John Arden’s development as a playwright can be explained in part by his background, which differs significantly from the London working-class background typical of fellow New Wave dramatists. The product of a Yorkshire middle-class family, Arden was educated at Sedbergh, a private boarding school in Yorkshire’s remote northwest dales (where he had been sent to escape World War II bombing raids), took a degree in architecture from Cambridge University (1953), and proceeded to further his study of architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, receiving his diploma from that institution in 1955. Between Sedbergh and Cambridge, the future author of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and writer for Peace News served in the military, mostly in Edinburgh, where he attained the rank of lance-corporal in the Army Intelligence Corps.
Arden’s background in the North Country, home of medieval drama and balladry and the setting of most of his best work, is a major source of strength in his plays, as is evident from the salty language used in them. His background suggests that Arden was not born to his Socialist sentiments but arrived at them through a lengthy process of observation and deliberation. Such a process of development, involving constant challenge and considerable self-examination, would help account for the ambiguities in his earlier works and for Arden’s characterizations of himself as having been a wishy-washy liberal, a sort of Hamlet of the New Wave. Possibly the young playwright also had mixed reactions to the new welfare state in Britain and to the prevailing doctrinaire atmosphere, especially in the universities, in which left-wing orthodoxy, with its assumptions and jargon, was sometimes reminiscent of Bible-belt fundamentalism: The New Jerusalem did not tolerate its sinners easily, and it found its American devils handy. Although polite and mild-mannered, Arden has always been...
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