Arnold Wesker: From stage to page

After writing 40 plays, Arnold Wesker has at last written his first novel. He describes the liberating effect of not having actresses decide how to portray the women he has created
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I discovered the difference between the two crafts to be numerous. The novel was more difficult to control. A play is like a race horse, just one bridle to hold. The novel is a huge wagon pulled by many horses - more words, more characters, more settings. You can't get away with the simplistic in a novel as you can in a play; on the other hand, you can take your time in a way that you can't in the theatre.

In both forms the writer can make an emotional impact, but when theatre is at its best that emotional impact can be visceral in a way that prose can't be, because it is humans talking to humans, not print talking to humans. The downside is that the human voice of the actor dictates how the written voice is received. A virtue of the novel is that, without the actor as intermediary, readers are given freedom to build their own picture of events and personalities. The novelist trusts his readers to "get it" without help. More, the printed work allows a reader to go back over a paragraph not understood first time round. It could be said the stage dictates, the page liberates.

Honey is about one of the characters, Beatie Bryant, in my early play, Roots, the second in The Wesker Trilogy. Roots ends with Beatie, the daughter of a farm labourer, discovering her own voice. The question was often asked: what happened to Beatie afterwards? For a long time I wanted to answer that question, and always knew it would be in the form of a novel. It could have been a play, but the material, as it mulled around in my head, always suggested itself as material for a novel. That form would provide a larger canvas for more subtle thoughts and interplay. Added to which, I have always wanted to write a novel.

I grew up on novels, not plays. Though I wanted to be an actor we could not afford the theatre. The Odeon cinema in Brick Lane was where I honed a sense of drama. The only plays I saw were those I acted in as an amateur in Toynbee Hall at Aldgate East. Life and ideas came to me through the novel.

Novels were sagas of simple beginnings that grew in complexity, unfolded compellingly as characters made decisions that damaged their lives or led them to impact upon each other in sometimes happy, sometimes disastrous ways. They wrung me out, whether they were written by DH Lawrence or AJ Cronin; Upton Sinclair or Dostoevsky; Howard Spring or George Orwell. I panicked if there was not another Penguin to hand after I'd finished reading the previous one. I lived each page intensely and marvelled at the writer's skill and powers of perception. I wanted to move other people as those writers had moved me.

My first attempt (inexplicably titled Dorna Karshon) was made when I was about 12; it was begun but never finished. My second attempt, very bad, was based on the experience of National Service in the RAF, which I later turned into a play called Chips With Everything.

And though my career went into writing plays (and four books of short stories along the way), I kept over the years a box file called "Notes towards a novel" full of scribbled-on sheets; and later a computer file of "first lines". Three examples of first lines that didn't lead anywhere:

"His suicide note read: 'Sorry, darlings, I couldn't work it out.' This is the story of what it was he could not work out."

"'Bury the body and remember the good times' - those were his last words. What good times?"

"The restaurant was quiet with careful couples carefully chewing their meals and not conversing."

Forty-two plays later, the novel-writing mood descended, and a "first line" (which had grown into a paragraph), dated 6 May 1997, flew afire.

"He said: 'When you get too old for it, like me, you look. I'm sorry, young woman. Rude of me. I've finished my coffee. I'm going.'

I told him I didn't mind. 'Men always look at me,' I said. 'I'm beautiful.' That made him smile, and in his smile I saw the young man he once was and thought - the streets are full of young men trapped in old men's bodies."

That seemed promising, and I felt driven to fan the flames into a novel.

I knew the experience of writing a novel would be - to change metaphors - a bumpy ride of pitfalls and surprises. I recorded the journey as a diary. One of the reasons for writing a novel rather than a play was, I wrote in that diary, "to free myself from the interpretations of concept-crazy directors who want to intrude their voice into the play as though the writer's voice was inadequate." The stage filters the playwright through director, actor and sometimes designer. The novel's page allowed me to speak directly to my reader.

The biggest difference, therefore, was to do with control. I wanted greater control of my material. I listen to comments and advice but I need to know I have final control, because in the end it's my head that rolls. If I want to present an unfaithful wife on the stage as gentle, bewildered and demanding of our pity then I don't want an actress presenting her as a ruthless woman because she, the actress, thinks unfaithful wives are ruthless women.

Many would say that such filtering is needed because it tempers the "God-like" authorial voice. Of late, that voice has been attacked for its deistic presumptions, but the thrill of reading those novels of my youth lay in that very individual, idiosyncratic, "God-like" voice. The ultimate power of all free art is that the "God-like" voice is only a temporary one. When you have put the book down you can argue with, and measure - from your own experience - what "God" has observed and perceived, and accept it or reject it.

It will be obvious that Honey was written by a playwright because there is more dialogue than description; my novel doesn't begin with: "It was a dark and stormy night," but: "He said." For me, people describe themselves through what they say and the tone of what they say as well as their actions. Have I achieved a crossover? Others must decide. Despite that I thrill to the spoken word, I hope that where descriptive prose was called for I rose to it.

© Arnold Wesker

'Honey' is published by Scribner, priced £16.99