Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7662
Arden, John 1930–
Trained as an architect, Arden is a prize-winning British dramatist noted for satirical, innovative treatment of political and social themes. His best known play is Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Arden permits himself, in his treatment of the characters and situations in his plays, to be less influenced by moral preconceptions than any other writer in the British theatre today.
Hence the difficulty. His work would be perfectly easy for audiences if he attacked morality; that would be shocking (even now, since conventions still rule even where convictions have flagged), it would be 'provocative', and most important of all it would imply by categorically rejecting certain standards that these standards nevertheless existed—there would still be clear, dramatic blacks and whites, even if they did not always come in the expected places. But instead, and much more puzzlingly, he recognizes an infinitude of moral standards, all with their claims to consideration and all quite distinct from the individuals who hold them and try, more or less imperfectly, to put them into practice. Well, we can stand a little uncertainty about which are our heroes and which are our villains, but where do we stand in a situation which seems to deny the very possibility of heroism or villainy? The question may not be all that worrying on a purely personal level—one could argue that such concepts as heroism and villainy have little meaning in Pinter's work, for example—but Arden brings us face to face with it in its baldest form by writing plays which appear to be about general social, moral, and political issues: colour prejudice and prostitution, social clashes on a housing estate, pacifism, the treatment of old age. Arden the man no doubt feels strongly about all these subjects, or he would hardly choose to write about them, but his dramatist's instinct absolutely prevents him from stacking things in favour of the characters whose opinions most closely resemble his own…. (p. 84)
For behind Arden's work there seems to be brooding one basic principle: not exactly the obvious one that today there are no causes—that would be altogether too facile, and in any case just not true—but that there are too many. There are as many causes as there are people (more, since many are quite capable of espousing two or more mutually exclusive causes at the same time), and only the naïve can suppose that any two people who are, say, pacifists (to choose a nice, convenient label) will believe the same things for the same reasons. In other words, in all Arden's plays the characters we meet are first and foremost just people: not concepts cast into a vaguely human mould, with built-in labels saying 'good' or 'bad', 'hero' or 'villain', to help us into the right grooves. (p. 84)
It follows, therefore, that the behaviour of any one person or group does not imply any general judgement. (Arden himself has said that he 'cannot see why a social play should not be so designed that we may find ourselves understanding the person's problems, but not necessarily approving his reactions to them'.) The Waters of Babylon is not a play in favour of prostitution and tenant-exploitation (or for that matter the reverse); Live Like Pigs tells us nothing about 'The Welfare State'; Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is not for or against pacifism per se; The Happy Haven offers no solution to the problem of old age: they are just plays about individual people affected one way or another by these issues. Hence, perhaps—until one gets used to Arden's way of seeing things at least—the confusion and irritation of his audiences: when 'parity of esteem' for all the characters is pushed so far, identification and taking sides become difficult if not impossible, and though undeniably the characters conflict—they are conflicting all the time—for many theatregoers a conflict in which they are not asked themselves to participate is in effect no conflict at all; left rudderless and all at sea, they end up lost and bored. (p. 85)
In all his plays Arden has chosen … to follow only such fragments as he can easily catch, catch them, keep them such time as he chooses, then roll them away and follow others; his world is shattered, like ours, and the plays he has made out of it are comprehensible only if considered as certain fragments selected, isolated and shaped into a whole; what we must not do is to assume that they are microcosms of a complete, coherent world, and then seek to read its character in their various faces. (p. 88)
The name most frequently evoked in connection with Arden's work is that of Brecht, and the affinity is certainly there. Arden, paradoxically, is at once the most and the least Brechtian of all modern British dramatists: most, because their views on the proper relationship between the audience and what is happening on stage and their means of achieving it are almost identical; least, because one could readily imagine that Arden's plays would have been written in exactly the same way if Brecht had never existed. Basic to Arden's drama is something strikingly akin to Brecht's celebrated A-effect: as we have remarked already, though there are all sorts of conflicts taking place on stage, the audience is never invited to participate in them; it is even forcibly prevented on occasion from doing so. Instead it is invited to experience the play as a self-contained totality, and to judge—though on a human level rather than in terms of general concepts. (Herein lies the vital difference between Arden's practice and Brecht's theory, though, of course, Brecht's practice is a good deal nearer to Arden than his theory would lead one to expect.)
