John Arden


Life

1930-2012; b. 26 Oct. 1930, Barnsley, Yorkshire, son of the manager of a glass factory; ed. Sedburgh, King’s Coll., Cambridge, followed by military service; worked as arch. assistant in London; held Fellowship in Playwriting at Bristol Univ., 1959-60; visiting lect. in Politics and Drama, NYU 1967, during which time he staged The War Carnival, in the NYU Drama Dept., culminating with his announcement that the play was CIA-commissioned to weed out anti-war activists, after which he trampled the US flag; Regent’s Lecturer, Davis (Univ. of California), 1973; Writer in Residence, New England Univ., Australia, 1975; m. D’Arcy, 1957, and settled in Co. Galway;

 
a Marxian playwright often compared with Brecht, he writes chiefly about English provincial politics; The Waters of Babylon, slum landlordism (1957), first presented with All Fall Down by students at Edinburgh Univ. in 1955; wrote The Life of Man (1956), for radio; Live Like Pigs (1958), dealing with a housing-estate conflict between the itinerant Sawneys and the settled Jacksons Sarjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959), dir. by Lindsay Anderson, Court Th., London, and set in Yorkshire 1860-80, an anti-war play and his best-known work, inspired by the killing of four innocent people by British troops in an anti-terrorist strike in Cyprus, 1958; the play tells of four returning soldiers in the 1860s who range themselves against the Mayor, Constable, and Parson in a strikebound Northern town, using the bones of a dead comrade to win over the community; panned by Harold Hobson as ‘another frightful ordeal’ but successfully revived by Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance successfully revived by Oxford Th. Co. in 2003; also on BBC3 radio about that time;
 
wrote The Happy Haven (1960), dealing with an insurrection in an old-age home, featuring younger actors wearing ‘old’ masks; Business of Good Government (1960); Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1963), concerning an art-teacher’s efforts to control his class-room; The Workhouse Donkey (1963), on a puritanical police chief’s encounter with municipal corruption; Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (1964), dealing with Scottish border violence in the 1530s; Left-Handed Liberty (1965) written to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Magna Carta; The Royal Pardon (1966); his use of non-professional actors triggered a professional ‘blockade’ lasting many years; The Hero Rises Up (1969), written in collaboration with D’Arcy, was edited without authorisation by Martin Esslin, Head of BBC Drama; Arden accused Esslin of political censorship in Plays and Players;
 

Arden and D’Arcy picketed the Royal Shakespeare Company production of their collaboration The Island of the Mighty (Aldwych Th. 1972), based on Arthurian legends, feeling that the production by David Jones supported imperialism; contrib. to New Statesman 1972, article on comic relief in English playwrights since the sixteen century, and passionate denouncement of the treatment of the Irish as troublemakers; Irish plays incl. The Non-Stop Connolly Show, a twenty-six hour cycle about James Connolly in Dublin commissioned by the BBC but shelved in view of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, subsequently performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1975; became a fnd.-member of the Theatre Writers’ Union, 1976; wrote The Ballygombeen Bequests (1972), later issued as The Little Gray Home in the West (1982), with strong republican overtones and dealing with a housing-estate eviction brought by an English landlord; defended a libel action arising from it;

 
Vandaleur’s Folly, produced by 7:84 Theatre Co. (Edinburgh 1978), depicts the collapse of William Thompson’s socialist commune in 1831; Pearl (1978), radio-play given to the BBC, depicts a viceregal administration in seventeenth-century Ireland; also The Romans in Britain (1980) and also Whose Is the Kingdom, a nine-play epic (q.d.) his first novel Silence Among the Weapons (1982), a picaresque novel set in the 1st century b.c., was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Book of Bale (1988) a novel, based on the career of Bishop John Bale in Ireland; issued with D’Arcy, Awkward Corners (1989), controversial second part of autobiography; Cogs Tyrannic (1991), an ambitious mix of history and romance, winner of PEN Short Story Prize; won V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize with "A Breach of Trust", collected in The Stealing Steps (2003); living Galway in 1996; The Stealing Steps (2003), nine stories set in different historical periods; Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance successfully revived by Oxford Th. Co. in 2003; d. 28 March 2012; survived by Arden is survived by D’Arcy and his sons, Finn, Adam, Jacob and Neuss; another son predeceased him.

