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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.)
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[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 reprehensible conclusions drawn from it may either alienate the spectators out of all sympathy with the play (as happened to some critics), or else it may jolt them into stirring moral speculations (as was the experience of some other critics).
It is only fair to say that Arden does not guide the spectators' response with any regimental firmness. The play is diffident in putting forward its moral—a diffidence in curious contrast with the violence of its action….
Perhaps a structural flaw in the play is the division in its dramatic purpose between the demands of suspense and surprise. Musgrave and the three Soldiers under his command are under great mental pressure, thinking about the impending day of reckoning, the recruiting-meeting in the town square. The study of this strain builds up suspense and constitutes the main psychological interest of the first two acts. Then, in Act III, the surprise is sprung: the hoisting up of the skeleton, and the training of the Gatling gun on the crowd. As a surprise it works powerfully. But the more genuine the surprise, the less the audience were in a position to understand the causes and the significance of the strain under which the Soldiers had been labouring before.
Arden's language in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is earthy, with a rich north-country flavour; but it is not naturalistic for all that. It is a highly charged prose that at times abruptly rises into verse. There is no need to seek for the roots of Arden's dramatic poetry in Brecht, although the analogy is obvious enough....
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The essentially poetic conception of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is reinforced by recurrent colour imagery—particularly black (the blackness of the night, of the coal-fields, of the haunted mind of Black Jack Musgrave himself); white (the snow of the winter scene, the white skeleton of Billy Hicks); and red (the colour of blood, of the Mayor's gown and the Soldiers' coats). Visually as well as verbally, these colours are firmly established in the very first scene, with references to the darkness of the night, the snow, the red and black of the Soldiers' pack of cards, and the Bargee's taunting of the Soldiers as 'blood-red roses'. (p. 53)
In its protest against the folly and beastliness of war, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance does not use the all-out expressionism of The Silver Tassie. But like O'Casey's play it uses elements of realism in order to build up an image going beyond realism. The parable has been made to yield poetry-of-the-theatre. (p. 54)
G. W. Brandt, in Contemporary Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 4, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (© Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd 1962), Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd, 1962.
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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 material does not properly resolve itself. One should either have scaled it down to the given time, or insisted on its natural full length.
—It is meaningfully complex. Beneath a bouncy exterior lies a maze of meaning. Municipal corruption is its amusing façade, but the play winds downward to connect with hard-boned ideas concerning law, justice and developments in social history. For me, the historical aspects are the most pertinent.
Councillor Butterthwaite, who runs a feather-bedded Yorkshire town like a family business, is a relic of a 1920s socialist idealism; the same idealism that spawned the English trade-union movement and turned labour solidarity into narrow-minded factionalism. He contains the ruins of pioneer Socialist principles and the contradictions of present-day Labour Party. He is a glib and aggressive anachronism and stands as a valid symbol for what early twentieth-century idealism turned into.
With that inbred and relentless objectivity which makes Arden the writer least committed to sects and most committed to truth, he sketches in the other dominant forces…. No villains, no heroes, only varying degrees of grayness which in one light appear black, and in another, white. (pp. 239-40)
Arden has given us a richness and a fulsomeness and I, for one, prefer a well-stocked buffet to a predictable round of fish and chips. (p. 241)
Charles Marowitz, "'The Workhouse Donkey'" (1963), in The Encore Reader: A Chronicle of the New Drama, edited by Charles Marowitz, Tom Milne and Owen Hale (copyright © 1965 Encore Publishing Company), Methuen & Co Ltd, 1965, pp. 238-41.
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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 more superficial sense—he writes about the colour question, about "problem" families, about the state of local politics, etc.—but equally true at a deeper level of his drama. Whatever their starting point, the impression his plays finally leave us with is of the basic anarchy of our society. The intricate entanglements of his plots—at a time when many dramatists are trying to make do with as little plot as possible—help to get over this anarchy to the audience.
