Kicking against the pricks

To hear him tell it, Arnold Wesker has never had much in the way of good luck. Now the National is reviving his 1962 hit `Chips with Everything' . So what does he say? `They should have picked something else.' By Jasper Rees
Of all the dramas with the name Arnold Wesker attached to them, the most absorbing has been running as long as The Mousetrap, but offstage rather than on. It is in the style of a remorselessly black farce, in which the little man as hero suffers an endless series of blows, reverses and pratfalls. Some are minor, some cataclysmic, but they all have one thing in common: they fail to deter their victim who, like one of those clown figures mounted on a toy rubber ball, always rolls back into the upright position. Written up as a play, it could be called Fashion Street, after the address in the East End where the playwright was born into a family of Jewish Communists.

In Scene 1, the young Wesker is in the RAF doing his National Service, and writing a novel about his experiences. Well-wishers advise him that it is unpublishable. Undeterred, in Scene 2 he turns his attention to the writing of plays, which are initially rejected. But, with John Osborne ploughing the furrow for angry young playwrights, they at last find an audience. In Scene 3, his fifth play, Chips with Everything, converted from the unpublishable RAF novel, goes to Broadway. Some theatre-goers object to a line in which a character says: "You know what happens to Jews? They go to gas chambers." Bookings are cancelled, audiences drop from three-quarters full to half. Wesker argues in his defence that they have not cut the line in Israel. He later discovers that they have. The play closes earlier than expected.

Scene 4 moves us on a decade to 1972, with the stage split between the National and the RSC. Wesker is 40. His regular director, John Dexter, is to mount The Old Ones at the National, but Kenneth Tynan (the company's literary adviser) withdraws the play, alleging that it cannot be cast from within the company. Wesker suspects that his play is the victim of a rift between Tynan and Dexter. Meanwhile, in a scenario that could happen only to Wesker, a company of RSC actors refuse to perform his play The Journalists. Wesker suspects that they object to the presence of several intelligent Tory MPs among the dramatis personae. The possibility that they simply hate it is not contemplated. This is an extreme example of a general trend that can be compositely represented in Scene 5, in which Wesker complains to a journalist that no one in this country wants to mount his plays any more. It would make thematic sense to have him slag off directors here, too.

Scene 6 apparently brings good news. It is 1977, and a production of Shylock is heading for Broadway. Takings of $2m are predicted, but then Zero Mostel, a big box-office draw who had appeared in Mel Brooks's The Producers, collapses and dies, and the show goes the same way after nine performances in New York. Dexter and Wesker do not work together again. Having lived off an overdraft for the first 20 years of his career, the playwright will now live off one for the next 20.

Scene 7 brings us up to the recent past, and the revival of two Wesker classics: an education department production of Roots tours, then goes to the National for a short run; The Kitchen is spectacularly mounted at the Royal Court (courtesy of its then new artistic director, Stephen Daldry) but - for some mysterious reason that its author fails to fathom - does not transfer to the West End (unlike Daldry's near-contemporaneous RNT staging of An Inspector Calls, which is still running in the West End, and on Broadway, five years later).

Scene 8: the nadir. On the death of Osborne, Wesker writes an article in The Guardian about their last encounter, at a soiree at Buckingham Palace. Osborne's widow, Helen, takes offence at Wesker's portrayal of the deceased as a drunkard, and posts his name, alongside those of other personae non gratae, on the door at the memorial service, barring entry. It is the most remarkable public humiliation. But very dramatic. In Scene 9, a solitary Wesker visits Osborne's grave.

To see if the 10th scene brings a happy ending, we must await the judgement of the critics. The setting is the near future - September 1997 - when, 20 years on from the Shylock / Mostel debacle on Broadway, Wesker's diary, The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel, is to be published. More important, the 35-year-old Chips with Everything is to be revived by the National.

Wesker's reaction when first told of the reheating of Chips turns out to have been a familiar cocktail of humility and defiance. "There's no doubt that, when you're done by the National, it's an accolade," he says, in an office overlooking the Thames on the morning of the first run-through. "And, although I've had three productions here, none of them has been on the big stages, so my first question was `Which stage?'. And when they said `The Lyttelton', I was delighted. But, like most writers, one is always excited by those plays that haven't been done. I would have been really ecstatic if they'd have said, `We want to do Shylock,' which I think they should do."

