Analysis

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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...

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their proper neighbors, and provoke a bloody riot. The insensitive treatment of people as objects is even more obvious inThe 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 prostitution ring. The chickens come to roost for Krank as they do for the British Empire: It is discovered that he spent the war in Buchenwald, all right, but as a German soldier rather than a prisoner, and he is shot by the Polish patriot Paul. Before he dies, however, Krank admits his complicity in recent human history—a lesson, Arden suggests, that we could all learn.

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance

If The Waters of Babylon shows some aftereffects of the British Empire, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance goes to the Empire’s heart, showing its workings. The play is Brechtian in mode, but with an elemental, mythic quality. The time is the Victorian era, around 1880. The place is a wintry North Country coal town, snowbound and starving, in the middle of a strike, the coldness of the setting suggesting the coldness of the empire’s discipline. This discipline is maintained in the town by a triumvirate of mayor (who, conveniently, also owns the coal mine), parson, and constable, assisted by the distractions of Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub (where a man can purchase grog and the ministrations of Annie). Abroad in the colonies, discipline is even less subtle: It is maintained by the queen’s army, which collects troublemakers at home to turn them loose on troublemakers in the colonies. In an emergency, the troops can also be used against the home folks. Thus, in the name of prosperity, patriotism, and good order, blessed by religion, the ruthless forces of capitalism, colonialism, and militarism operate together in a vast but tightly enclosed system that benefits the few at the expense and suffering of the many. The ballad chorus captures the spirit of the system: “The Empire wars are far away/ For duty’s sake we sail away/ Me arms and legs is shot away/ And all for the wink of a shilling and a drink.”

A desperate challenge to this brutal system is mounted by four soldiers who appear in the coal town, ostensibly to recruit but in reality to bring home the truth. The truth about the system is symbolized by the skeleton of Billy Hicks, a young soldier from the town. Billy was murdered in a far-off British “protectorate,” and the British army retaliated by indiscriminately wounding thirty-four natives and killing five in a bloody night raid. Now the soldiers, led by Serjeant Musgrave, hoist Billy’s skeleton on a market cross in the town square, train rifles and a Gatling gun on the town’s citizens (actually, on the play’s audience), and proceed to lecture them about the evils of the system and their complicity in it. At first the citizens think Musgrave, who does a little dance under the skeleton, is merely balmy, but then the striking colliers heed his call for solidarity. Not unnaturally, however, they draw back when Musgrave announces plans to kill twenty-five townspeople in retaliation for the five dead protectorate natives. The final straw comes when the crowd learns that one of the four soldiers is missing, dead at the hands of his comrades. The townspeople are saved by disagreement among the remaining soldiers and by the arrival of the dragoons. The temporarily challenged system starts up again, symbolized by a dance in which all join hands and sing a mindless round, led by the grotesque Bargee, who has been Musgrave’s shadow throughout the play.

The trouble is that Musgrave himself is twisted by the system. His intentions are good, but his methods are terrible. He thinks he is led by God, but he is instead moved by the military logic he opposes, as indicated by the discipline he maintains over the soldiers even after they are all deserters. Musgrave’s protest takes the form of a military exercise, complete with military mathematics. As the soldier Attercliffe notes, Musgrave tries to end war “by its own rules: no bloody good . . . you can’t cure the pox by whoring.” Yet it is a protest that will be remembered by the townspeople—and by the people who see the play.

Armstrong’s Last Goodnight

Like Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight is “an unhistorical parable”—that is, both plays were suggested by current events: Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance by events in Cyprus in 1958, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight by the situation in the Congo in 1961. Setting the plays in the past provides distance from current events but at the same time raises ironic parallels. For example, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight is ironically subtitled An Exercise in Diplomacy, suggesting that much diplomacy has been and is still an exercise in treachery. In Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, it resides in early sixteenth century Scotland, a vicious land of constant feuding, plotting, and shifting alliances (rather like the early sixteenth century English court described in the play’s epigraph from the poet John Skelton), a land where the biggest freebooter prevails.

In Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, the prescribed strategy is to invite your enemy to go hunting, offer him some of the local brew, shake hands with him, swear friendship forever, and then kill him at the first safe opportunity. Johnnie Armstrong of Gilknockie, a colorful border strongman, does this to James Johnstone of Wamphray, and then James V of Scotland does it to Armstrong. To entice Armstrong, King James needs the help of his scheming ambassador, Sir David Lindsay (another poet who was involved in politics), and of Lindsay’s mistress, an earthy lady who even gets used to the smell in Armstrong’s castle and who describes her sexuality in terms of a hot pot of red-herring broth (boiling over, of course). This play too has its elemental, mythic qualities, qualities enhanced by the Scots dialect in which it is written, but its overriding reminder is that international relations are still conducted on the primitive level of relations among early Scotch lairds.

Vandaleur’s Folly

Authored by D’Arcy and Arden, Vandaleur’s Folly has a dialectic pattern familiar from Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance: thesis, antithesis, fiasco. Here the exploitative system is the prototypical plantation colony of 1830’s Ireland, a country of whiskey-drinking British gentry and thirsty Irish tenantry, where the absentee landlords gamble in Dublin’s Hell Fire Club and visit their estates occasionally to conduct a “fox” hunt using a lively Irish lass. The play draws parallels between the treatment of the Irish, the American slave trade, and the treatment of women. For example, the slave-trader Wilberforce is the business partner of Major Baker-Fortescue, the vicious Orangeman landlord. The two are opposed by Roxana, an American abolitionist who is part black, and by Michael, an Irishman who leads the Lady Clare Boys, a peasant guerrilla group.

The most important challenge to the plantation system, however, is Ralahine, a Socialist cooperative set up by Vandaleur, an enlightened landowner. Ralahine, where landowner and tenant share equally and have equal rights, is a financial success and brings peace to the countryside, yet it drives the other landowners wild. The Commune’s opponents finally destroy it by taking advantage of a fatal flaw in its makeup: Like Musgrave, Vandaleur is still infected by the system. He retains private ownership of the experimental estate and, in a fit of gambling fever, loses it to Baker-Fortescue in a faro game at the Hell Fire Club.

Subtitled An Anglo-Irish Melodrama, Vandaleur’s Folly fits the description. Its one-sided characterizations result in some loss of artistic power, and the language of the play is not spiced with dialect. Yet Vandaleur’s Folly is entertaining melodrama, and there is no trouble understanding its partisan point: Private property is wrong, and so is any arrangement that treats people as property.

Like the forthright Vandaleur’s Folly, Arden’s work generally is meant to stir people to think about the issues of today’s world and perhaps to take action. One of the modern writers most attuned to those issues, Arden is very much a practical playwright: He does not merely look back in anger, but looks forward with hope. As this description implies, he is also a playwright for the young. Although his work embodies prophetic warnings, it does not reflect the despairing tone of earlier twentieth century literature, with its recurring visions of the wasteland; rather, Arden looks beyond the crisis of modern civilization toward solutions.

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Arden, John (Vol. 13)