The Worst Of Times: Zero died; so did my play: Arnold Wesker Talks To Danny Danziger

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Iwrote a play called Shylock, which I was convinced was going to be the most glorious success. A great star, Zero Mostel, was playing the lead, and in those days, to have Zero Mostel in your play made it a guaranteed success.

The cast was assembled, and we began rehearsals in Minskoff's studios on Broadway. Day after day, the director, John Dexter, would come in with new ideas, the actors were inspired, and everyone felt we were en route to a major event in Broadway theatre history.

I even thought I was going to be a millionaire, for the producer said to me: 'Mr Wesker, you are going to be a very rich young man . . .' And on the strength of that, I bought two articles of clothing for a sum of money I had never spent before: an alpaca coat, which I still have, and which still looks like a million dollars, and a pair of antelope boots I wear on high days and holidays.

My only worry about having Zero in my play was that physically, he was huge, just huge. And I said to him: 'Zero, you must lose some weight.' And he did -the pounds began to drop off at an alarming rate.

We took the play on tour before opening in New York, and we had an incredibly enthusiastic audience of nearly 1,000 people on our first night in Philadelphia. But I was worried about Zero because he appeared to be mumbling, and he looked just awful.

And right after that performance, he collapsed, and was taken to hospital.

He was OK for a few days, and then his heart failed, and they couldn't revive him, and later that afternoon, I had to tell the cast of his death.

I didn't exactly think: 'Oh, my God, I killed the legend of Broadway, but I had a sense of contributory guilt. He had lost about 86lbs in a short time on a liquid diet, and I had this feeling that the diet - as well as the normal tensions and pressures that are inherent in rehearsing a play - had affected his heart.

What now? The play had to go on. Danny Kaye volunteered to play Zero's role, but I decided instead to go with the understudy, Joseph Leon. He was a good actor, although not a star by any means, but Dexter worked on him, and got a performance out of him that was quite extraordinary.

There were many tensions in this second period of rehearsal. Because there wasn't a star, everyone began to be worried about the play itself; lines were cut and that made all the actors unhappy.

Nevertheless, we worked through all that, and arrived at the first night in a state of high excitement, especially since the previews for this second tour had played to ecstatic audiences. At the last preview, a large blonde lady had stood up at the end of the performance, and said in a very loud, sincere voice: 'Well, thank God, a literate play at last.'

The first night was wonderful. The cast were on top form, and even hardened theatrical impresarios were convinced we had made it.

My whole family and many of my friends had come over from England for the opening night. I had booked two tables in Sardi's, and when we entered the restaurant, everybody stood up and applauded.

As the evening wore on, newspaper reviews were brought to our table, and they were all excellent. But there is only one review that matters, and that is the New York Times. It didn't matter that Clive Barnes, who had been the terror of Broadway for so many years as the theatre critic of the New York Times, had moved over to the New York Post and given the play an absolutely ecstatic review . . . it was the Times that mattered.

Around about midnight, the review was brought in.

It started very encouragingly: ' . . . A totally original play. Provocative, intelligent. The writing has moments of ferocious brilliance and wit. Joseph Leon plays the part with humour and moments of real passion . . .'

Now with all those things, you'd think, this play must be worth seeing.

But it is the last line that is important. People always go straight to the last line of a New York Times review, and that tells them whether it is going to be a play they must immediately rush to the box office and book. Or not.

And the last line said: 'The evening is stimulating, but only sometimes successful.'

I could see that the very people who had applauded us coming into the restaurant were queuing to get out. Failure is considered a sort of illness in the States, and no one wants to get too near it, for fear it might be contagious in some way.

Of course, I've often wondered what would have happened if the sentence had been turned the other way around: 'Although not always successful, this is a stimulating evening in the theatre.' Well, we will never know, because my play lasted only four more days, and it was taken off.

After the play folded, I went to see Zero's widow, Kate. What do you say to the wife of a legend who has died in your play?

I confessed to Kate: 'On the first night of my play, The Kitchen, my father died. When Chips With Everything was on Broadway, Kennedy was assassinated.

When Shylock opened in Stockholm, my mother died, and now Zero died on this first night.' She nudged me, and she said: 'Getting afraid of putting pen to paper, huh?'

And it did indeed take some time before I wrote another play.

Arnold Wesker's autobiography, 'As Much As I Dare', is published by Century.

(Photograph omitted)

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