There is a famous and appealing story told and by the great Poet and theatrical master, Harold Pinter about an encounter he had with a friend of his and her young daughter. At a reception of some kind, the woman approached Pinter and introduced him to the inquisitive six year old. ‘This man is called Harold Pinter,’ she said, ‘and he’s a very good writer.’ ‘Oh, really? replied the young girl, ‘can he do a W?’
He could, of course and many more. As could his close contemporary, Sir Arnold Wesker, whose death this week marks another sad loss for modern culture, and indeed for 2016 in general, which is turning out to be less of a pre-ordained system of calculated time measures, and far more of a cull, with many noteables across the forms, passing on to a different chart.
In the current climate where craft, form and language are radically simplified, those further down the alphabet from the ABC approach to challenge and consideration are in danger of falling, in the dramatic sense, into a state of neglect, or something that looks very much like it. This has happened across the board, from masters such as IT’s own Mr Williams, to Charles Wood, Howard Barker, Edward Bond, John Osborne and Snoo Wilson (to name but six) being rarely performed, or perhaps even known to successive generations of theatre students and audiences, having fallen foul of the current trends and desire for familiar ideas conveyed with what often seems to this writer, like brevity.
Wesker of course, was a forerunner of even these Authors, starting with the Royal Court’s sans decor production of The Kitchen in 1959, after several attempts and low level jobs, needed to establish himself, including an early short story called Pools, nervously handed to the director Lindsay Anderson outside the theatre in 1958. It was only with the first production of Roots in Coventry and then a performance of the full famous Trilogy of plays that dealt with the upsurge of socialist commitment in post war East London, (Roots/Chicken Soup with Barley/I’m Talking About Jerusalem) at the Royal Court Theatre in 1960 that Wesker took hold.
Like Pinter before him, 1960 was a pivotal year for Wesker and for an intense period Sloane Square and the West End were ruled by two young jewish men from the same shared streets. That THE CARETAKER proved to be more lasting artistic enterprise (free from its point and time of origin) and perhaps the more important, is testament to the crucial differences between the two as both writers and men. Pinter was both a conscious and subconscious poet, who used the form diligently, to create poems that ranged from a youthful exuberance with language to a more weighted response when engaging with political developments. His published poetry shows a journey and steady filtering of perspective. Subconsciously, his poetry infuses his plays in ways that have perhaps only been matched by Samuel Beckett, Jim Cartwright and the aforementioned holy six.
Indeed, many of Pinter’s plays are not plays at all; they assume the form certainly and follow the accepted structure to varying degrees, but they are in effect, poetic studies of the moment, through either impulse, effect or ramification. OLD TIMES is a worthy example of this, through its lack of verifiable fact and its weaving of time and reality. Pinter’s work, like Beckett’s achieved a musical level of accomplishment. One can enter into and listen to his plays as much as one can watch or engage with them. They are complete transmogrifications of intention transfused into Art. With Wesker, it is slightly different. The writing itself is what interested him, perhaps a little more than the active moment. His work aspires to that same musical level, but like the annoying person sitting next to you at the concert, there is at time a little too much ‘talking’ interrupting and stopping the flow. This might lead you to believe that his plays are annoying to watch in some way. I can assure you there are not. They are erudite, intelligent, compassionate and perceptive works that deal with the nature and ambivalences of people in both contemporary and historical society, and they flow well. But that in effect, is the issue. If you are aware of the flow of ideas and expression then something is missing; that silent partner that Harold Pinter knew all too well. He captured this beast in the pause and showed us the face we can’t picture. The undisguised strangeness and unsaid root to us all. The thing that cannot be written down or explained, Pinter showcased. No matter what we do or accomplish, the deficiency and inability to truly express what we want or feel is always present. The unlocatable aspect remains in the place we can’t go. Wesker, in my view dealt with absolutes only. From Beatie’s rise in Roots, to Peter’s in The Kitchen; he was always using his characters to make his points. Even one of his most beautiful plays and stories, Love Letters On Blue Paper has a very specific agenda, detailing the death of a former prominent trade Unionist.
