Where Civilisation Begins

ARNOLD WESKER, born in Stepney in 1932, is the author of The Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, I'm Talking about Jerusalem, and Chips with Everything. He is the prime mover in Centre 42, whose origins and hopes he explains in this extract from a broadcast talk.

SUCCESS IS SWEET, and suddenly to be taken seriously after years of rejection slips is very flattering; but fortunately, being surrounded by an immediate family and friends that were pretty hard-headed, I managed to keep this all in perspective, and suddenly found myself in a situation where I was writing about experiences that disturbed me, and implied in my writing — as indeed is implied by the writing of so many of us — the fact that something is wrong. I couldn't on the one hand write a play like Roots, highlighting a sort of cultural bankruptcy, a sort of cultural exploitation, and be satisfied simply with having done this. This disturbed me too much and has led me to a situation where I feel that writing is not enough; and I decided to stop, and do something about this.

I think our generation is confronted with all sorts of dilemmas where they feel that something must be done, and this very closely ties up with my participation in the activities of the Committee of 100, where I felt that to march and merely sign petitions was not enough; one had to do something actively and show that one was prepared to sacrifice something, and on this issue I decided to go to prison. This is not a desperately heroic thing; it is not a great sacrifice when you consider the millions of people who spent years and years in concentration and prisoner-of-war camps, but it was a gesture; and the thing about being in prison was that I was able to tie up almost everything, not merely my feelings on CND, but my feelings about my writing in relation to what I was doing. I came to two decisions while in prison: one, as far as the Committee of 100 was concerned, I felt that the protest of sitting and marching was not enough, and that even a month in gaol was certainly not enough, but what in fact is now needed is something like industrial action. And on the other issue, I decided that, not being able to reconcile what I was writing about, I had to stop writing, and find ways and means of doing something about what I had called this terrible cultural bankruptcy and exploitation that exists.

There is no point in writing the plays we do if in fact they are going to be seen by 5 per cent of the population, and these a mixture of the converted and the indifferent. There are so many millions of people outside this 5 per cent who don't know what we are writing about that there really is no point in writing, I would say.

This whole problem is so complex because one is not concerned merely about one thing. This would be simple. It would be easier if one was. There is the problem of the artist's place in society; he is not considered important, and there is a need to re-establish him in a rightful role in society. There is the problem of a vast army of commercial people exploiting what are genuine searchings for beauty, poetry, fun, enjoyment — the number of people I have spoken to who head this so-called entertainment industry; the callous and cynical tones in which they set about their work, and they just start off by treating the public as a moron. These are the terms they use; 'Listen, boys, we're in this for money, we've got to make a packet, now what's the lowest common denominator? There is £9,000,000 that these kids are spending on pop records, well, somehow we've got to get this, so let's make it easier, give 'em an echo chamber, a bit of love and a rhythm and that's it. We can sell these kids anything'. And here you have a picture of a vast army, a generation of youngsters who have lively minds, who have this urge to be alive; they are looking around for something to grab hold of, and all they are confronted with is this conglomeration of cynical, hard, cold-blooded commercial men who are out to exploit the money that this new generation suddenly find they possess. This is another side of the problem.

In addition there is the problem of the arts themselves, which are in a confused state. There are no standards. I think this is why our writings have been so applauded, because there are no standards in the theatre: the theatre was so bad before our emergence that when we came along with a bit of guts, we were applauded. And there are no standards in painting when people can come along with blank canvases of distemper and sell them at fabulous prices. This is a world that is going mad. I think we need a cultural revolution of some sort or other.

I want to form an organisation of artists themselves, who raise the money from their own immediate resources and from any other source outside — governmental, local government, industrial, private means. This is the point at which one can talk about the history of an organisation that we call Centre 42. What is interesting is that this concern with the cultural bankruptcy of this country is a concern that is shared by an important minority of the community, and this is shown by the passing of a resolution in 1960 at the Trades Union Congress, which expressed a concern for the state of the arts and called upon the General Council to make a report. A number of writers and artists got together, sharing the same concern. These artists decided to set up an organisation which would assume control of the cultural framework of this country, to assume responsibility for it and alter it.

