John Arden Essay - Critical Essays


The controversy accompanying John Arden’s career has tended to obscure his rather old-fashioned views of the proper role of the playwright. He draws not only on an older dramatic tradition but also on an older concept of the dramatist: the playwright as burgher. Arden is an immensely civic-minded playwright, a citizen who chooses to dramatize his concern for the commonweal. This concept of the dramatist—almost antithetical to the commercial theater as it now exists—belongs to an older tradition that embraces Shakespeare, the medieval theater, and the Greek dramatists. In Arden and D’Arcy’s three-part Arthurian The Island of the Mighty, the ancient poets are not merely entertainers but also political advisers. Arden’s concept of the dramatist explains his interest in community theater; increasingly, in the global village, his concerns have become international in scope.

Arden’s concept of the dramatist means that his drama has been almost exclusively political, but his politics have changed and his involvement developed over time. In his early plays, although he treated parochial issues, he tended not to take a stand; rather, like the architect he had trained to be, he was merely concerned with how people live, as indicated by such titles as Live Like Pigs and The Happy Haven. If any stand was implied, it was likely to be anti-Socialist—for example, to condemn heavy-handed administration of the welfare state. Soon, however, through his historical parables, Arden expanded his vision. He began to connect local issues to world issues and to historical processes, and he began to deal either directly or indirectly with pacifist and Socialist concerns: militarism, colonialism, and economic and social injustice. Finally, the plays written with D’Arcy take a more militant, partisan approach toward these same issues and others (such as sexism), condemning the imperialist/militarist/capitalist/exploitative mentality and viewing the Irish situation as a prime result of this mentality.

For Arden, the development in his thinking is summed up in the crisis of the liberal: the conflict between revolution and reform and the fear that reform is only refining and strengthening an exploitative system. His thinking is influenced not only by the world scene but also specifically by Britain’s past experience of empire. Also, Arden’s thinking is not unique in contemporary Britain but is only one aspect of a political mood evoked by the title of the first New Wave play, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956).

In three early social comedies, The Waters of Babylon, Live Like Pigs, and The Happy Haven, one sees the young dramatist struggling to find his way. All three plays are generally comic in tone, but some terrible things happen in each one. Some of the humor is undergraduate, but when these were written, the playwright had, after all, only recently been a student (and his most appreciative audience was students). Despite flashes of energy, the action drags in both Live Like Pigs and The Happy Haven, and both plays mix modes awkwardly: Live Like Pigs combines naturalism with the Brechtian mode, while The Happy Haven mixes naturalism with a Theater of the Absurd parable.

Live Like Pigs and The Happy Haven

Live Like Pigs and The Happy Haven are notable, however, for their implied criticism of the welfare state, new to Britain after World War II and hence somewhat raw. A coercive bureaucracy and pressures to conform are revealed in Live Like Pigs when the Sawneys, a raffish family living in an old tramcar down by the tracks, are forced by officials to move into a public housing estate. The Sawneys turn their new house into a pigsty, offend their proper neighbors, and provoke a bloody riot. The insensitive treatment of people as objects is even more obvious in The Happy Haven: Here, the nursing-home setting can be seen as a satire on the welfare state, complete with a presiding doctor who performs experiments on the old people—for their own good, of course (he is perfecting an elixir of youth). Such is the bureaucratic best of all possible worlds.

The Waters of Babylon

A much better play is The Waters of Babylon, which sticks closer to the Brechtian mode and has a wider scope, showing postwar Britain’s legacy of colonialism, militarism, and capitalism. While Britain was building a welfare state, it was being flooded by refugees and immigrants, represented in this play by the Poles, Irish, and West Indians. Their world, as the play’s title suggests, is a world of dislocation and exile. Moreover, their world is the true postwar world, a world full of Sawneys, and it is impinging on the tidy British, whether they like it or not. Some do not, a group represented by the insular Englishman Henry Ginger. Others do, represented by Alexander Loap, a member of Parliament who keeps an expensive redheaded Irish mistress, and by Charles Butterthwaite, a former Yorkshire politician who finds a corrupt mate in Krank, the Polish slum landlord.

Above all, it is Krank, one of Arden’s most colorful characters, who represents the soul of postwar Great Britain. His full name, Sigismanfred Krankiewicz, sums up the European history with which Britain has tried not to be involved. Krank himself wants to be uninvolved, left alone, but meanwhile he profits from his own little British empire, a run-down apartment house where he takes in immigrants and operates a...

(The entire section is 2285 words.)