Arnold Wesker, a British playwright who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early ‘60s as one of Royal Court Theatre writers who shook up the staid English theater scene, died April 12. He was 83.
Mr. Wesker was associated with the “angry young men” movement in English playwriting and was a contemporary of such writers as John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Edward Bond. Like the better-known Osborne, his first plays were staged at the Royal Court, which, under the direction of George Devine, became a hotbed of dramatic innovation and controversy.
His plays often dealt with the lives of working-class people and trafficked in matters of political struggle and self-determination, inspired by his Communist Jewish upbringing. He was perhaps best known for his play Chips With Everything, which was inspired by his own experiences in the Royal Air Force—one of only two of his works to reach the Broadway stage—and the so-called “Wesker Trilogy,” a trio of kitchen-sink plays including Chicken Soup With Barley (1958), Roots (1959) and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960). He won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright in 1959.
Mr. Wesker was an activist playwright. He was an active member of the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group that practiced civil disobedience, and was jailed in 1961 for his part in its campaign of mass nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons.
His plays Roots, The Kitchen and The Four Seasons reached Off-Broadway in the 1960s. Chips With Everything ran on Broadway for three months in 1963 and 1964.
The Merchant, his adaptation of the story of Shylock, was an occasion of notoriety and drama in 1977 when its star, Zero Mostel, died between pre-Broadway tryouts in Philadelphia and the New York debut. Mr. Wesker later wrote a book about the fraught experience called The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel. By the late ’70s, his works had fallen out of favor, and none of his newer works achieved the fame and acclaim of his first plays.
He continued to write, nonetheless. His other plays included The Nottingham Captain, Four Seasons, The Friends, The Old Ones, The Journalist, The Wedding Feast, Phoenix, Caritas, Words on the Wind, Breakfast, and Yardsale. His frequent director was John Dexter.
An all around man of letters, in addition to 50 plays, he published several volumes of short stories, essays, journalism and poetry. In 2005, he published his first novel, Honey, which drew on the characters from his play Roots.
Though proud of his prolific output, he was never quite satisfied. “Like most writers,” he said in 2002, “I fear dying before I write that one masterpiece for which I'll be remembered, yet I look at the long row of published work that I keep before me on my desk and I think, not bad, Wesker, not bad.”
He is survived by two sons, Lindsay and Daniel, from his married to Doreen Bicker, and a daughter, Elsa, with journalist Disa Hastad.