This is achieved largely through an unashamed and deliberate resort to 'theatricality', to various formal devices which keep the viewer constantly aware that he is in a theatre (or in front of a television screen) watching a play. (p. 89)
[Difficult] though Arden's vision may be to accept on first acquaintance, and puzzling his way of expressing it, familiarity makes the approach much easier and breeds nothing but respect and admiration. John Arden is one of our few complete originals, and for the occasional faults in his plays—a desire to force a gallon into a pint pot, a tendency perhaps to overdo the gusty, gutsy side of things just a little from time to time—there are numerous and irreplaceable merits. Sooner or later his definitive success with a wider public is assured. (pp. 104-05)
John Russell Taylor, "John Arden" (originally published in a slightly different version in Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962; copyright © 1962 by John Russell Taylor), in The Angry Theatre: New British Drama, revised edition (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1962, 1969 by John Russell Taylor), Hill and Wang, 1969, pp. 83-105.
One of the most promising young playwrights now active in the English language [is] John Arden…. Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is Brechtian in its fable and its use of folksong and picaresque incident, but the final scene in which the Cromwellian deserter Musgrave confronts the people of the town with the skeleton of one of their fellow citizens killed in a colonial war and then threatens to revenge the iniquities of such wars by firing his gun into the crowd has all the obsessiveness, the nightmarish psychological reality of the Theatre of the Absurd—without ever leaving the plane of external realism. In another and far less successful play, The Happy Haven, Arden is right inside the techniques and preoccupations of the Theatre of the Absurd, among the half-demented inmates of an old-age home who are about to be given an elixir of youth and end up by administering an overdose of that medicine to their doctor, reducing him to babyhood.
Arden is a writer of tremendous potential; the fact that he has experimented in both techniques indicates that he may well bring about a more effective fusion of the two styles. (p. 201)
Martin Esslin, "Epic Theatre, the Absurd, and the Future" (originally published in Tulane Drama Review, Summer, 1963), in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 193-204.
The naturalist theatre, the theatre of illusion. Everything subordinated to what Samuel Johnson once called "the supposed necessity of making the drama credible." Conversation, gestures, costumes, set, lighting, acting—all aimed at persuading the spectators temporarily to accept that what they are seeing is really happening. (p. 100)
[If] the illusion is successful, the spectator will be persuaded to blot out that half of his mind that tells him he is only seeing a play.
The simplest way of persuading the spectator to share in the illusion is to draw him inside the action by inviting him to become totally identified with one character. (pp. 100-01)
But if you identify yourself totally with Musgrave [of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance], the play becomes confused…. Played naturalistically, for illusion, Live Like Pigs is crude, and the ballads get in the way…. Because Live Like Pigs is based on music hall. The lines demand to be played out at the audience. The play consists of a series of sketches, woven into a meaningful pattern, and the violence of the clash between gypsies and neighbours is summed up in a music hall gag. "I tear them all up, don't I?" Confronted by disaster, the Sawneys, with anarchic defiance, scatter shreds of washing all over the stage.
Played for identification with the audience, Musgrave becomes incomprehensible. For the true statement of the play lies in the way Musgrave's pacifist message is judged against the action of the play and found inadequate. If you're too close to Musgrave, this judgement is never seen.
Played for illusion, The Happy Haven is a feeble joke. But The Happy Haven descends from a long tradition of commedia del' arte. Arden uses the masks to call attention to the fact that we're not seeing real old people—only actors who are showing us what it's like to be old, and who are therefore able to comment on old age. (Copperthwaite, in the same play, is a comic version of Musgrave: he has one single purpose, to discover the Elixir of life. He discovers it accidentally and is turned into a child—an example of the way Arden uses a popular convention, the child's mask, to explore a complex theme like the limitations of rational thought.)
In all his plays, Arden turns to this popular tradition, not because he wants to "experiment"… but because the meaning of his plays is expressed in the kind of duality that tradition implies. (pp. 101-02)
Albert Hunt, "Arden's Stagecraft," in Encore, XII, No. 5, 1965.
Nothing about John Arden's plays compels immediate acceptance or even assists the spectator toward it. Gnarled, rough, complex, inconclusive, they do not "grip," "haunt," "charm," "overwhelm" or in any way seduce an audience or reinforce its stock responses. Arden is a tough nut, a playwright outside established forms yet not within any newly legitimized revolution, a writer whose work possesses such extraordinary integrity that in a theatre of infinite accommodation and spontaneous sellout it appears as misanthropy. (p. 130)
There is no single "point" to Musgrave. Read by some as a muddled pacifist tract and by others as an equally muddled anti-imperialist one, its real dramatic vision is that of the horror of single-mindedness, of ends determining means and even more crucially of abstraction in moral life. Musgrave is forever talking about "order" and "logic," especially the logic of God, whose agent he feels himself to be. He has "worked it all out," and cannot understand why his plan's purifying virtue should not be apparent to others. What makes the play not itself a tract is Arden's dense, many-sided, physically oriented imagination, his employment of vernacular speech, verse and song to compose a texture of diversity, his refusal to make his play "argue" anything. Executed rightly, Musgrave presents itself as a thick, reverberant, somewhat opaque but very moving dramatic experience. (p. 131)
Richard Gilman, "Black Jack's Prayer" (1965), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 130-32.
