Entertainment & Arts

Sir Arnold Wesker, British playwright, dies aged 83

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Media captionSir Arnold Wesker "never lost his sense of human potential" says The Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington

Leading British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who came to prominence in the late 1950s with his gritty, working class dramas, has died aged 83.

He died on Tuesday evening after a long illness, his widow Lady Wesker told the BBC.

He first established his reputation with the Wesker Trilogy at the Royal Court theatre in central London.

He wrote more than 40 plays, as well as short stories, essays and poetry over five decades.

One of his most successful plays, Chips with Everything, was inspired by his own experiences in the RAF.

Sir Arnold, who had his plays performed all over the world, was born in the East End of London in 1932 to Jewish communist parents.

Spread culture

He drew on this background for his second play, Chicken Soup with Barley, which was first performed at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in 1958.

This formed part of an acclaimed trilogy - completed by Roots and I'm Talking about Jerusalem - that brought working class characters and their struggles centre stage.

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Image caption The playwright (pictured left in 1960) was jailed in 1961 for campaigning against nuclear weapons

He was a leading figure in a generation of writers in the 1950s who became known as "angry young men" - a group that included novelists Kingsley Amis, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe.

This was because of the theme of disillusionment running through their work, although he later rejected this label.

Sir Arnold was keen to spread culture to the layman and set up a theatre venue called Centre 42 at the Roundhouse in London in the early 1960s.

In 1961 he was jailed for demonstrating against nuclear weapons.

Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to Wesker in the House of Commons as a great playwright and "one of those wonderful angry young men" of the 1950s.

"Like so many angry young people (he) actually changed the face of our country," the Labour leader said.

Stephen Daldry, the Royal Court's artistic director from 1992 to 1998, remembered him as "one of the most committed and impassioned writers of his generation".

"He was an adventurer and delight in the rehearsal room, who challenged and stretched every director he worked with," Daldry continued.

"With his passing... we are beginning to lose the voices of a generation that shaped theatre as we understand it today."

The Royal Court theatre tweeted: "With such sadness we pay respect to Arnold Wesker. His brilliant plays shifted something forever at the Court."

Dame Joan Bakewell tweeted that "Arnold Wesker made a terrific difference to theatre in the 50s and 60's: ...also pioneered what became today's Roundhouse activities".

Marcus Davey, chief executive and artistic director of the Roundhouse in north London, added his voice to the tributes being paid.

In the 1960s Sir Arnold helped convert the building - a former shed used to rotate and service train engines - into Centre 42, the first incarnation of the performing arts hub the Roundhouse is today.

"We're deeply saddened to hear that Sir Arnold Wesker has passed away. Fifty years ago he founded the Roundhouse as an arts centre to champion art for all - a passion and a promise we remain committed to, to this day. He shaped arts and culture as we know it and he will be truly missed."

Author Jonathan Freedland tweeted: "Saddened by the death of Arnold Wesker. Studied Chips with Everything as a child; corresponded with him as an adult. Admired him very much."

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