chicken Soup with Barley. Do you think that the play, or your other work, has been neglected?
It’s very difficult to feel neglected when my plays are done so often around the world. When I keep getting commissioned to do things, such as writing Blood Libel for Norwich Playhouse or adapting Longitude for a new production, or there’s a film being made of The Kitchen, neglect isn’t a word I’d use. But like all writers, I’d like to have more exposure. I don’t feel that my work is fully known.
How do you feel about Nottingham reviving it now? Why do you think it’s particularly relevant at this time?
Giles Croft, the artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse who is directing it, thinks it’s very relevant. And because it’s about a disillusioned son and a positive mother, the play ends on a note that still resonates: “If you don’t care, you’ll die.” I’m interested to see it again myself.

How involved have you been with the production?
Not at all. I sent some written material that I thought Giles would be interested in, like a portrait of my mother from autobiography; and I made some suggestions for casting, but neither of the actors I mentioned were available, so I don’t know the cast, either. .

Do you have a favourite line from Chicken Soup with Barley?
There is a line that’s then repeated in each of other two plays: “You can’t alter people – you can only give them some love and hope they’ll take it.”

Would you like to see more of your plays revived in the UK? If so, which ones in particular?
My big cause celebre is Shylock. It was done at Birmingham, but no one has yet wanted to do it in London. At one time David Suchet bought the rights and it nearly came together, but then he got an offer for another series of Poirot and couldn’t turn it down. But Michael Boyd wants to do it. It would be great to do it side-by-side with The Merchant of Venice, with one actor playing the same role in both plays.

What about new plays? How many unproduced plays do you have in your top (or bottom) drawer?
There are two new plays being done. Greenwich Theatre is doing Longitude that Fiona Laird is directing, and is announced for October. And Kevin Spacey’s outfit have bought my new play Groupie, a two character play, and that’s planned for either the spring or summer season of 2006 at the Old Vic.

I also have new plays that have been seen abroad but not here. Wild Spring got its world premiere in Tokyo and was then done in Budapest, and Men Die Women Survive was premiered in Chicago and will soon be done in Athens. It would be nice if those plays were picked up here. Another play of mine, The Wedding Feast was done at Leeds and later at Birmingham, and I’d love the National to do it — it’s very serious and very funny. And Lady Othello is a play of mine that hasn’t been done anywhere yet – it was originally a film script that was bought by Goldcrest for a lot of money, but then they went bankrupt, so I made it into a stage play.

What are your plans for the future?
I’ve just finished my first novel called Honey, which has been bought by Simon and Schuster, and is scheduled for publication in September. I wrote four books of short stories in the course of my career, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I wrote the first 90 pages, and my agent showed it to an editor at Simon and Schuster who bought the rights on the basis of those pages. You do things when the time is right, and the time was right to do this.

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Mark Shenton
My Theatre Mates co-founder Mark Shenton is one of the UK’s leading theatre critics and correspondents, whose regular credits include LondonTheatre, and The Stage, where he is contributing editor. He chairs the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, and hosts the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, held at the Prince of Wales Theatre. He blogs independently at and tweets @ShentonStage.

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Mark Shenton on FacebookMark Shenton on Twitter
Mark Shenton
My Theatre Mates co-founder Mark Shenton is one of the UK’s leading theatre critics and correspondents, whose regular credits include LondonTheatre, and The Stage, where he is contributing editor. He chairs the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, and hosts the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, held at the Prince of Wales Theatre. He blogs independently at and tweets @ShentonStage.

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