"An object of art is artistic only insofar as it is not real," Ortega y Gasset once wrote, and meant something much broader than an attack upon naturalism. Until we are able to think of drama, for all its physical contingencies and aesthetic impurities, as existing in a different realm from the "real"—the way we are mostly able to think of poetry, painting, music—we will go on disputing over everything that is peripheral and secondary in the work of a playwright like Arden, in the effort to establish its "validity," unconscious that this validity has already been established by the play's own internal processes and conquests. (p. 104)
[It] should be obvious that the "events" of [Arden's] plays are not simply dramatizations or, more subtly, aestheticized analogues of … historical happenings, and that the poetic interest he takes in them is not simply greater than his interest in reportage but of a different kind altogether. That Arden is in some sense a thoroughly political playwright has never been at issue; every one of his works is steeped in politics and is the product of an imagination for which non-political reality—private myth, insular fortune, the discrete ego—would seem to have no independent standing as material for drama. No, what is at issue is the fate of political subject matter in his plays, the unpolitical uses to which he puts it, the transformations it undergoes under the action of his half-lyrical, half-civic and polemical sensibility, the sensibility, one might call it, of a passionate citizen, a brooding burgher.
What is the nature of political reality and how does the rest of the life of man (the title of his first play, a radio script) relate to it, or rather how does man's life come to know in the crucible of power, rule, and social governance? What are the prices that political necessity exacts from the moral self and the psyche? How does one celebrate life in the midst of abstractions? Such are the chief energizing questions of Arden's plays. They are what make him something extraordinarily different from a traditionally "political" or "sociological" playwright, by which, if definitions and terminology have not already descended into chaos, we mean someone for whom the immediate data of political or social organization are paramount, for whom, too, the choices involved in public existence are more or less co-terminous with the choices involved in all existence, and for whom, finally, a play is an exemplification, subtle or gross, of the virtue of making the right choices or of the cost of failing to make them.
For Arden, however, there are no clear choices—which is what pitches him above ideology; although there is a clear necessity to act publicly—which is what keeps his plays anchored in a perception of social actuality. Again and again, in one form or another, he questions, or rather raises to the dignity and ambiguous sincerity of a question, something we might call the humanness of politics, its role and function as the process and measure of our life in common. That public life has to be organized, and that power has to be exerted, are the assumptions, with their roots in a tragic awareness, of all his plays; that the private self rebels against this inexorability, in the name of its spontaneous, wayward life, of all distinct values and of the simplicities of what it considers its natural choices, is the agency which generates the "drama" of his dramas. If there is any modern book outside the literature of the theatre which provides a clue to Arden's temperament and procedures, it is surely Freud's Civilization and its Discontents.
This conflict of the self, or its spontaneous element, with the organizing, abstract, equally self-interested and therefore inherently repressive action of politics is complemented and enlarged by another encounter which runs through most of Arden's work. This is the confrontation of a deadly impulse towards purity (which may be found both within the actions of power and in all fanatic attempts to do away with it) and the impure, flawed, capricious, and uncodifiable nature of reality beneath our schemes for organizing it. (pp. 105-07)
The pure, that which refuses to admit the exceptional, the capricious, or the contradictory, and the abstract, that which incarcerates living phenomena in reductive systems, are the enemies of the actual, and it is this enmity which, under a variety of grave and comic masks, is on exhibit throughout Arden's theatre. On one level the abstractive impulse allied with power results in men being treated as things. At its most burlesque—and most schematic—this is a chief theme of The Happy Haven. Here a group of people in a home for the aged are made the object of a scientific—more properly, alchemical—experiment on the part of their doctor, who has developed a formula for making them young again. That they turn the tables on him in the end, forcing him to drink his own potion and thus return to helpless infancy, is the play's farcical mainspring but not its best imaginative possibility.