Its programme started off by aiming at setting up a centre, a sorting-out house, from which the work of our finest composers, writers, painters, would go out to festivals up and down the country; but in fact when news of our formation was announced in the press we were approached within days by one trades council in Wellingborough, a town of 30,000 people. For us this is a historical town, because it is the first town that approached us and asked us to mount a festival, which we did. The story of Wellingborough is interesting, because rather than talking about our theory and what we plan to do, Wellingborough actually happened; and what happened in Wellingborough demonstratively indicates what we are aiming to do, because Wellingborough was a very modest festival. We were asked to mount it at a time when we were not equipped either financially or organisationally to cope with it. We mounted it, modestly as I say, as a sort of hotch-potch festival, but it worked.

We had Peter Seeger playing in one of the pubs to teenagers who sat goggle-eyed; they who had previously only heard Elvis Presley or some of the others strumming on a guitar on a record, and there they heard an instrumentalist, and they were so excited. This is one of the things that can happen through these festivals. One of the other things that we did was to collect together the work of local artists. The person we had asked to collect this work together said: 'I think there are about five artists here, and I can get their work, but you won't find that there are many more'. When in fact he started, he discovered thirty local artists, and their work was hung in pubs, and one of the pubs said 'you can hang your work here all the year round'; they were so surprised at discovering each other that they formed themselves into a group and they want us to come back again.

One of the interesting things was in setting up the trade union exhibition, which was an exhibition of trade union work. The Woodworkers' Union had their tools and the work the woodworkers produced; alongside it we put the work of a local artist in wood. We worked overnight to set up this exhibition together with the local trade unionists, and one of the most pleasing comments afterwards — I think it was from a man in the Woodworkers' Union — was: 'Well, now I have to revise my idea of what an artist is, I now have to think in entirely different terms', and suddenly there was a contact.

The other element of success is that we have been invited to mount six other festivals in six other cities. You can see that this pattern can grow, that throughout the year you can have festivals under the auspices of trades councils or municipal councils or universities or factories or housing estates, and immediately you have contact with a completely new audience, an audience that is not only attending the events that are presented but is helping to establish them. This is such a simple programme when you think about it, but so far-reaching in its effects. We aim to establish ourselves on a non-profit basis: we are a charity, registered with the Board of Trade. The fact that we have established ourselves in this way means that we can afford to play to half a dozen people in the first year, and twelve in the next year, and perhaps fifty in the year after, and it will grow, because we are establishing a whole tradition throughout the country that is quite new. This is what I mean by a cultural revolution.

In practice everything is marvellous about a welfare state, but the one thing that is wrong is that you have provided a sort of welfare for the ease and leisure of the community but nothing to fill in. All right, they have more leisure, and there is more money and there are better houses, but these are only the beginning — this is where civilisation begins. These are the basic requisites, but you have to fill in this life; and here is where I draw from experience. I have not reached these conclusions theoretically or academically: for me, living in the East End and finally recognising that there was something wrong with these mean streets went hand in hand with listening to music, and the same feeling that I had about the meanness of the streets was balanced by the glory of living that I found expressed in, for instance, a Beethoven symphony. For me this is the connection; if it worked for me, then there must be dozens, hundreds, thousands of other people that it could work for as well. There is a connection between the arts and poverty. It seems to me that it is possible that a man who is capable of being moved, whose sensitivities are sharpened, by a Bach oratorio, is capable of being moved by poverty.

And there's the young audience missing from the theatre. I've just started here — and it's a very long-term thing — to make contact with the schools. In the last few weeks we've had two groups of older children from different schools at the theatre. They come here for a whole week without a teacher. They meet a young director, an actor, an author. They're taken to other theatres, to a designer's studio, to an acting school, to the workshop. They see a rehearsal at the beginning of the week and then again at the end. They have a complete week of theatre. Most of them seem to have been thrilled, and some have written to tell us that it's given them a totally different idea of what the theatre means. One boy said that it had not only affected his feelings about the theatre, but about life in general, to see a group of people working together in this dedicated way …

—GEORGE DEVINE in the Twentieth Century.

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Sep 5 2016 22:51


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