'Literary leper' Wesker attacks National's Eyre

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The Independent Online
ARNOLD WESKER, self- styled angry old man of the British theatre, and Richard Eyre, the National Theatre's director, are at daggers drawn over the refusal of the latter to put on the plays of the former.

'Does my breath smell? Are my armpits unwashed?' asks the playwright in his forthcoming autobiography, whose publication this week will make public the long-simmering dispute between the two.

In the book, Wesker accuses Eyre of keeping his work off the stage, by refusing to put on any of his recent plays.

The charge opens up a current debate about whether the big subsidised theatres should keep the public up to date with the work of Britain's best- known playwrights as well as staging works that catch the artistic director's eye.

In Wesker's case, five of his 33 plays have been performed in the regions and abroad but never in London, and six have never been performed at all.

New plays which British audiences cannot see are at present being performed in Tokyo and Chicago.

Wesker mocks Eyre in his book for saying about one new work that it might have a better chance in the provinces. Wesker says: 'I was uncertain what the implications of that suggestion were - that there is a 'provincial' play and a 'metropolitan' one? That couldn't be. Richard's career had developed in provincial theatres.'

In the autobiography, As Much As I Dare, to be published by Century Books on Thursday, Wesker writes: 'It is the queerest of sensations, this literary leprosy. Chilling.

'Richard Eyre is a kindly and courteous man who gazes down on one as though he was the local vicar consoling bereavement. He has promptly and unstintingly read and said 'no' to six new plays, including one for children, replying in short notes with no reasons offered, except on one occasion simply the observation that it is 'not for us' . . . I will never know what it is he thinks he's read, or why it's 'not for us'. Nor will I ever understand who 'us' is . . . Rejection is humiliating for the playwright who has an international reputation.'

Eyre said last week: 'It's very painful for Arnold to be cast out of paradise, and it must be very painful for Arnold to write plays which he thinks are as good as his early plays and other people don't. What I meant when I said the play was not for us was, I don't like the play sufficiently to do it. I have to make value judgements.'

In the correspondence quoted in the book, Eyre concludes: 'I am sorry you are having financial problems and send you all the best wishes in the world.'

Wesker said last week he was still having financial problems and living on an overdraft. He said he had offered new plays not just to the National, but also to the Royal Court, which helped to make his name, and to the Royal Shakespeare Company. All the new plays had been turned down.

'I know that directors want to make their own discoveries of new writers,' he said. 'But there are a number of us older playwrights who are good, and where do we get our power from?' (Peter Nichols, author of Privates on Parade, has also had plays turned down by the National.) Wesker suggested that one theatre be turned over to a season of 'new and revived work by Osborne, Shaffer, Bond and, yes, Wesker'.

But at the weekend Max Stafford-Clark, former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, responded: 'I don't think there's an obligation on the part of any public theatre to stage the work of established writers. The Royal Court's primary task is to put on the work of new writers. Writers are like athletes. They have a shorter rather than a long career. They hit a particular moment, write about it, and things move on. Shakespeare, Shaw and David Hare are the exceptions in having long careers. Many of the great playwrights, Congreve for example, only wrote a couple of plays.'

Wesker, who burst on the scene in 1959 as one of the so- called 'Angry Young Men' with hits including the National Service play Chips With Everything, The Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots, said: 'I was never an angry young man, none of us was. On the contrary, we were all very happy young men and women. Who would not have been happy? Discovered, applauded, paid, made internationally famous overnight? But I am an angry old man.'

(Photographs omitted) Sunday review, page 72