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Works
Plays (premiers)
  • The Waters of Babylon (1957);
  • Live Like Pigs (1958);
  • Sarjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959);
  • The Workhouse Donkey (Chichester Th. Fest. 1963, dir. Olivier);
  • Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (Glasgow Citizens’ Th. 1964; National Th. 1965);
  • Left-handed Liberty: A Play About Magna Carta (Mermaid Th. 1965)
  • Ironhand (1965) [adapted from Goethe]
  • Bagman (1970) [for radio];
  • The Impromptu of Muswell Hill (1970) [for radio];
  • Vandaleur’s Folly (1978);
  • The Little Gray Home in the West (1978) [revised from Ballygombeen];
  • Pearl: A Play About a Play Within a Play (1978) [for radio];
  • The Romans in Britain (1980);
  • adapt. Don Quixote (1980);
  • Garland for a Hoar Head (1982) [for radio];
  • Whose Is the Kingdom? (Easter 1988) [10-hr. radio broadcast];
  • Squire Jonathan and Muswell Hill [q.d.].
In collab. with Margetta D’Arcy
  • The Business of Good Government (1960; revived 1963);
  • The Happy Haven (1960);
  • Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (1963; revived 1965);
  • Friday’s Hiding: An Experiment in the Laconic (1965)
  • The Royal Pardon (1966);
  • The Hero Rises Up (1968; revived 1969);
  • The Island of the Mighty (1973);
  • The Ballygombeen Bequests (1972);
  • The Little Gray Home in the West: An Anglo-Irish Melodrama (1986)
  • The Non-Stop Connolly Show (Dublin Th. Fest. 1975).
Separate editions
  • The Island of the Mighty: A Play [Methuen’s modern plays] (London: Eyre Methuen 1974), 237pp., ill.  
Collected Editions
  • Three Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969) [contains “The Waters of Babylon”; “Live Like Pigs”, and “The Happy Haven”];
  • Plays (London: Methuen 1978) [contains “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance”; “The Workhouse Donkey”, and “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight”.]
  • Plays One (London: Methuen 1994, 2002), xix, 424pp. [“The Waters of Babylon; “When is a Door not a Door?; “Live like pigs; “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance; “The Happy Haven”.
  • Plays: Two (London: Methuen 1994, 2002), xvii, 452pp. [“The Workhouse Donkey”; “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight”; “Left-handed Liberty”; “The True History of Squire Jonathan and his Unfortunate Treasure”; “The Bagman”.
Novels
  • Silence Among The Weapons: Some Events at the Time of The Failure of A Republic (London Methuen 1982);
  • The Book of Bale (London: Methuen 1988), 532pp.
Short fiction
  • The Stealing Steps (London: Methuen 2003), 319pp. [incls. “The Hag out of Legend”, “Breach of Trust”, “A Grim, All-Purpose Hall”, “Molly Concannon & the State of the Art Development”, “The Dissident”, et al.]
  • Cogs Tyrannic (London: Methuen 1991), xiii, 427pp. [4 stories - contains Introduction; Slow journey, swift writing: 12th century before Christ; The little old woman and her two big books: 15th/16th century after Christ; Uses of iron: 19th century after Christ; "Like a dream of a gun ..": 20th century after Christ. Historical notes].
  • Jack Juggler and the Emperor’s Whore: Seven Tall Tales Linked Together for an Indecorous Toy Theatre (London: Minerva 1995), 592pp.
  • Gallows and Other Tales of Suspicion and Obsession (Dublin: Original Writing 2009),
  • 506pp. [sold with 1 DVD; Part 1: Ireland Gallows; The Free Travel; Molly Concannon & the Felonious Widow. Part 2: London; A Masque of Blackness; Dreadfully Attended. Part 3: Yorkshire Lizard upon two Legs; A Plot to crack a pisspot; Yorkshire Pudding; Yorkshire sport; Yorkshire Tyke; Yorkshire Quarters; Yorkshire Bluebeard. Afterword.
Poetry
  • with others, A Green and Pleasant Land: Poems [Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign] (London: 1974), [25]pp.
Prose
  • To Present the Pretence (London: Eyre Methuen 1977) [selection of writings since 1965, incl. reviews on British drama, world affairs and Ireland];
  • with Margaretta D’Arcy; Plays and Players [n.d.], essays.
Miscellaneous
  • ‘Ecce Hobo Sapiens: O’Casey’s Theatre’, in Sean O’Casey: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Kilroy (NJ: Prentice Hall 1975), pp.61-76.
Autobiography
  • “Awkward Corners”: Essays, Papers, Fragments, selected, with commentaries, by the authors [A Methuen Dramabook] (London: Methuen 1988), 263pp.
  • Loose Theatre: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Theatre Activist (Victoria BC: Trafford; Galway: Women’s Pirate Press 2005), vi, 490pp. [autobiog. with diary entries, photos, &c.]

