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Arnold Wesker's thoughts on Denial


Arnold Wesker, playwright, writing on the 2012 production of Denial at the King's Head Theatre

The story behind DENIAL is this.  One day someone from my past rang to tell me he had a story which he thought would made a good play: Something awful that had happened to his friends.  I sighed.  Writers are frequently confronted by people telling them they have good ideas for a play.  Usually they are right, it is just that their stories are rarely stories that ‘speak’ to the writer approached.  But within minutes of hearing what had happened to his friends I knew that this story was ‘speaking’ to me.

I never contemplate writing a play unless the material is more than itself; in other words unless the story resonates with wider implications.

This material, about his friends’ daughter who had turned on them with dreadful, unfounded accusations of sexual abuse when she was a child was more than a story about a painful, domestic injustice; it was about the theme of manipulation - the therapist as manipulator.  

Many of my plays have been concerned with ‘the manipulator’: the priest or religion as manipulator (‘CARITAS’); the journalist as manipulator (‘THE JOURNALISTS’); the politician or political ideology as manipulator (‘CHICKEN SOUP WITH BARLEY’); authority as manipulator (‘CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING’).  And so on.

I met the couple – a middleclass couple from North London – and taped many hours of their story.  I read books of other case histories, and talked with people in the field of psychotherapy.  I never met ‘Valerie’, the therapist, but I read documents she’d written, and documents about her.  She is still practicing, and organises weekend conferences on the dubious topic of ‘recovered memories of child abuse’.

The real-life couple are destroyed.  Their daughter’s accusations obsess their life. They were once a close, loving and happy family, now they don’t see their daughter her or their grandchildren.  The mother becomes more and more depressed as the years go by.  They travel back and forth between the UK and the USA meeting with other parents who are in the same situation.  There are at least 16,000 affected families in the U.S, and over 800 in the U.K.  Support groups exist for such families all over the world.

For me the most distressing part of this saga is the avoidance I experienced from theatres in the UK to perform the play.  I was appalled at the response.  The theatre is the one place where the unthinkable should be thought and the un-sayable said.  It should be the arena in which the playwright is permitted to be courageous about human relationships as well as political or social issues.  I worry that the theatre has become the home of the cosy and the comfortable, where the politically correct are stroked, and intelligence remains unchallenged.