Of the British dramatists who surfaced in the wake of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," none has been more stubborn than Arnold Wesker, whose latest play, "The Merchant," is having its premiere at the Eisenhower.
Now no longer so anrgy nor so young, the Osborne of 1956 led a band of British playwrights who seemed on the verge of changing everything. N.F. Simpson, Ann Jellicoe, John Arden, Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, John Whiting, Bernard Kops, Alun Owen, John Mortimer and most individually, Wesker. Others came later, Wesker survives. Some are dead, where are the others?
It was a time of slashing change and to those who took heart from the rich words of Christopher Fry. T.S. Eliot and Ronald Duncan, the poetic drama of postwar Britain had seemed a possible path to dramatic revival. But that petered out. Anger, in everyday, speech, was In.
It was a time, too, of the rising "red-brick" universities, plebian institutions designed for those who couldn't get into Oxford or Cambridge but who the post-Churchill Socialist government deemed worthy of higher education. "Look Back in Anger" was rooted in these "redbrick" institutions and in the futility their graduates discovered.
It seems characteristic of the leading British critics that, reared largely in the comfortable ivory towers of Oxbridge, they welcome social criticism in drama. They have no patience for workers who wish to escape their dull lives through fantasy. Leading privileged lives they are especially concerned with the under privileged.
Outside the avant-garde, some British dramatists have pursued their own ways. Robert bolt has found popular appeal with his history-oriented dramas. "A Man for All Seasons," "Vivat! Vivat Regina!" and the British National Theater's current study of Lenin. "State of Revolution." Alan Ayckbourn writes specifically for his own theater company, and by chance his plays have become popular successes. Harold Pinter as playwright owes something to Harold Pinter as director. Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, once considered adventurous for "The Long and the Short and the Tall"), seem almost resented for their wide success with "Billy Liar," "That was the Week That Was" and a dozen popular films. Others rise and fall each new voice is proclaimed a great hope.
This suggests flux in which Wesker has survived by stubbornly being himself.
Wesker did not have a "redbrick" education. From the least likely beginnings, he has presevered in the vein that first brought him prominence - his Jewishness and his social criticism.
This heritage was in his own "Roots," which tilted his second play and was the theme of his first, "Chicken Soup with Barley." With "I'm Talking about Jerusalem ," they formed a trilogy as inspired by personal roots as Alex Haley's subsequent search for his "Roots."
Born in 1932 in London's strongly Jewish East End, Wesker is the son of a Hungarian father and a Russian mother. His father was a poor tailor and Wesker left school early first working as a plumber's assistant, then as a busboy, from which he rose to pastry cook with hotel and restaurant jobs in London and Paris.
Working with pastry didn't feed his mind, and Wesker took off for a short course in film writing.
From his background he produced a two-act television play, "The Kitchen," rejected by all TV companies. When his next work clicked, TV wanted rights to "The Kitchen" but Wesker refused them. For by then he had met the director who is staging "The Merchant" at the Eisenhower, John Dexter.
Now director of production for New York'd Metropolitan Opera and celebrated for his staging of "Equus." Dexter then was one of George Devine's directors at London's Royal Court Theater. Devine was dedicated to the development of new writers. In 1958 a British Arts Council grant to the Royal Court provided that its stage must host a provincial reportory company in a new play.
Alone of the Royal Court group, Dexter was championing Wesker's "Chicken Soup with Barley." To achieve the Arts Council conditions, Dexter was assigned to introduce this script at the modest Belgrade Theater, Coventry. By transferring it from Conventry to Sloane Square, its production would make the Royal Court eligible for the grant. When it got to London, it had a sympathetic if not enthusiastic reception. But from it came the two related plays, "Roots" and "I'm Talking About Jerusalem," which, when performed two years later as a trilogy, propelled Wesker to wide recognition.
The three plays cover 20 years in the lives of an East End Jewish family. There is the theme of recurrent behavior patterns, and in social terms, the plays concern the loss of purpose by the working classes with the arrival of the socialism all had sought, or assumed they sought. To many, Wesker seemed to be Britian's Clifford Odets, who also wrote of socialist-oriented Jewish families.
Having held onto "The Kitchen," Wesker had the statisfaction of re-working the play with Dexter. Its critical acceptance led to "Chips with Everything," the work by which Wesker is best known in this country.
"Chips," which had an able Arena Stage production, concerns an upper-class youth who chooses to restrict his army service to enlisted, "other ranks," status. When an officer suggests that Pip chose the lower ranks because there it would be easier for him to assert his leadership than with his class peers. Pip's true motive is revealed. Because "no man survives whose motive is discovered," Pip reverts to his class.
Wesker's Jewishness and class consciousness are integral to his life as seen through his plays. There have been other plays since, less popular, including "The Old Ones," but Wesker's motivation clearly has been the spreading of theater and the arts more widely. His "Centre 42" sparked a regional festival and "The Nottingham Captain," about the Luddite riots of 1817. The spread-the-arts dream led to formation of the Round House, once a rail engine turn-about in humble north London and now one of the most proletarian of London playhouses.
Ronald Hayman, in "The Set-Up," a British theater study rougly comparable to William Goldman's "The Season," notes that Wesker's plays produced him more revenue from outside England than within it. Wesker himself has been roaming.
He dedicates "The Merchant" to "my students in the contemporary drama class of Boulder's Summer School in the University of Colorado, U.S.A. with whom I began thinking aloud on this particular play."
His point of departure is Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and he does depart from it, going to the roots of this widely performed comedy for the three of the stories Shakespeare used in its creation, "The Pound of Flesh," "The Three Caskets" and "The Elopement of Jessica."
Without having seen "The Merchant" at this writing. I do know that Wesker departs from Shakespeare's version, introducing the idea that Shylock has had a long friendship with Antonio and a variation on the character of Shylock's daughter, Jessica. One anticipates from the self-taught self-reliant playwright a point of view about a celebrated stage character that will be rooted in Wesker's proud Jewishness and social consciousness. That is how he began and continued the theme of his personal survival.