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News Release — January 15, 2000

Arnold Wesker Archive Acquired by Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin has acquired the archive of British playwright Arnold Wesker. One of the key figures in 20th century drama, Wesker is the author of 36 plays, 4 volumes of short stories, two volumes of essays, and other assorted writings.

He first appeared on the British theater scene in 1958 when the Royal Court staged Chicken Soup with Barley. The acclaimed play would become the first in a highly autobiographical trilogy, including Roots (1959) and I'm Talking About Jerusalem (1960), exploring, through the lives of a Jewish immigrant family and a Norfolk rural family, the themes of political disillusion, self-discovery, and utopian dreams. In 1959, Wesker's memorable play The Kitchen, which addressed the relationship of people and work amidst a frenetic restaurant setting, premiered at the Royal Court.

"We are extremely pleased to have the literary archive of Arnold Wesker here," said Thomas F. Staley, Director of the Ransom Center. "Wesker is an important playwright whose work brilliantly captured an important part of British society in the mid-latter half of the 20th century."

The comprehensive archive is rich with manuscript material. It includes original hand-written manuscripts and hand-corrected typescripts for all 36 of Wesker's plays including the trilogy, The Kitchen (1957), Chips With Everything (1962), and later plays like Shylock (1976), Caritas (1981), Annie Wobbler (1981) and Blood Libel (1991). The majority of the plays appear in several draft forms. A number of hand-written production diaries and working notebooks are present as are holographs and typescripts of six works Wesker adapted for television or film.

The archive contains a considerable amount of production materials for Wesker's plays including numerous posters, programs, flyers, and photographs of productions both in England and abroad. Correspondence is well represented particularly with the English Stage Company and relating to Centre 42, an arts organisation founded by Wesker and others. Also represented are hand-written drafts and typescripts of Wesker's lesser known works including short-stories, much non-fiction, and dozens of unpublished lectures and published journalism.

Perhaps most unusual are personal accounts of income and expenditure, early check books, day diaries, invitations, celebratory and first-night cards, videos of TV productions and interviews, cassettes of radio productions and interviews, and hand-written books of dreams. Certain personal diaries and correspondence have a time embargo on them.

Born in London to a Russian father and Hungarian mother, Wesker's working-class Jewish background figures prominently in his early work as does his struggle to make ends meet in a variety of odd jobs during his early years. While rarely writing about Jewishness, Wesker nevertheless refused to hide that some of his universal themes were explored through Jewish characters and settings.

Wesker has spent his career heatedly attempting to refute the existence of a group which came to be known as "The Angry Young Men", and purportedly included Wesker, John Osborne, and John Arden, among others. "There never was such a group," he repeatedly told audiences to whom he read or lectured, "it was the invention of a journalist, and bore no resemblance to what was happening. None of us," he said, "really knew each other, and we certainly shared little social life." In a lecture he has delivered round the world called "What makes a work of literature last through time and cross frontiers--the DNA of a play," Wesker argues that the categories usually applied to writers are of little relevance. He derides those attached to him and suggests that the only thing of value in a writer's work is the quality of his/her perceptions, insights. His work covers many themes and he hopes his perceptions had substance.

Wesker spent ten years with Centre 42 attempting to establish an arts organisation which hoped to attract broad audiences. He believed that by working through the Trade Unions he would find that audience, and served as artistic director of Centre 42 until 1970 when he realized he would not be able to raise the funds needed to establish the Centre in The Roundhouse, an old Victorian engine shed Wesker had persuaded a property tycoon to give to the Centre. From 1981 to 1983 he was President of the International Playwrights' Committee.

At age 67, Wesker continues to garner popular and critical acclaim. In 1994 he published his widely successful autobiography As Much as I Dare. The following year The Royal Court Theatre revived The Kitchen (1957), and three years later, England's National Theater revived Chips With Everything (1962), a tightly structured play set during the eight-week period of square-bashing exploring the way a kind of English tolerance/indifference defuses rebellion.

Currently, the BBC has bought a film option on The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel (1997), Wesker's published diaries describing the writing, marketing, rehearsing, and performance of his play Shylock. The world premiere of this play took place in Stockholm in 1976, but the US production of 1977 was crippled by the death of its lead, Zero Mostel, after only one performance. The play had to be recast and re-rehearsed. Without its star it could not last more than ten days on Broadway. Wesker's latest play Denial, about "the false memory syndrome", will have its world premiere at The Bristol Old Vic in May 2000, and the musical of The Kitchen will open in Tokyo in August 2000.

Most recently the playwright has caused a stir in the British theatre establishment by publishing on the internet (www.wesker.demon.co.uk/nunn/) an "open letter" to Trevor Nunn, the Artistic Director of The Royal National Theatre in London. It is a serious letter in two acts. Act One pursues three important issues: discourtesy to colleagues--what Wesker calls "a kind of left-over Thatcher thuggery pervading the theatre"; what seems to him Nunn's abuse of power; and the ability of theatre to deceive an audience. Act Two reviews Nunn's acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice (which Wesker disliked intensely) as an example of theatre deception.

The Wesker acquisition strengthens the Ransom Center's Jewish and British literature collections. In 1993 the Jewish Literature and Culture Initiative was established to enhance the Center's Jewish studies collections. Since then the archives of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leon Uris, and Bernard Malamud have been added to a collection that already included the papers of Lillian Hellman, Alfred A. Knopf, Arthur Miller, David O. Selznick, and Louis Zukofsky. The Center's British literature collections include, among others, the archives of E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, George Bernard Shaw, John Osborne, Edith Sitwell, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Penelope Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard, and David Hare.

"Wesker's work will be important to both scholars of Jewish studies and British drama," said Staley. "He is a true iconoclast; his work is a provocative commentary on both cultural identity and British society. Alongside fellow British playwrights Tom Stoppard, John Osborne, and David Hare, Wesker is a perfect fit at the Ransom Center."

 

 

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