If anything, this comic revenge motif obscures something much more interesting and original. For what the inmates are really trying to hold on to is their integrity, which consists—against the pretense of the state and the tastes of everyone—precisely in being old, being what they are. There can be few rivals in recent literature to Arden's intuition of what old age consists in and feels like than the song of the old woman, Mrs. Phineus, rightly quoted by John Russell Taylor in his essay on Arden ["John Arden," excerpts from which appear above] as an example of his writing's "hard-won strength and sinew"…. When the patients get back at the doctor they accomplish an act in the realm of power, a reversal which satisfies our primitive sense of social justice, the villain getting his come-uppance; but when they slip out of the reach of power by understanding its limits and miscalculations they truly undermine it—and move the play a long notch up from didactic farce. Too confined, however, to immediate sociological considerations—his target, in addition to the doctor's arrogance and inhuman scientism, is the complacency of the institution's benefactors and trustees, the patients' "betters"—Arden settles in this play for an obvious truth and satisfaction when he had much richer ones within his grasp. (pp. 107-09)
Live Like Pigs is a robust play, humorous, touching, scarifying by turns, but it suffers from a central opacity and its dramatic trajectory is impeded. John Russell Taylor has ascribed the puzzled, disgruntled public response to it to Arden's refusal to take sides, to choose between the opposing ways of life represented by the anarchic Sawneys and the law-abiding Jacksons. And it is true that the former are not romanticized; their dirt is real and unpleasant, their moral ugliness is plain to see. Yet Taylor's point is an answer only to those ideologues who wanted Arden to go all the way in his defense of the outsider (or, for certain audiences, the insider), to be explicit about it, to draw conclusions and a moral. He has not done that but he has also failed, despite his clear intentions, to give the Jacksons—his representatives of the socially conventional—anything more than a thin, conventional dramatic reality.
Taylor stresses the fact that the Jacksons are not meant to be representative, that they exist as individuals. Doubtless this was what was intended, but it remains true that they lapse back into the general and representational through their lack of detail, interest, and specificity. Beyond that, there is no real clash except on the level of physical action; the cards may be stacked against the Sawneys socially but dramatically they have all the aces, so that Arden's vision of an inevitable conflict, the world as a place of incompatible entities which nevertheless have equal right to existence, has to be largely extrapolated from the play instead of finding its true and adequate form within it.
Despite the much greater acclaim it has received, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is as widely misunderstood as Live Like Pigs, but in this case the play, although suffering from certain structural weaknesses, is perfectly well in possession of its theme and idea. Almost universally described as an "anti-war" drama, Musgrave is nevertheless a source of extreme bafflement precisely to those viewers who persist in seeing it that way. Its militant pacifists come to ruin, its denunciation of war seems confined to colonial aggression, it seems to throw up its hands in the face of the problem of violence. Indeed, regarded as a political exhortation, Musgrave is extraordinarily ineffective, a lame sermon; but it is not a political play except in the sense that Arden wishes to test certain modes of political action by more rigorous standards than that action can ever provide in itself and in so doing test something more profound than politics.
Musgrave is, once again, a play about purity, except that here the impulse and ravishment of the pure is non-institutional, centered in the figure of a fanatic for whom the world's fire must be fought with fire. (pp. 111-12)
On the simplest level Musgrave's crime is that of practicing homeopathic medicine: he would put a stop to killing by killing, the end justifying the means. But more profoundly the play brings into question the nature of all abstract values, when they become embodied in a passionate urgency toward social reformation. The horror such zeal can bring lies in its obliviousness of complexity, the way it cuts down the living in its pursuit of what is seen to bring death, the way its insistence on purity becomes a fulfillment not of human desires or needs but of its own internal propositions. That Serjeant Musgrave's Dance leaves the problem of political violence where it found it, offering no prescriptions and no programs, is exactly why it is not a "political" play; it is not real, it is an artifact of the dramatic imagination, and it leaves the problem of violence to those agencies, outside art, whose province it properly is.
If Musgrave is a play about the consequences of purity, Armstrong's Last Goodnight is one about impurity, about the brindled color of politics and the devastations brought about by the perennial conflict between the general and the particular in society, the rival claims of authority and the individual. The clash between Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie, a provincial lord and freebooter, and King James of Scotland, who is struggling to establish a centralized, secure realm, is, the play makes clear, an inevitable one. There is no thorough-going villain and no unassailable hero….
It is clear that Arden's sympathies lie with Armstrong. For Armstrong contains in himself an element of passionate life, a simplicity and directness which seen from a certain point of view puts the deviousness and calculated operations of the state to shame. His virtues, however, are what constitute him as the very principle of anarchic individualism, which brings him into inevitable collision with the generalizing principle of the state. The latter must seek his betrayal and death for its own physical self-protection, but even more for the preservation of its existential nature—authority cannot be another thing than that which strikes down whatever attempts to thrust itself before the general welfare.
