Cover image for The birth of Shylock and the death of Zero Mostel
The birth of Shylock and the death of Zero Mostel
Wesker, Arnold, 1932-2016.
Personal Author:
First Fromm International edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fromm International, 1999.

Physical Description:
xvii, 394 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library PR6073.E75 Z465 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the epitome of money-grabbing avarice and cruelty is, Arnold Wesker believes, "a libel on the Jews" and a reflection of Elizabethan racism. Wesker, one of Britain's most revered playwrights, decided to create a counter portrait to the Bard's offensive character by writing his own play, Shylock, in which the Jew is compassionate, intelligent, and deeply moral. John Dexter, the world-renowned director, arranged to have it open on New York's Broadway in 1977 with Zero Mostel in the lead. The play promised to be a great box office draw, with advance bookings high, thanks to Mostel. But after the first preview in Philadelphia Mostel fell ill and died within days. The play opened on Broadway with Mostel's understudy, but its momentum had been fatally damaged and it spiralled into disaster. In this remarkable book Wesker records how the people involved -- including many of New York's cultural elite -- interacted in the making, and unmaking, of an extraordinary theatrical event.

Author Notes

Arnold Wesker grew up in London's Stepney, and after time at the London School of Film Technique and in the Royal Air Force, worked at a number of jobs---carpenter's mate, farm laborer, pastry chef, among others---until Chicken Soup with Barley was performed on an Arts Council grant in 1958. Transferred from a theater in Coventry to the Royal Court, it was joined in repertory there by Roots in 1959 and I'm Talking about Jerusalem in 1960. The realistic trilogy centered on the Kahn family and their connections, in London and Norfolk: old Communists, arts-and-crafts idealists, torpid farm workers, young radicals---nothing less than "the working class today."A different sort of play occupied Wesker just before and after the trilogy---the panoramic description of the ordinary activities of a large group of characters. The Kitchen (1962) followed the rhythms of calm and crisis in a large restaurant; Chips with Everything (1962) dealt with the life of conscripts in an air force training camp. Critic Kenneth Tynan and others welcomed Wesker's microcosms as revelations of the nature of authority and work, and the possibility of collective social action. But Chips, produced in London and New York, was Wesker's last major success. After it, he withdrew temporarily from writing to direct Centre 42, an ambitious worker arts project, the failure of which is memorialized in Their Very Own and Golden City (1966), the chronicle of an idealistic city planner's destructive compromises. Wesker's alienation from the radical politics of the 1970s severed his connection with the British left and threatened his relation with the British theater. (Many of his later plays have had their debut abroad, in Sweden and in the United States.) Since The Four Seasons (1965), about the growing apart of a couple, Wesker's focus has been personal. The Merchant (1976) retells the story of Shylock; Caritas (1981) ends with the martyrdom of a nun; The Old Ones (1972) are brothers confronting the coming of death. The change in Wesker's drama has encouraged readers to return to the early plays and recognize that they are less about collective action than its human difficulties. "I would like to think," the playwright explains, "that my plays . . . have a higher proportion of poetry than journalism." (Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter One The Writing of it 1974 28 October, Blaendigeddi, Wales ... Have been here twelve days reading and researching for Shylock . I'm almost too frightened to acknowledge it but already feel the play tumbling and trembling about inside me, the scenes, the rhythm, the mood. Think I know how it will begin. I've known from the start that the first scene would be with Shylock and Antonio in Shylock's house, Shylock exploding forth on his love of books and showing his collection to his friend, Antonio: SHYLOCK Here, my little treasure, from the very first Hebrew printing press, the code Arba 'a Turim of Jacob ben Asher of Toledo. Look. The date -- 1475, in a place you've never heard of I'm sure, Piove di Sacco, near Padua. ANTONIO Only twenty-one years after Gutenberg. SHYLOCK Pah! Gutenberg! I have here some sheets of printing in Hebrew which go back ten years before Gutenberg. And not in Germany, but in France! Avignon! Very clumsy work. Can't even make out what it is. Book of psalms, I think. Looks like sample sheets.     