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Criticism
  • Redmond O’Hanlon, ‘John Arden: Theatre and Commitment’, in The Crane Bag, 7, 1 [‘Socialism and Culture’] (1983), pp.155-61.;
  • Robert Leach ‘The Place of the Popular in D’Arcy and Arden’s Plays’, in The Crane Bag 8, 2 [‘Media and Popular Culture’ Issue] (1984), pp.111-14;
  • Shah Jaweedul Malick, The Dramaturgy of John Arden: Dialectical Vision and Popular Tradition (McGill UP 1985) [PhD on microfiche].
  • David Ian Rabey, British and Irish Political Drama in the Twentieth Century (1986) [infra];
  • Paul Hadfield & Linda Henderson, ‘Getting Time For Adjustments: The Making of Whose Kingdom [... &c.]’, in Writing Ulster, 2 & 3 (1991-92), pp.85-109 [infra];
  • Nicholas Wroe, ‘Britain’s Brecht - John Arden: Dissident’, [feature-article] in The Guardian (3 Jan. 2004).
See also R[onald] E. Ewart, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance [York Notes](Librairie de Liban 1982) [as infra], and

Guardian obituary (30 March 2012): ‘His plays constantly invoke legend, historical precedent and the politics of colonialism in Ireland and Scotland, and employ a full panoply of verse forms, music, vaudeville, the satire of Ben Jonson and soapbox oratory. The result is the sort of heady dramatic brew that other 1950s theatrical figures such as the director Joan Littlewood and the writer Brendan Behan were seeking. Arden is one of the very few 20th-century dramatists you could mention in the same breath as Shakespeare, Molière and Brecht without the parallels sounding too far-fetched. [...]
  A trained architect, well-read Marxist intellectual and astute art historian, Arden was a rare bird in a theatre scene populated with many equally committed but less gifted colleagues. His dark-haired bohemian good looks mellowed into a leonine countenance with a fine mane of white hair and an imposing pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. He had the confidence of his convictions and the healthy arrogance of any self-respecting Yorkshireman. [...]
 Although his work with D’Arcy was prolific, their joint efforts never attained the mastery of the early plays.’ [Available online; see also For full text, see RICORSO Library, Criticism > Reviews - via index or direct.]

