Playwright Arnold Wesker wanted the best of art and culture to reach further than just the elite and had a great idea about how to achieve this. Youth blogger Rachel Santa Cruz explores who he was and how how he created art for all.
Born in Stepney on 24 May 1932 to Leah (nee Perlmutter) and Joe, a tailor’s machinist, Arnold Wesker grew up in a working class family. At 16 years old, he began working a string of odd jobs, including furniture making and carpentry before eventually enlisting in the Royal Air Force for two years. Through these jobs he was able to afford tuition to attend the London School of Film Technique.
Wesker soon established himself as a prolific playwright, with works such as The Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Barley, and Roots earning him national acclaim. Once Wesker had achieved commercial success as a dramatist, he began working on his dream of art for all. He believed art should be free, just as education and health were. Arnold Wesker once told a group of politicians, playwrights, and actors at a fundraising event that the state of the arts in England was a “mean joke”. With a 20-year plan, Wesker wanted to create an arts centre that would be an immaculate home for the next generation of performers.
A space was needed, therefore, for the country’s first arts arena. The Roundhouse, an ex-engine shed in the heart of Chalk Farm, had been acquired and a campaign to raise the funds needed to refurbish it was launched. Named after agenda item 42 (the statement that Wesker put forward to the congress to address what he saw as the neglect of the arts), which was passed by the Trade Union Congress in 1960, Centre 42 was born. It was to house a theatre, concert hall, cinema, art gallery, library, dance hall, and restaurant: all under one roof. Wesker also planned for a permanent company of actors, an orchestra as well as a jazz band.
Both Centre 42 and Arnold Wesker faced hardships along the way. In 1964, an appeal was launched for £750,000 which would transform the Roundhouse into what Wesker dreamed it could go on to be. Only £80,000 was raised, which all went to building conversions. The Roundhouse was rented out for different events to raise funds, which led to an ideological split between Sir Arnold Wesker and the Roundhouse programming.
“I began to feel we had created a monster” remarked Wesker on Centre 42 being used solely for hire to accumulate box office profits, “Centre 42 has lost both its building and its impetus” he told The Guardian in 1970. He resigned as artistic director of the Roundhouse programme in 1970, after a decade of valiantly attempting to replace the former arts scene with something better and fairer.
Since the Roundhouse’s reopening as a charitable organisation and venue in 2006, more than 30,000 young people have benefitted from the Roundhouse’s facilities, equipment, and mentoring, all supported through a diverse programme of events
Sir Arnold Wesker passed away on 12 April 2016. Marcus Davey, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Roundhouse, remarked at the time “We’re deeply saddened to hear that Sir Arnold Wesker has passed away. Fifty years ago he founded the Roundhouse as an arts centre to champion art for all – a passion and a promise we remain committed to this day. He shaped arts and culture as we know it and he will be truly missed.” The Roundhouse today could be seen as Arnold Wesker’s dream finally realised.