Arden, John (Vol. 13)
Arden, John 1930–
Arden is a British dramatist and screenwriter noted for his satirical treatment of social and political themes. His work is often compared to that of Harold Pinter, which it resembles for its subtle, comic presentation of confrontations between nonconformity and convention. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
G. W. Brandt
[Serjeant Musgrave's Dance] had the great virtue of crystallising and sharply dividing critical opinions; the one thing with which it did not meet was indifference. Some of the reactions to the play make an interesting study. They were, incidentally, comments on the parable as a dramatic form. (p. 49)
[We] have three distinct attitudes: hostile, mixed, and friendly…. We may feel that the argument is loaded: Musgrave is too peculiar, indeed pathological, a character to give any general validity to the parable. What cannot be said is that the play is impenetrably obscure. Could it be that some of the hostile critics found the message not so much obscure as unpalatable? (pp. 50-1)
We are only shown a wrong reaction to an iniquitous state of affairs [in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance]. But why should a playwright dot all his I's and cross all his T's?
He must of course expect to run into trouble if he demands of the spectator that he do his own brainwork in the theatre. A well-told parable stirs up questions and then refuses to give all the answers. This is hardly the proverbial tired businessman's idea of after-dinner fun, and somebody has to give in—the would-be passive spectator or the thrustful playwright. In the case of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance the anti-parable faction won the day. (p. 51)
[It] would make for an easier acceptance of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance if the fanatical sergeant were to be either wholly condemned or wholly approved of. But is it not disturbing to see a morally sensitive man trying to start a public massacre? It is. Does his fanaticism invalidate his moral protest as such? It does not. The contradiction between laudable indignation and...
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The curse of John Arden is that he simply won't play ball. After creating a picture of Welfare State slovenliness in the farcical Live Like Pigs, he switched gears and gave us the spare and chilling Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. Then, all set for more thought-provoking austerity, he trots out The Happy Haven, a Commedia dell' Arte zanni on old age….
Along comes the much-heralded, long-awaited Workhouse Donkey and again Arden pulls a volte-face. The play turns out to be an ornery comedy of humours which is as opposed to quick sense as it is to pat conclusions, and the critics, now out of patience, smother it with indifference and cultivate their peevishness. (p. 238)
But putting to one side the reactions of our erudite … drama critics, let us (with full recognition of our biases) examine the virtues of John Arden's [The Workhouse Donkey].
—It is intelligent. There is a skill in the writing which breezily creates outside characters and craftily develops a fanciful language to suit their dimensions.
—It is funny (not hilarious) and creates the sort of thoughtful laughter we expect from plays that do not set out to simply tickle our ribs.
—It is a generous play. It proliferates incidents; it tangles plot and sub-plot and, as it turns out, is generous to a fault. The play was conceived as a three-acter, and divided in two, the...
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J. D. Hainsworth
Arden is very much more than just a provincial playwright. Though he often draws on his northern background, he writes plays which should be of interest to playgoers anywhere. One of the difficulties—it is also one of the strengths—of Arden's plays, is that he doesn't create characters who are simply black or white…. Nor does Arden create characters who are simply mouthpieces for his own point of view. Musgrave, in Serjeant Musgrave's dance, is a soldier so revolted by the bloodshed of a colonial war, that he wants to get over the horror of it to the civilian population back home, and convince them of their responsibility for what has happened. So far, both playwright and audience must be on his side. But this is no longer so when Musgrave, through the very strength of his convictions, himself resorts to violence and bloodshed.
Failed idealists like Musgrave are fairly common in Arden's plays…. Set against them are more cynical characters like Crooked Joe Bludgeon, the Bargee in Serjeant Musgrave's dance, and Dr Blomax in The workhouse donkey. Blomax and Crooked Joe are the ones who triumph in the end, when Musgrave is waiting to be hanged, and Colonel Feng has been forced to resign. These cynics, especially in Arden's later plays, are treated just as sympathetically as the idealists. We learn to understand their cynicism and even to wonder whether "cynicism" is a fair description…. Arden's plays are all plays about society. This is true in a...