Yet nothing is clearer than that the action of authority in bringing about Armstrong's death has only a provisional value, a temporary effectiveness, and that in the moral realm, whose values are different, judgment will continue to be pronounced upon it…. Still … Armstrong has been no blameless victim; in his arrogance and unbridled egotism he has treacherously killed a rival laird, and has demonstrated a childish, overweening concern for the appurtenances of power, with no sense of responsibility to go with it. It is one of the deepest proofs of Arden's artistry that virtue is not allowed to accumulate in Armstrong's hands, just as it is not allowed to accumulate in the hands of any of his erstwhile heroes, those passionate, anarchic souls who struggle inconclusively against the realities of the structure of the world. (pp. 114-15)
With its range and sure-handed balancing of contrarieties, its supple, muscular rhetoric (the sixteenth century Scots dialect is much easier to understand in performance than has been made out) and its fusion of lyric energy and reflective strength, Armstrong's Last Goodnight may well be the masterpiece among Arden's non-masterpieces. In any case, it most fully exhibits his new species of post-political and post-ideological drama, resisting partisanship, disclaiming solutions, neither hortatory nor tendentious yet strenuously involved in actuality.
Probably the most frequent comment that has been made about Arden is that he is unclassifiable, that he cannot be put into a category. The argument is sound up to a point, but beyond that it gets specious and is an evasion. No true artist is classifiable, if by classification we mean a reductive, imprisoning act which deprives his work of the right to conjure up unheard-of entities. But it does no service to Arden to treat his plays as though no controlling impulse and thematic concern were to be discovered in them, as though they were a series of discrete, arbitrary phenomena. What he has done, an important act for the theatre, is boundable and can be identified: it is to have taken the social and political life of man and rescued it, as a subject for drama, from didacticism on the one hand and from impressionism on the other. The new ground he occupies could scarcely be expected to be steady. (p. 116)
Richard Gilman, "Arden's Unsteady Ground" (first published in The Drama Review, XI, No. 2, 1966; copyright © 1966 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 104-16.
[The] new British dramatists … seem to write from no deeply-considered moral, social, or political purpose. Certainly it would be hard to gather from their works any considerable body of responsible opinion on these, or any other, matters. Their characters seldom debate the nature of existence or of society, like the protagonists of M. Sartre, or Mr. J. B. Priestley, or the late T. S. Eliot. There are two apparent exceptions to this, John Arden and Arnold Wesker. Arden's characters do talk about the nature of war and liberty, the conflict of public and private good; but these discussions are not the climactic scenes of the plays. Moreover, they explore and present a moral situation from several viewpoints, rather than speak for their author's opinions. The climax of an Arden play is usually a confrontation, or dance, or celebration, or, as in The Workhouse Donkey, a defeat of one party in the knowledge that neither side has made a permanent impression on the other, or on itself. (p. 7)
John Russell Brown, "Introduction" to Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown (© 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 1-14.
Arden's strength lies in his ability to create dramatic atmosphere, to build up a believable stage world. Of all the playwrights writing in England today, with the possible exception of Pinter, Arden stands the best chance of surviving beyond the current vogue.
Arden's first important play was Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959). This is still considered his best work by the British critics, most of whom feel that he has not fulfilled the promise he showed in that play. Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is a pacifist play intended by Arden to show the injustice and barbarity of imperialism. (p. 313)
What Arden is trying to do in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is to show how fanaticism can turn even excellent intentions such as Musgrave's into abominations. Musgrave believes himself to be the direct instrument of God's vengeance. Instead of being a study of the tragic paradox of militant pacifism, the play becomes simply a clumsily written case study of a lunatic. (p. 314)
Arden founders every time he tries to deal seriously with significant themes;… he has not yet discovered that his real talent is for writing pure farce. Insofar as Live Like Pigs is pure farce it is an excellent play of its kind; but Arden ruins it by trying to turn it into a sociological commentary…. To look upon people who wallow in verminous filth, disturb their neighbors with earsplitting noise, destroy their houses with wanton vandalism, and live off thievery and prostitution, as wide-eyed, innocent children of nature who deserve commiseration because the building boom has dispossessed them from their idyllic life among the flower-bedecked hedgerows is the merest muzzy-headed romanticism. (pp. 314-15)
Most of the comment on The Happy Haven has centered on Arden's use of masks, which most of the characters wear. These masks are actually unimportant and are in no way integrated into the play, which could be just as effective, if not more so, without them.