These concerns are also clearly present in his play, The Friends, which he infamously directed in 1970 to the consternation of its rebellious cast, and also in The Old Ones, in which a group of decaying dreamers and activists chart their own fall with humour, warding off the stark judgements they would otherwise place on themselves. In 1969 Wesker wrote an unpublished Ur-text of a play called The New Play, in which he detailed what he was writing and why he was trying to write and not write it, meticulously scrutinising his own impulses and achievements. In fact, go through the plays in any order and you will see these points being painted continuously, for that is what Wesker was in my view; his rich language and layering of intent is like a paint adorning the imaginary houses in his work, and in the case of his play Their Very Own And Golden City, palaces and cathedrals he would have and wanted to build. His play Shylock rewrites The Merchant of Venice to rightfully reclaim the virtues of that unfortunate jew. As does Caritas with its study of medieval English Witchcraft, and his One Woman plays (collected in Wesker – Plays: 2), all have coated viewpoints and agendas. To Wesker, the writing was all, but words, in my view, are not always the writing. Harold Pinter unearthed this more than anybody else before or since, and perhaps, in reaction to his acclaim, Sir Arnold did not. Here were two fiercely intelligent working class boys who did not go to college or University. Reliant on the self education they had engaged with since childhood, they achieved their PHD’s on the street. The Autodidact is both University Don and Cleaner. They sought their own order as a way to reveal their own worth. Arnold Wesker was I think continually engaged on a search for his and this is I believe demonstrated in the sheer amount of work he produced. There is a side to Judaism that is keen to please and a side that is defensive. Wesker constantly engaged with his public on an international and latterly regional scale, presenting them with fresh arguments for discussion, while also showing that his traditional sensibilities were also reflective of judaism’s third side (it is perhaps the only major religion with three or possibly four sides); namely, its vibrancy and command of new forms. Fromm Finance, through Dentistry and on and into Showbusiness, the jews have defined what we are. It should perhaps be noted that I am a jew myself.
In terms then of the plays, the other crucial difference between the two Hackney men is that Pinter was an Actor. He knew the theatre in a different way to Wesker; not as church (or Synagogue) in which a kind of salvation could be found, but as a factory shithouse that had to be cleared daily in order to make it workable. His approach was perhaps animalistic and practical, to some degree, just as Wesker’s was perhaps more angelic and/or romantic. Wesker was in love with the chances on offer whereas Pinter fixed his gaze firmly on the dark roulette wheel.
Action is key and sometimes Wesker’s plays forsake action. It has been written in other criticism that the dramatic highlight of his beautiful and lyrical play The Four Seasons is when the male protagonist Adam (originally played by the great Alan Bates) makes an apple strudel live on stage. While this maybe the case, that play in particular shows the best and worst in Wesker’s work. Here the conscious poet is writing the play, when it should be the subconscious one sat in the driver’s seat, if not wearing the chef’s apron. Direct Poetry in plays, no matter how accomplished dates and reduces dramatic action, irrespective of accomplishments in form and style. This is evident in the work of Christopher Fry and damnit, TS Eliot’s THE CONFIDENTIAL CLERK and MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, and it also evident in Tony Harrison’s THE PRINCE’S PLAY and FRAM.
The classic and classically infused plays of Steven Berkoff, another Stepney resident and Hackney attendant reach their fullest expression in the fusion of dramatic and poetic speech as opposed to written verse and while The Four Seasons contains intermittent lines of poetry, it is seasoned so heavily with a literate and literary voice, from Adam’s biblical significance to Beatrice, the female protagonist’s echoes of Dante’s great muse. This is the point about the conscious use of language and the stick that beats against the door of artistic veneration. There is something lacking as opposed to something missing and yet what is there is still worth your admittance alone.