The truth is I didn't know what that first printing press produced and had romantically decided it was Song of Songs until I looked into Roth's Jews in the Renaissance and discovered the first press had turned out `the code'. Roth also reveals that another press existed at the same time in the south. He tells the remarkable story of the Jewish dyer, Davin of Calarousse, and the Prague goldsmith, Procopius Waldvugel. Waldvugel seems to have heard about, even seen, the Avignon press in its early stages and described it to Davin. They had both set to and tried experimenting with this `art of artificial writing'. Their partnership failed and it's not known whether they ever got around to printing anything. I'm assuming they did! ...     It rains here most of the time but I'm getting great pleasure from reading. And I have this growing sense of responsibility towards the image of the Jew. Shakespeare's Shylock has contributed such an ugly image to the world that my play must be massive enough to lift that caricature out by its four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old roots. 1975 3 January, London ... Am raring to get into Shylock . Will have to get back to Wales, though, to start. Need quiet to break the back of the play ... 7 January, London ... Have got back into research for Shylock . Educating myself, at last! Would like to go deeper into the history of the Renaissance. Into all history, in fact. Can see myself drifting more towards learning and study, away from creativity. The history of printing is fascinating ... 11 January, London ... Have reached that stage in the reading and research where I fear I've done enough and now will have to face writing the play. Got enormous pleasure reading about the Renaissance and the development of printing, especially to have discovered the role of the Italian publisher, Aldus Manutius.     Perhaps a little more research -- on coffee. Was coffee drunk in Italy in 1560? Can it be a speciality which Shylock has brought back from the East -- if coffee came from the East. I'd like to have a coffee-making scene to interweave with Shylock's story that I plan to have him tell about the Aldine Press ... 2 February, Blaendigeddi ... Read aloud to friends Vera and John excerpts from the notes I'd made for Shylock . It worked. `It will be your best,' they said. They were thrilled. I know I'm right about that play ... 8 February, Blaendigeddi ... I start this new [note] book with a calamitous entry: Yesterday, having anxiously inched my way these months towards beginning Shylock -- I began. A day to celebrate. Was thrilled and tense, but confident. Could feel it all in me. It would be a bold, stunning new work. The peak of my dramatic skills. Giddy thoughts! The first day went well. Two and a half pages. Most of it from notes I'd already made. Then today, it still read well, and I found more to add to what was there before continuing. Continued. Stopped to go shopping in Hay-on-Wye. Returned to read what I'd written this morning. Still good. Then wrote more. And added. Then broke for dinner, which Paul [local farmer's son] joined me in.     `Are you working?' he asked. I explained the process, being full of it, and -- as always -- curious about myself, about the way it happened.     `The real terror,' I told him, `is to start at all. Because when you start you either don't put it down quite how it's in you or you do -- exactly how it's in you. And both can be bad. But the first is not so bad, because if you can see you haven't put it down quite as you felt it then there's hope you can change. But to get it down exactly as you imagined it, to make your hand follow your head and heart and then find it's no good -- that's the nightmare.'     After dinner returned to the study, wrote a little, then became stuck. Sat and sat in front of the book but couldn't think how best to go on. Read through the original breakdown I'd made of the Shakespeare plot to see if his structure could point a way forward. In the first scene Bassanio asks for the loan, in the second, Portia reveals her obligation to her father and the caskets, by the third the bond is made with Shylock. Master craftsman -- the main ingredients and characters of his plot laid out at once. I'd reached Scene 3 and the only element revealed of my plot was related to Portia and the caskets.     Decided to go back to the beginning, read what I'd written and see if I could tighten up. Fatal! By the time I'd read the second page it seemed I had no play to write after all. This work, which was to have been the most `brilliant' of them all, now read like a flabby, wordy, historical bore. Even more disturbing it seemed racially self-conscious. A phantom pregnancy!     