In The Workhouse Donkey (1963),… Arden has at last solved his problems. In it he has found his niche as a dramatic author. The Workhouse Donkey is a superbly comic farce about municipal corruption in a North of England industrial town. Both the Conservatives and the Laborites are depicted as unmitigated scoundrels (although the Laborites are amiable ones)…. Roguery triumphs in the end, of course. In The Workhouse Donkey, also, Arden has hit upon the correct way to integrate his songs and dances into the action: he makes no pretense at suspension of disbelief and has the whole play written half at the audience in the manner of vaudeville skits. (p. 316)
Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1965), subtitled "An Exercise in Diplomacy," continues Arden's fascination with the game of power politics. This time he shows how the machinations of Sir David Lindsay, poet and politician, led to the hanging of the Border freebooter Johnny Armstrong of Gilnockie in 1530. Arden claims to have been influenced in this play by Conor Cruise O'Brien's To Katanga and Back. While I am grateful that this remark has led me to a perusal of Mr. O'Brien's brilliant book, I fail to see the similarity of moral problems of which Arden speaks. In any case, it is unnecessary to seek such a connection. The play is perfectly capable of standing by itself as an example of psychological analysis on stage in the beautifully worked out contrast between the cynicism and callous Machiavellian duplicity of Lindsay on the one hand and the oddly attractive child-like vanity and primitive brutishness of Armstrong on the other. (p. 317)
George Wellwarth, "John Arden: Idealism and Promise," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox, revised edition (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; © 1964, 1971 by New York University), New York University Press, 1971, pp. 313-17.
[The] permanent source of true ambiguity is life itself. And for Arden—and so many other artists of our time—the chief responsibility of the artist is not to resolve these ambiguities by means of an artistic form, but rather to use form to reveal as clearly as possible life's ambiguities in all their complexity.
All of Arden's experiments with technique:
1. his use of the simplified techniques of characterization of the miracle and morality plays,
2. his attempts to achieve the robustness of Elizabethan drama coupled with an almost Jacobean tendency toward excess,
3. the borrowing from the poetic and fragmented form of Buechner's plays,
4. the use of the sung doggerel of the Victorian music hall,
5. the use of satirical ballad poetry and the parabolic epic structure of Brecht, are attempts to express this ambiguity. But in spite of these efforts he continues to discover, as he once put it in an interview, that "life itself remains the most ambiguous and paradoxical phenomenon." (Just as Mother Courage and so many of Brecht's other plays reveal that life is more Brechtian than Brecht.) As a result, so long as Arden can suggest that life's inconclusiveness undercuts all viewpoints, including the viewpoint that there is no one solution to our contemporary dilemmas, then he is an ironist, at the same time that he transcends his own irony. Sparky, in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, sums it up best when he says:
That's what I call life—it all turns up in the expected order, but not when you expect it.
For this reason the central duality in all of Arden's work resides in the basic conflict between the institutionalized society of men under the aegis of law and order and a community based on the relations of service, loyalties, and affection among individuals…. This conflict explains why there can never be an answer to an Arden play, even though there seems to be an artistic resolution. How can man, with his idiosyncratic urge for anarchy, poetry, and sensual pleasure, ever be crammed into the tame yet violent structures of contemporary urban life which he knows are necessary?
This same duality finally explains the typical Arden protagonist. Each one is a rebel. But not a rebel who withdraws from society to oppose it; but rather one who remains involved in, and corrupted by, a society which he has come to loathe. In the end he is a person who has become the epitome of the corrosive society which made him. And when he learns this, usually through an act of self-discovery, he tries to destroy both society and himself. He is a kind of Everyman, with huge energy, who in his self-loathing and self-destructive willfulness refuses to control either.
However, all of the above may be a little bit misleading. For while it is true that Arden in embracing complexity and ambiguity, may be denying the validity of a theatre based upon rebellious and partisan political attitudes, or social reform, or even a theatre which has as its chief responsibility the coming to grips with significant contemporary issues, he is nonetheless a writer of social plays—a new kind of social play. Perhaps this will become clearer when we recognize that Arden is not concerned with the metaphysical implications of the human condition, nor is he concerned with psychological problems (although the psychology of some of his characters is fascinating). Arden's vision of life is communal. For him the community has value and it is always threatened by the corrupting forces of polity, which are as iniquitous as they are necessary and inevitable. And it is this belief in community that inspires the quality of festivity—the spirit celebration—which pervades each of his plays…. Arden's drama celebrates the spirit of community and its powers of survival in spite of man's strong inborn tendencies toward self-destruction. (pp. 321-23)
The English theatre in its most creative periods has always had as one of its chief concerns the probing of the existing forms of human organization…. [The] community must continue to exist and must continue to celebrate itself, even if this is done only in the minds and imaginations of its playwrights. By relating himself to the most creative parts of his native tradition and at the same time maintaining his disturbing modernity, John Arden is, I believe, one of the most vital and significant playwrights of the contemporary British theatre. (p. 324)
Robert W. Corrigan, "The Theatre of John Arden," in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 316-24.