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The action of [Armstrong's Last Goodnight] is framed by the diplomat Lindsay who introduces it and signs it off. He and Armstrong are the main structural pillars. (p. 86)
[The play] registers equally as action drama with the basic appeal of a Western movie, or—given a nodding acquaintance with Middle English and the Border ballads—as recited epic. Beyond that it has [a] coherent political structure…. Lindsay's position in Armstrong's domain is like that of Machiavelli on his mission to Cesare Borgia and Armstrong meets the same fate as the rivals enticed by Borgia to a peace conference…. I'm not sure what's gained except entertainment by having Lindsay and Arm-strong share the same mistress. But the infusion of evangelical religion, as in Musgrave, has Arden's signature on it. Perhaps the lack of it pulls down the temperature of his Magna Carta play a little; though not as much as King John's late and disastrous address to the audience, which takes one back to the early pseudo-Brechtian days of the Royal Court on a Sunday night. (pp. 87-8)
What epic can't do is to accommodate private, esoteric states of feeling or complex analysis of character. From Virgil to screen Westerns, the characters act out the type of a Roman, a barbarian, an outlaw or whatever. The generic terms gun-man or law-man are of crucial importance. In this play, we ought to be thinking of political man, clansman, and man of God…. The language barrier is another matter; it depends on how far an audience should be made to work. If instant comprehension is the aim, then Arden is taking a risk…. Rather than question Arden's wisdom in choosing this idiom, we ought to thank him for reminding us of its directness and power. (p. 88)
Laurence Kitchin, in his Drama in the Sixties: Form and Interpretation (© 1966 by Laurence Kitchin; reprinted by permission of the author), Faber and Faber, 1966.
John Arden is, as Jack Richardson noted, "considered by many close to the theater to be England's best contemporary playwright." Yet his most-discussed play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, continues to puzzle or anger many critics…. Clearly there are grounds for uncertainty about the import of the play; difficulties in comprehension arose mainly because neither method nor subject was what the critics expected.
Arden has frequently explained his objectives in articles and interviews. He wishes to comment on the contemporary scene, and at the same time to express what is permanently important, to criticize "a sludgy uninterested nation, married to its telly and its fish and chips" through "the framework of the traditional poetic truths." Social relevance should be expressed through "a proper moral concern and a constant hatred of injustice and meanness." However, his morality is an unorthodox one, as it shows the values of freedom and spontaneity in the gypsies of Live Like Pigs (1958) and of Armstrong in Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964) and then suggests that their outrageous behavior cannot be tolerated in an ordered, civilized society. Arden wants to be fair to both sides…. Conclusions may also be obscured because Arden evolves his judgments only as he writes…. Further, he approves the play that is provocative because action and argument contradict each other…. In Serjeant Musgrave's Dance what is right emotionally (Musgrave's generously-motivated fury) is wrong rationally (more killing is evil). There is thus abundant explanation for the absence of clear messages in Arden's work: his comments will not be confined to contemporary issues; he wants to be fair to the other side; his own view may be unresolved; he welcomes provocative contradictions within a play. The keynote of these remarks is caution and openness of mind.
Ultimately, however, he finds it possible both to be fair and to support one side …, though he considers also that "it would be presumptuous to make this sort of positive statement within the terms of an individual play." He hopes, instead, that his work "has suggested, play by play, that the existing social structure is entirely inadequate." Arden's political activities show that he is as involved with society as Arnold Wesker, though Arden's perspectives are longer and he finds artistic considerations more important in his plays…. Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is sub-titled "an unhistorical parable" and Arden has explained that this play originated in a moment of anger at British violence in Famagusta…. The description of the atrocity given by the three soldiers towards the climax of the market-place scene of the play is very similar to the Cyprus episode. Apart from this, as in the other plays, the particular topical inspiration of the plays is concealed, though in some cases, the subjects—gypsies, violence and pacifism—might suggest that the author held radical views. Arden … is one of the writers who supports Left-wing ideas, but whose work shows this more by subject than by 'moral.' Arden...
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Joan Tindale Blindheim
It is a common feature of criticism that the work of dramatists is explored from every conceivable literary angle, while its stage functions are usually neglected. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of John Arden, a writer who … displays acute awareness in his work of the demands and potentialities of the stage. (p. 306)
In his first published work for the stage, "The Waters of Babylon," Arden already shows in his brief note on the sets, not only that he has been aware of the problems involved in staging the play, but also that his knowledge of stage history has suggested solutions to him. The largely realistic form of the play, broken however by the frequent use of verse, might well...
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Malcolm Page, in a recent article [see excerpt above], suggests that in Sergeant Musgrave's Dance John Arden is asking the question "why pacifist ideas have not had more influence" and that the answer, or moral, that the play expresses lies in the uncertain motives of the pacifists themselves. Since the play ends with a defeat of the four soldiers and a triumphal dance celebrating the continuity of the status quo (however uneasy and factional it may be) it would appear that Arden's ultimate position is one of pessimism. Though I agree with much of Dr. Page's commentary, I think that the play is a little more hopeful than he indicates. For one thing, it seems to me that Musgrave is less about...
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Arnold P. Hinchliffe
[John Arden is not] lacking in personal anger but he is the dramatist par excellence who translates that anger into situations of a strictly impersonal nature. Arden's characters are primarily used as representatives, and his plots bring about conflicts between social groups. His characters, of course, exist as very colourful individuals, but their personality is shaped at all times to suggest what they stand for … and add to the picture of the community as a whole. Thus, the isolated town or national politics reflected in local government is observed with an accurate social eye and a strong historical sense which combine to 'translate the concrete life of today into terms of poetry that shall at the one time...
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