Very sad news.
Sir Arnold Wesker, one of the key British figures of 20th century drama and a writer whose work spanned more than five decades, has died. He was 83.
A prolific, often highly political writer who produced more than 40 plays, as well as books of essays, poetry and short stories, his work also included children’s fiction and a first novel, Honey, which was published in 2005.
After first gaining prominence in the 1950s, critics grouped him with other working class writers sometimes referred to as the “angry young men” generation, although Wesker rejected the label. He was later characterised as a leading voice of 1960s “kitchen sink” British drama.
“You’re not a good writer because you come from a working class background and you’re not a good writer because you’ve been through university. You’re a good writer because you’re a good writer and it’s the work that matters, not the labels that surround you.”
Born in 1932 in the East End of London, Wesker was the son of Jewish communists and drew on his upbringing for some of his key works. They included 1958’s acclaimed Chicken Soup With Barley, which juxtaposed the story of a struggling East End Jewish family with their crisis that Stalinism and world events presented to their communist ideals.
The play, the first in a trilogy, was also the subject of one of two major revivals of his works in recent years when it was staged in 2011 at the Royal Court. The other, The Kitchen, was performed at the National Theatre.
Looking back on his childhood during an interview with the Observer in 2011, he recalled it being poor, “but I don’t remember it in terms of suffering”.
Wesker also remembered his parents as being “completely atheist”, though he added: “But they were also – this is difficult for gentiles to understand – fiercely Jewish.”
After winning acclaim for his early trilogy, which was completed by Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem, his efforts to spread culture more widely found a focus when he founded the Roundhouse’s first theatre, Centre 42, in 1964. Among his notable later plays was The Merchant, renamed Shylock, in 1976. In later years he lived in Wales, and then Hove in East Sussex.
Despite suffering from Parkinson’s, he continued to write late into his life, publishing his first collection of poetry, All Things Tire of Themselves, in 2008. He received a knighthood in 2006, by which time his plays had been translated into 18 languages and had been performed around the world.