John Arden Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Arden was part of a major theatrical movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s which addressed large political and social issues from the world stage. Along with his colleagues from Great Britain’s “fringe” theater, such as Harold Pinter, John Osborne, and Arnold Wesker, Arden reestablished the stage as a forum for collective cultural debates among members of the audience and theater practitioners. Born in a middle-class section of Yorkshire and educated in a private boarding school during World War II, Arden did not share the immediate working-class background of other playwrights of the so-called New Wave. His University of Cambridge education in architecture, together with his love of history and classical literature, gives his work a structure and texture more refined than the rough-cut language and settings of Pinter, Wesker, or Henry Livings. He was no less dedicated to the pacifist ideals of young postwar England, however, from having come to them through intellectual deliberation rather than childhood deprivation, and his most famous work, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, still stands today as the most powerful antiwar play from the period.

Arden’s career took an odd shape, partly because of his (and London’s) indifference to the financial successes by which plays are so often judged and partly because Arden himself divided his attention, first advocating social reform, then criticizing the exploitation of socialism by the working class (his three “socialism” plays, published in the 1960’s but...

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(Drama for Students)

On October 26, 1930, Arden was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England. The son of Charles Alwyn Arden, a glass factory manager, and Annie...

(The entire section is 295 words.)