At intervals John Arden has been compared with Bertolt Brecht. Both playwrights realize their dramatic conflicts in terms of social situations and pressures, rather than in emotional or spiritual developments. But where Brecht sets forth the moral, the 'message' of his plays, however controversial, contradictory or infuriating that moral may seem, Arden's even-handed exposition of motives leaves his audience without even a disputable guideline. By understanding the villains we are tempted to excuse them—they don't seem to be villains after all—and from this derives the difficulty and at the same time the interest of Arden's work.
… The Waters of Babylon (1957), Live Like Pigs (1958), and The Happy Haven (1960) show his embattled characters struggling against their treacherous environment—though in the latter two the environment is ostensibly benevolent. The Sawneys of Live Like Pigs are removed from their tumbledown caravan-shack and rehoused in a new council house. Semi-illiterate and chronically resentful, they have to battle mainly against officialdom—police, doctors, forms to fill in. They are determined to impose their disorganized, tramps' way of life on their unsolicited new house, and officialdom is determined to impose the Council's standards of order, cleanliness and conformity on them. Officialdom as a system is the villain, not because its standards are bad, but because it applies these without imagination or intelligence. Its spokesmen, the doctor, the man from the Council, whether pleasant or unpleasant in themselves, are not responsible for the system as it stands. (p. 7)
[The Happy Haven], Arden specifies, is intended to be given a formalized presentation, with the use of character masks of the commedia dell'arte kind: the purpose is to emphasize the character's 'type' or single ruling trait, so that individual nuances are effaced…. Experimenting with masks, Arden not only derived practical advantages—the non-realistic convention meant that young actors could be used and a brisk pace was possible—but increased the impact of The Happy Haven: the masks underline the stereotyping of the old people as merely 'old' and not at all as 'people'.
The Business of Good Government (1963), Arden's Nativity play for the villagers of Brent Knoll in Somerset, centred on the story of the birth of Christ: the event is presented as simple, unquestioned and miraculous, but is set in a more typically Ardenesque context of tortuous political cross-currents. A harassed and unhistorically well-meaning King Herod is driven by fear of the occupying Romans to kill thousands of babies who might be the dangerous Christ: the business of good government allows for no miracles, but demands the kind of inhuman logic that treats human beings as objects. (pp. 8-9)
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is still the play Arden is 'known' for—a classic already well established, frequently performed, a school set text. Its complexity, which initially alienated the theatre critics—it had poor notices and ran for a comparatively short period—is overridden for the more receptive audience by its immediately gripping and powerful dramatic appeal: the colours are a dominating black, white and red, and the plot develops through tense, vivid tableaux, on a twilight canal wharf, in a bright noisy public house, and a snow-covered graveyard…. This is a play, Arden says, about violence, and … the Serjeant's self-imposed mission is to impress on England the sinfulness of the colonial war from which [he has] come, and the pointlessness of the killing on both sides.
As the preface to the play acknowledges, 'strong' though this plot-line is, audiences felt some residual bewilderment as to where their sympathies were meant to lie. Musgrave's crusade against a 'war of sin and unjust blood' seems at first wholly admirable. His procedure, however, is not clear even to himself. (pp. 10-11).
Multiplying the ambiguity are the disparate motives of the soldiers—Musgrave's fanaticism, Sparky's personal impulsiveness, Attercliffe's pacifism, and the violence of Hurst, the killer—a violence he imposes, like a fatality, on the 'dance'. Among the civilians, Walsh's caution and independence ends ineffectually, and the only victor seems to be the sly hunchback Joe Bludgeon, ugly personification of opportunism and betrayal. (p. 12)
In The Island of the Mighty (1973) most of the themes of Arden's earlier works have been united in the many-stranded plot: a survey of the play is a survey of Arden's drama in little. Again, the role of the hero is questioned, and an alternative title might be 'The Hero Sinks Down'. A panoramic history of the legendary Arthur's final years, its grim humour and tragedy are a long way from the lurid satire of its predecessor [The Hero Rises Up]…. There are hardly any traces of the traditional Arthurian legends here—no Sir Lancelot, no Round Table, no Holy Grail—but Arden's creation of an Arthurian Britain has just as much authority. Arthur's efforts to pull the dissident petty kings and princes of Britain together to face the common enemy are in vain; already the land has lost its peaceful Roman identity, trampled into barrenness by local feuding war bands. (p. 27)
To appreciate the richness of this play makes greater demands upon the audience even than Arden's earlier works simply because the plot, as in The Workhouse Donkey, proliferates majestically. A second viewing or reading is really necessary to interpret the relationships of characters or groups of characters, and the unspoken dramatic contrasts and symbolism is important. (p. 31)
If The Island of the Mighty gathers most of Arden's themes and techniques into one mighty plot, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is [the] first, economical blueprint, and the line between the two plays is a direct one. Whether Serjeant Musgrave will still be the blueprint for the next phase remains to be seen. (p. 32)
Glenda Leeming, in her John Arden (© Glenda Leeming 1974; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1974.