And here I am, in the middle of the Black Mountains, isolated and alone with this dreadful discovery, this unbearable knowledge, and not even a vehicle into which I can throw my bags and leave.     Think I must get out of this study for a start. And yet feel I ought to force myself to look at the script again. To start savagely cutting and rewriting, to go back and look as I might at a dead body just in case I've panicked too soon and it's really still breathing. Leave it now, and by morning it might really be dead.     My God! How did I write all those other plays? Later -- 11.30 p.m. I've brought sanity and order to the first scene. Will leave the second till tomorrow when it will seem either lost or redeemable. Too tired to fight any more. When I was young I wrote best at this time of night. What lunacy to take on Shakespeare. 10 February, Blaendigeddi ... God knows how I recovered. Went back at it and cut again and again and then went on with the fingers of my heart crossed. Wrote a lot yesterday and even more today. Too much in fact. It worries me. But much of it is work already written in the book called `Notes'. What I'm doing is just creating a structure in which those notes can sit. Still, it's going to be long. After only three days writing I'm at page 22 -- about sixty minutes of playing time. Ideally I want to make the first act ninety minutes and the second seventy-five minutes long. That's not too long for a work that aspires to sit beside the Master's. No, not sit beside , more as an appendage to.     The fear remains, however, the panicky feeling lurks constantly. The play is too facile! The language can't make up its mind whether to be fifteenth or twentieth century, prose or iambic pentameter. Shakespearean rhythms creep in. The imagery is impoverished, non existent ... so many fears.     John [Allin] has arrived. Won't do much more on it before leaving for London, I suppose. 16 February, London ... Needless to say I've touched nothing of Shylock , hardly dare look at what is written. Not that I've had time ... 29 March, Blaendigeddi Haven't touched Shylock but, with trepidation, began reading over what I'd written till now. Not too bad. Could be ... could be ... 3 April, London ... And then news like this comes through my post: a magazine collating press references to Jews and the Israeli problem, organised by the Campaign Against Hate Propaganda, writes: `Dear Mr Wesker, Throughout Britain an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda campaign is gathering momentum ...!' Read in the Sunday Times (23 February, page 6) of recent attempts to deny six million Jews were slaughtered in the gas chambers. Feel even more driven ... 13 April, London ... Shylock continues. Grows rich and succulent in arias, argument and historical colouring. But over-ripe, I fear. The first draft looks like running for four hours! Will have to be cut. But a shape goes down, it does! And part of me is excited while part of me is filled with despair, feeling that it will not merely be hated in this country but ignored.     Times headline: ARAB BOYCOTT STARTS TO HURT THE ISRAELIS ... 14 April, London ... Asked the Kustows and Appignanesis if they'd listen to what I'd written of the dinner scene which includes Shylock's long Renaissance speech (Act I, Scene 7) and about which I had been worried, feeling it was overloaded with information -- all history and no drama. Silly, really, since history is very dramatic. They were a generous and receptive audience ... Mike was a little hesitant and later I'll push him further to say why. But it was reassuring. Thank God for friends. Orna was very alert and said she's a good test because she usually gets quickly bored if a play becomes too intellectually heavy. It was alive, they said ... Still, there's a long way to go and much honing to do. 16 April, London ... Further evidence of the mess the theatre is in -- Mike [Kustow] tells me there are now strong fears that the RSC will have to abandon its London home at the Aldwych for lack of funds. He also related how the stage hands at the National, now numbering in their ranks those arch-reactionaries of Vanessa Redgrave's Workers' Revolutionary Party, refused to move the Beckett play on tour because it didn't involve any set changes -- only two characters stuck in the sand -- which meant they couldn't earn their £175 a week. I think they've stated they'll only tour it if those salaries are paid. Which makes the tour difficult. Irony, irony -- the `workers' party refuses to allow theatre out of the metropolis to the workers! ...     I write my Shylock and fear for it so much ... 