Arden, John (Vol. 15)
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. Many of his works are collaborative efforts with his wife, Margaretta D'Arcy. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[Arden has] attained little commercial success and seems to be stuck with the reputation of being a "difficult" dramatist. The reasons may lie more in the stereotyped expectations of his audiences than in his stagecraft. His characters descend directly from comedy and melodrama, although he undercuts their reality at the same time that he depicts it. While his plots are as intricate and confused as those of Jonson, reflecting the moral chaos of his fictional societies, they are easy to follow. Even when his language reflects illiteracies as in Live Like Pigs (1958) or sixteenth-century Scots dialect in Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964), his idiom is firmly sinewed and authentic. The surface of his plays is suffused with the joys of gaming, irruptions of lyricism, and dancelike exuberance. Yet the reality below appears stubbornly resistant to change, even corrupt. (p. 107)
[Unlike Brecht, with whom he has been linked, Arden] is extremely reluctant to envisage a world polarized by good and evil in opposition. Instead, "the private self" clashes ceaselessly with the "organizing, abstract, equally self-interested" action of politics, Richard Gilman has pointed out [see CLC, Vol. 6], not only externally but deep within character…. Arden's uncertainty about moral imperatives, the doubt and skepticism which endows his clowns with stature and his heroes with criminality, blocks the empathy of his audiences....
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Closely identified though John Arden has become with the other young British playwrights who began writing in the late 1950s, his dramatic career has taken an entirely individual and in some ways disturbing direction. The controlled originality of his technique was the more remarkable at a time when John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, for all their uncompromising innovations in subject-matter, were still writing within conventional formal molds: and the unequivocal left-wing commitment of such writers contrasted strongly with the scrupulous balance of argumentative power in Arden's early plays. Yet in recent years Arden's professionalism has been diluted, in effect if not intention, by an almost exclusive involvement with community and fringe theater groups—and this has itself reflected a shift in the political emphasis of his plays. Bolder and often cruder in outline, they have become more and more directly propagandist, yet at the same time simply less accessible (in any sense) to a wide playgoing public. (p. 3)
In the earlier plays, in particular, Arden is determined to give every devil his due, and he does so by drawing analogies rather than blood. And if this is reminiscent of Shavian technique, it is all the more appropriate that John Arden's first stage play should have been, like Bernard Shaw's, about slum landlords. Indeed, there is a dash of Mrs, Warren's Profession besides a flavor of Widowers' Houses about...
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M. W. Steinberg
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is largely an exploration of the place of violence in society and our varying responses to it. Although the setting of the play is nineteenth-century England, the contemporary relevance of Arden's theme is obvious as increasingly in our twentieth-century society violence is becoming accepted as an inescapable mode of political expression…. Arden is very much aware of the dilemma facing many thoughtful and morally responsible persons in a liberal society [who recognize the need for change but are unwilling to accept the means and ends of violence]…. It is with this dilemma and the consequences of the tragic antitheses of our responses to the social challenge that Arden is primarily concerned.
The moral-political question is given sharpest focus and most acute and challenging dramatic expression through Serjeant Musgrave, a zealot so convinced of the absolute rightness of his cause that he is willing to adopt horrifying means to achieve his goal, and so unswerving and single-minded in his devotion to his avowed purpose that he refuses to be distracted by any consideration not immediately relevant. (p. 437)
Arden does more than set out the problem, though he offers no happy resolution. The critics who regard the author's refusal to make a simple, obvious commitment as evidence of inconsistency or irresolution, or admirable detachment, seem to miss or underemphasize what there is of...
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Arden's work could generally be described as "civic" in nature; his themes are for the most part political, and his protagonists are frequently involved with the machinations of government. His plays develop characters that represent a wide spectrum of society, and his loosely linked scenes encompass a panorama that is sometimes quite vast. The preoccupation with political themes is linked with another quality—almost enigmatic. Arden's work is typified by a certain neutral quality on the author's part; he does not espouse causes nor attempt pat answers to the questions his drama prompts. His characters seem to exist apart from the author's judgement, helpless cogs in a political machine—a machine which the author clearly sees as a social necessity, but unfortunately one which molds individual lives while remaining beyond individual control. One observes time and again in Arden's work an anarchistic individual who is crushed by the society around him. The point would seem to be that, invariably, there cannot be social evolution without the very mixed blessings of strong government. In Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, a rebel protagonist is first betrayed and then destroyed, and the forces of order triumph in the inevitable, though far from desirable, conclusion. This scenario forms the basis for a number of Arden's plays; indeed, in certain respects, he appears to be writing the same play time and again. It is equally true that Arden frequently...
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