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Commentary
David Ian Rabey, British and Irish Political Drama in the Twentieth Century (1986), writes that ‘[t]he first appearance of a genuinely Brechtian impulse and influence in British and Irish political drama takes place in the plays of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy and Edward Bond [...] concerned with dramatising social problems [...] demonstrating the human tragedies which are the direct result of their [official law-and-order forces’] power [...] increasing involvement of D’Arcy in the life and work of John Arden contributed considerably to [Brechtian] development.’ Cites The Waters of Babylon (1957), featuring landlord Krank.

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Paul Hadfield & Linda Henderson, ‘Getting Time For Adjustments: The Making of Whose Kingdom, John Arden and Margaretta Darcy’, interviewed over their nine-part radio drama, in Writing Ulster, Nos. 2 & 3 (1991-92), pp.85-109 [with photo ports.]. Authors report that ‘[t]he playwrights regard their present commission as the end of a ‘blockade’ amounting to the rejection of their collective artistic identity by the cultural Establishment; notes The Hero Rises Up (1969), which underwent ‘unauthorised’ politically-motivated editing by Martin Esslin, then Head of Drama at BBC; also an article, Plays and Players’ by Arden stating his objections. Refers to The Island of the Mighty (1972), the Royal Shakespeare Co. production of which they picketed at the Aldwych. The Ballygombeen Bequest, based on their experiences of a family’s eviction in the West of Ireland by the English landlord, withdrawn and then reissued as The Little Gray Home in the West. Reference made to Pearl, a radio play about the Anglo-Irish problem in the 17th century. Authors further discuss process of writing Whose is the Kingdom, and express their total belief in the collaborative process, and mention Duchas na Saoirse [trans. as Artists for Liberation but recte Hope of Freedom]

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Quotations
Harrowing century: ‘There is no way to interpret the harrowing experiences of the twentieth century in terms of the theatre except by making plays about them. And there is no way to make plays which will communicate directly to the public without trying continually to find some new physical context for their realisation. The view of society from even the most engagé university chair is a little like the view of Setzuan from the gods’ cloud in the Brecht play - extensive; but depressingly astral.’ (Quoted in Graham Reid, Remembrance, London: Faber & Faber; cited in Books Ireland, Oct. 1985 [review].)

Sundry: ‘This was not history. It has not passed.’ (The Non-Stop Connolly Show, 1975). Admiral Nelson: ‘We turn the world into a wilderness and have the nerve to call it peace’ (The Hero Rises Up, 1968).

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References
University of Ulster Library holds Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (1965); Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1965); Business of Good Government (1963), with others incl. Left Handed Liberty (1965); Sarjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1960); Three Plays (1961, new eds. 1964, 1967); To Present the Pretence, [essays] (1977); Squire Jonathan and Muswell Hill [q.d.]; with Margaretta D’Arcy, Awkward Corners (London: Methuen 1989), 271pp; The Book of Bale (1988); Cogs Tyrannic (1991).

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Notes
7:84, the Scottish radical theatre company, produced a version of Sarjeant Musgrave Dances On in which the historical parallels are stressed by making Musgrave a veteran of Derry’s Bloody Sunday.

Art O’Leary: Arden participated as actor and organiser in the filming of Airt Ui Laoire (1975), commissioned by Official Sinn Féin, the first independent Irish-language film, led by Bob Quinn with Thaddeus O’Sullivan as cameraman, and drawing on a cast from Corrandulla Arts and Entertainments Club in Connemara in which he was active. See Kevin Rockett, et al., eds., Cinema & Ireland (1988).

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IT reposte: John Arden writes in answer to Kevin Myer’s “Irishman’s Diary” [column] offering on Engels and Mary Ellen Synon, disputing that Myers lives up to his pretence of reviling hatred, and instances his use of the unacceptible term ‘knackers’ for Irish Travellers [itinerants]. Arden gives as his address St Bridget’s Place Lr., Galway (Letters to the Editor, Irish Times, 20 April 1996).

Directorial role: John Arden collaborated with Bob Quinn on the the Irish-language film Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (1975), taking the part of the English film ‘director’ in the contemporary mis-en-scène.

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