Its a somewhat contrary fact, that all plays are essentially written to be read; they are there of course to be acted and worked on. Some may argue with this, as of course the best plays afford constant reading and consultation. But the point to my mind is, that when a play is read one is put in touch with what is possible as a result of reading it, in terms of performance, yes, on one level, but on a more primal level; what it can do to the room. Drama is about transformation as we know, and therefore transportation is required, either logistically or internally, so that we end up somewhere quite different from our point of arrival. Having done that, we can adapt our responses, through reflection, and join in an active way with what the words engender. Thought into action, the closest thing to what music can do, by making us cry, fuck or dance.
On the page we encounter the distinctions and exceptions. All of Pinter reads well, as does all of Miller, or indeed, all of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bond, Rattigan. And Wesker too. But his is a Novelist’s impulse. He wants that expansion. Concision is not his true aim. Vanguard of Rock, Pete Townshend has talked in the past of how ‘limited forms can give way to greater expression..’ Wesker wants the wide world in his plays and his personal aims and ambitions also demonstrated that impulse, most famously in his taking over of Chalk Farm’s Roundhouse as his Centre 42, a relatively shortlived idealistic enterprise which combined artistic endeavour with communal socialism. Wesker wanted to be a world changer but his reach fell a little short at times. He was a dreamer who not only dared to dream but was willing and able to detail just how those dreams could be grasped. He was perhaps a little unwilling at times to relinquish his right to do so and the means he used, and famously responded at great length to his critics across the world’s newspapers and journals if he felt his aims and work had been misunderstood. This level of passion and defensiveness is admirable. Today’s writers may well reflect and contain what is going on around them, often in a very journalistic, topical and dare I say it, throwaway type fashion- but they do not seem to be concerned with changing anything. Wesker fought change and conversely fought for it. He had a great and tremendous energy. He engaged and debated. He corralled and defended. He sought the high towers despite the constant pull of the moat. In effect, he did what writers are supposed to do: he kept writing, amassing over 50 plays, several unproduced screenplays, an artful book for children, Fatlips, a substantial novel, Honey – written near the end of his life, a comprehensive autobiography, As Much As I Dare, a fascinating volume of poetry All Things Tire Of Themselves concerning his Five Poems For Harold Pinter, Erotica, The King’s Daughters, and 4 volumes of stories, which rank among his finest achievements, as do his journals and essays, Fears of Fragmentation, Distinctions, the Journalists and a late book of interviews with Chiara Montenero, Ambivalences. As I type this I have his twenty or so volumes stacked on my desk and they form a far ranging litany and legacy of ideas and passions.
There is an idea that a writer should by the end of his life written the equivalent of his or her own body weight. I myself have been quite prolific, so while my published books are slim, my compiled manuscripts may well supercede my stockiness. This would have been the case with Wesker but his books are substantial and their refinement is what truly remains of him. He was a writer who allowed the word to dance with him in his celebration of all he saw and felt and while the last couple of years of his life were blighted with illness he used his healthy span to be as both difficult as he was charming and accomplished. He was, from what I have read, a man of passion and vigour, washed as we all are by the joys and tyrannies of life. I did not know him as a person but then to what extent can we ever know even those we sit close to, so that is a matter for his friends and family. His W stood firmly in the postwar cannon and deserves renewal and recovery beyond the one or two titles that are the only points of reference for the general view. Wesker was a lot more than his Trilogy, as Edward Bond is insurpassably more than LEAR or SAVED, or Peter Barnes for THE RULING CLASS, Osborne, LOOK BACK IN ANGER, or Charles Wood, DINGO. The list goes on. Wesker’s plays came from his heart. While that heart is no more, his blood and his language flow on.
Attend the Lords of Hackney Downs and Stepney, for as we watch, their Palaces are gold.
David Erdos 13/4/16
Illustration Nick Victor
Although I am neither a regular theatre-goer or much of a culture-vulture, I am pleasantly reminded of spending a few evenings in close proximity to Arnold Wesker during the rehearsal and performance of Beorhtel’s Hill. This was a community play commissioned from and written by AW for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Basildon new town. It was a unique and life-enhancing experience, and even though I had not thought of it for many years, this eulogy brings back the memory of his vitality and warm engagement with the Basildonian cast and the spirit of the cause of the common people engendered in the play.Comment by John White on 13 May, 2016 at 11:08 pm