Arden's work can be seen as a critically conscious attempt at revitalising drama, partly through the primitive sources of the language: releasing the energies of the ballad, of rough verse and song, set in and against a highly coloured prose dialogue which is itself frequently drawn from the rich speech patterns of an archaic or exotic dialect. It is a literary attempt to create a language that has seemingly preliterary qualities—'primary colours', a tough lyricism, a popular poetry-in-the-theatre. (p. 213)
[He aims], quite centrally, at a theatre that can draw on a language that is rooted in the past (like the ballad), and on the kindred language of 'primitive' speakers (like the 'anachronistic' vagrants of Live Like Pigs whose talk is as 'rich-and-strange' as that of Synge's peasants).
What is new in Arden is the attempt to regain touch with an all but lost pre-industrial language in and for our own pan-industrial society, with all its urban complexities of speech. On the one hand, this involves a conscious unearthing of a half-buried, no longer truly popular, poetic tradition (with the risk of archaism), and a deliberate going outside 'standard' English and even the more central forms of non-standard English (with the risk of exoticism). On the other hand, Arden is a critically conscious post-Brechtian dramatist, a student of drama who has rediscovered for himself an 'imaginary museum' of popular drama…. Brecht himself was not so much a direct influence as a mediator, making it easier for Arden to go back to sources he was naturally drawn to: not just the epic and the popular theatre in general, but—particularly relevant in the present context—to the English ballad, folk or folksy song, irregular verse juxtaposed with prose dialogue, and period language for parables set in the past. And if Arden was originally drawn mainly by the backward-looking lyrical expressiveness of the ballad …, he has tried to develop a multiple-style dramatic language for plays that speak to a modern audience.
Such an approach to drama and language sets Arden consciously apart from his contemporaries. (pp. 214-15)
In practice, few would question that Arden has a marked predilection for 'the regional dialect of peasants', and that his own creative energy is released—is joyously employed—in recreating patterns of speech that are either backward-looking or cut off, through some social accident, from the pressures of contemporary consciousness felt, by now, in most types of everyday English (and not merely in 'metropolitan' or 'educated' speech). And this marked creative bias—seen at its clearest in Live Like Pigs but a main current in Arden's drama—represents a form of nostalgia for heightened or poetic prose, for speech 'fully flavoured as a nut or apple'.
Technically, such exotic prose works through local heightening to achieve a local intensity in imagery and rhythm. It yields less interest in terms of interaction between characters, in the movement of dialogue from speech to speech. And it lacks the inner complexity, the nervous concentration or evasiveness, the ambiguity and stylistic many-sidedness, which does stamp much modern speech; features that have been exploited in some of the most interesting dialogue techniques of our time. In this respect Arden is—as he himself has implied—at the opposite pole from Pinter. We may value his achievement—the vigour and occasional beauty of his language—and still remain aware of a limitation. In so far as such things can be summarised, Arden's 'tradition', by leaning too much on archaic or regional languages, risks insulating itself. With all its liveliness, it is a language not 'open' to the way language is being lived and re-made under the pressure of new modes of thought and being. From this point of view Arden's dramatic language seems highly specialised.
Yet the potential direction of Arden—and his actual achievement in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance and in the best scenes of Armstrong's Last Goodnight—is an interplay of languages: the opposite of a 'specialised' language. In attempting to revitalise a 'popular dramatic tradition' Arden may be said to be aiming at reaching his audience on several levels, through a 'principle of multi-consciousness.'… In such a drama both traditional and modern, popular and literary, robust and lyrical, modes of expression would interact. The language of a play would have 'straight lines, as it were, in contrast to curved': it would be communal and yet speak to the audience with one man's voice. (pp. 227-28)
Andrew K. Kennedy, in his Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Studies in Dramatic Language (© Cambridge University Press 1975), Cambridge University Press, 1975.
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