Wesker has a theory that plays require a certain DNA to endure. Is he not worried that the DNA in Chips will make it look like a period piece? "It depends what you mean by a period piece," he says. "If you mean that it belongs to a period, then yes, obviously it belongs to a period. If you mean that it is therefore dead and dull and of peripheral interest, the answer is, I don't know." He later adds: "I don't see it as one of my plays that could last."

However sepia-tinted it may yet turn out to be, Chips with Everything remains the play about National Service. Its hero, Pip Thompson, is the privileged, educated son of a wealthy banker but, perhaps because of some quarrel with his father, has chosen to join the ranks. He stands accused by an officer of slumming it so he can crown himself king of the castle, and by fellow conscripts of patronising the working classes with his empathy. In fact, he despises his new peers as much as his old ones. Their taste for eating chips with everything is symptomatic of a lack of imagination that perpetuates their mass submission. (Wesker, incidentally, has a soft spot for chips too - but not with everything.)

Because so much of Wesker's work is autobiographical - "My power of invention is slight", he wrote in one essay - it is easy to assume that he invested much of himself in Pip: Pip's leading role in the raid on the coke store, and fit of conscience when ordered to do a bayonet charge, both happened to his creator. But there is another airman called Chas who looks up to Pip, and begs to learn at his feet. "Chas and Pip are me in conflict," explains Wesker, "me talking to myself. I am that old-fashioned autodidact. I didn't go to university, so I read a great deal and had a view of the world from all sorts of books." The two characters, in other words, are Wesker before and after he embarked on the project of self-improvement.

The play can be carbon-dated not only by its subject but also by the neutering of its industrial language. In the Penguin text, the conscripts' expletive of choice is "scorching". Wesker has suggested to the director Howard Davies "sprinkling a few `fucks' here and there", while retaining "scorching" as a flavoursome whiff of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Break, My Heart, a new one-act play performed in Cardiff this summer, has been travelling along the linguistic sewer in precisely the opposite direction. When HTV came to film it, they invited its author to lighten the cargo of expletives. "They complained that there were something like 62 `fuckings' and one `cunt'. They said, you can have 12 `fuckings' and no `cunt'. But we managed to bargain with them." The story would suggest that Wesker is becoming more pragmatic. In the old days of adamantine principle, he would probably have refused to barter, and lost out on his pay cheque.

Wesker worries that because some of his plays have gone unperformed in this country, "there is no sense of me as a writer who has developed". But there is a subtle through-line connecting Chips across the decades with Break, My Heart. Set in a terraced house in a Welsh town, it tells of the breakdown in communication between a doltish joiner and his wife, occasioned by her passionate devouring of Shakespeare's sonnets. She has made herself his educational superior, and his only means of expressing supremacy is violently physical. So we are back at the debate between Chas and Pip, and the dramatised argument about whether the autodidact can escape the circumstances of his / her birth.

The revival of Chips with Everything marks a significant crux in Wesker's long, turbulent career, and he is nothing if not aware of it. "With a bit of luck it will make some sort of impact," he says. "And if it, like An Inspector Calls, transfers, then that would be splendid - you have a basis to build on."

On the morning we met, Wesker had received a letter that raked up memories of the 25-year-old debacle at the National. "I hadn't got my glasses on and I was amusing them backstage by saying this is a letter saying, `Dear Mr Wesker, do you want to sell your archives for half a million pounds?'" And it actually turns out to be from someone cataloguing Tynan's archives at the British Library who wants to know if it was Tynan who originally commissioned The Old Ones and why Tynan apparently disliked the play so much." Let us hope it is not an omen. By the way, Wesker has tried to sell his archives. "But the offers have not been very good".

`Chips with Everything' opens at the National Theatre, London SE1, on 4 Sept (0171-928 2252). Wesker will read `Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon' at the National on 3 Sept