25 April, London ... Read out excerpts from Shylock to American students from Lisa's college in Arundel who came for tea. They responded warmly, but a couple of acquaintances present (Ulle Pegler, a German agent from Munich, and Jenny Sheridan from my agent's office) remained stonily unresponsive, which made me at once feel that the play was wooden, long, a failure of language, totally unplayable ...     Think I must not read to anyone again. This crazed hunger for feedback is a writer's curse. Two scenes remain to be written: the court scene and the return to Belmont. I approach them slowly though it seems I know what they must do: carefully structured, not a speech too much, not a word out of place.     If this play fails to take wing then it will be a sign: that I can make no claim to being a playwright ... 26 April, London ... Haven't been able to touch Shylock . Lost appetite for it. Well, well! The artist really does need feedback, nothing crazed about it at all ... 2 May, London ... Still haven't been able to touch Shylock . Wasted the week away with domestic chores ... 10 May, London ... Asked bank manager to lend me £6000 to go into partnership with the printer, John Gorman, to print a limited edition of silkscreen prints of John Allin's paintings -- to be called `Stepney Streets'. He listened to the project, immediately saw its virtues, said he trusted me, and agreed. Gratifying to experience faith in one. But how time-consuming it is setting up a business venture. I'm determined to see it through, however -- panic preparations for supplementing the drop that must one day hit my theatre royalties. Unless Shylock works ...     Finished the court scene. Am now working on the last scene. Short but difficult to construct because it must draw together delicate endings ... Between 19 and 30 May the first typed draft was completed, i.e. the second draft. I write in long hand, correct, cut and change copiously until the script is unreadable at which point I need to type it. 2 July, London ... Should have rushed to write about everything that's happening in my life and the world: overwhelming vote to stay in Europe -- good for the English. Seems they don't mind mixing with foreigners after all. My three days in Warsaw, and my week in Venice with Nina which was lovely and almost silent, just full of walking the streets, drinking espressos, a little sunning, and blocks of conversation between long pauses. She was a great help during our discussions, though I think she partially disapproves of my motives for writing Shylock since she does not see the original as having an anti-Semitic impact ... 30 August, London Nearly two months later. Diary entries made less and less frequently. Why? Because I can't be bothered, mainly. Also because I've been so absorbed writing Shylock , which I've now finished, second typed draft, two weeks in Wales typing the bloody thing. Also, perhaps, because I think it of diminishing importance to record the bits and pieces of my life. Perhaps another reason is because I'm -- kind of -- happy! Shylock works, may even prove to be my best play ... Certainly responses from friends are good ...     Robin wants to give it to P. Hall at the National. I suppose it is the only place for it but I flinch. The climate is so, so aggressively infantile in the theatre ... I feel raw. I don't want to offer it to them. Send it round the world, yes, but here -- ach! here the theatre is run down like everything else -- industry, services, politics. The little bombs have started again in the West End, laid down by a splinter of a splinter of the IRA. And the sectarian killings in Northern Ireland go on and on. Men picked up and killed at random. I shall never forget reading about a social worker who, before he was killed in Belfast, described the violence as `The beery hatred that is handed down from father to son.' The Journalists looks like happening in Cardiff, followed by a ten-week tour, maybe ending up in the Edinburgh Festival. That'd be nice. 9 September, London ... Reports of and responses to Shylock are still warm. Though I can't see how it can hope for life in the present theatrical climate ... 14 September, London ... Responses to Shylock coming in are gratifying. Richard [Appignanesi] says, `It's a masterpiece! You made it!' Ron came round to tell me specially: `It's a level you've not touched before.' Beryl said it was so `assured'. All talk about it in a special way, as though they'd read something really unprecedented.     Can I have made it work? What will P. Hall say? And Papp in New York? Ian McKellen wrote: `... it's better than Will's one!' I feel so full of confidence for it that I'm tempted to buy myself a new typewriter, or gramophone! Copyright © 1997 Arnold Wesker. All rights reserved.

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