Prolific British playwright Arnold Wesker dies at age 83

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Posted: Apr 13, 2016 9:22 AM
Prolific British playwright Arnold Wesker dies at age 83

LONDON (AP) — Prolific British playwright Arnold Wesker, who drew on his heritage as a working-class Jew to create plays that captured the dialogue and struggles of the common man, has died, his son Lindsay said Wednesday. He was 83 and had Parkinson's disease.

Wesker, who wrote more than 40 plays that were translated into 18 languages, first gained prominence with a trilogy about the lives of Jewish socialist intellectuals: "Chicken Soup with Barley" (1958), "Roots" (1959) and "I'm Talking about Jerusalem" (1960). He was known, together with writers including John Osborne and Brendan Behan, as one of the "angry young men" of the British stage in the 1950s — though he dismissed the label.

The playwright drew on his youth in east London, where conversation, argument and song were woven into the fabric of daily life. He loved the rhythms, the dialogue and the thirst for knowledge gained just by sitting around talking.

"There were quarrels and they were upsetting, but in a strange way there was so much love around, it overshadowed the distress," he told the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" program in 2006.

Born on May 24, 1932, Wesker never went to college but instead had a string of jobs that informed his writing, including bookseller's assistant, farm laborer, kitchen porter and pastry cook, as well as service in the Royal Air Force in 1950-52.

"I really do feel I missed out not going go to university," he told the BBC. "I just failed exams. I didn't even pass my English exams. When I write prose, I keep my fingers crossed that I'm writing it as I remember having read it in good literature."

In the stiff, upper-class world of British drama in the 1950s, Wesker was part of a wave of new voices who took on all subjects, the "kitchen sink" of drama. Together with playwrights like Harold Pinter, Wesker helped broaden the appeal of theater to a new generation.

His plays have experienced a revival of late, with "Chicken Soup" performed in 2011 at London's Royal Court Theatre. Dominic Cooke, the Royal Court's artistic director at the time, said Wesker understood theater "is always metaphorical, even when the social context of the play is realistic and detailed."

"In 'Chicken Soup,' for example, the gradually disintegrating family stands for the fading political idealism of the 20th century, but the daily life of the family on stage is brought to life with insight and honesty," he said.

Wesker's other well-known plays include "Chips With Everything," based on his service in the RAF, and "The Kitchen," which draws on his days as a pastry cook. They were stories of ordinary people and real life. And he loved telling them well.

"He genuinely loved words," his son Lindsay said. "That was really the joy."

Wesker was knighted in 2006 for services to drama.

He is survived by his wife, Dusty, sons Daniel and Lindsay, and a daughter, Elsa Hastad.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Wesker's son's name.