Arden's plays offer no solutions either to the surface problems of local politics, etc. or to the underlying anarchy of our society. This is not a weakness in them but a strength. For it would be very silly to imagine that questions of such importance can be solved inside a theatre. (pp. 25-6)
Paradoxically, Arden's concern with present reality sometimes leads him to set his plays in the past. Serjeant Musgrave's dance reminds us of the Cyprus situation of the 1950s, and Armstrong's last goodnight of the recent civil war in the Congo, but the first is set in Victorian England and the second in sixteenth century Scotland. If Arden had written directly of Cyprus or the Congo, his plays would have had to take a more documentary form, and he would have had to concentrate on being objective and accurate in his facts. The historical settings allow him much greater liberty in shaping his material and dramatising the issues which seem to him important.
You can get some understanding of Arden's plays from reading the scripts of them, but nothing like their full impact. A reading will give a sense of what he is trying to say and some indication of his powers of language—he can create as convincing an impression of the speech of sixteenth century Scotsmen as of a "problem" family on a northern council estate (Live like pigs, 1958) and his vernacular dialogue is heightened, in the appropriate places, by poetry and haunting song. But you miss, in a reading, his visual qualities…. Arden is a playwright who compels his audience to thought, he is also, first and foremost, a playwright. (pp. 26-7)
J. D. Hainsworth, in The Hibbert Journal, Autumn, 1966.
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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.
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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 finds it hard to reconcile his political views, his ability to see both sides of a question, and the kind of play he actually finds himself writing. (pp. 66-8)
[Arden himself thematically associated his play with the Viet Nam war conflicts, and] is desperately anxious that audiences should look for continued topical significance in Musgrave, and not dismiss it because the nature of the Cyprus dispute has changed. (p. 69)
[In his Introduction to the published text] Arden first emphasizes the topic of how easy it is to want to respond to the evil of violence with further and greater violence, then adds that this reaction is very wrong. Although this is the most common response at the level of power politics, Arden presents it in such a way in the market-place scene that the spectator is horrified…. There are five acts of violence in the play…. Each is presented to make clear Arden's disapproval. But he goes on to enrich the theme in a less usual way, by looking at the difficulties of the alternative…. [It] is precisely because the anti-war document is a hackneyed one in the theatre that Arden has done something much more unusual and controversial: he asks why pacifist ideas have not had more influence.
The play suggests that pacifists are not sure enough about what they are trying to do, and have not understood the complexities of the world. Musgrave's band have not worked out exactly what they are trying to do in the market-place, as Musgrave kept his plans to himself. His faith in Logic does not fit the facts of the world…. It is the strike, however, that is the unforseen complication for Musgrave's group. The strike could be a kind of non-violent action beyond the range of Musgrave's imagination, but the strikers do not put all their trust in this, and attempt to steal the soldiers' Gatling gun…. Most important, the strike exposes class conflict: the Mayor and Parson want an army since it removes and disciplines potential trouble-makers, a question hinting at the problem of who benefits from wars.
The limitations of the men themselves are more responsible for their failure than such circumstances as the strike. Attercliffe is a complete pacifist, asserting "all wars is sin," and "they've got to turn against all wars."… Yet even he can be aggressive toward Hurst near the end of the inn scene…. (pp. 70-1)
Ultimately it is Attercliffe, not their oratorical leader, who understands non-violence and puts himself in front of Musgrave's gun. Hurst is not a convert to pacifism, but a deserter … eager to kill in revenge for his suffering in the army. Sparky, too, has joined Musgrave in a moment of anger, at the useless death of his friend Billy…. Musgrave is limited by putting his faith in "good order and the discipline: it's the only road I know."… His religious fanaticism leads him in the end to see his actions as the work of God…. (p. 71)
The motives of pacifists are thus questioned. Repressed hostility is prominent in both Musgrave and Hurst, while his wife's unfaithfulness was a decisive experience in Attercliffe's life. Sparky's views are an unthinking and emotional reaction. Hurst's shortcomings suggest that pacifists are sometimes unwise in those they accept as allies. None of the privates is sufficiently dedicated and singleminded: drink and lust lead to the fight in the stable and Sparky's death. Though this is accidental, these confused and angry men are too feeble to lead the world to new and worthier standards. Arden suggests the virtues pacifists need, especially self-knowledge of the violence that may underlie pacifist principles. (pp. 71-2)
There are several other ideas in the play, perhaps too many. Musgrave and his followers are obsessed with guilt at the evil in which they joined, raising the issue of how to expiate it…. Musgrave touches, too, on the question of what principle is: where and how can one begin to apply principles in an imperfect world; does the quest of absolute principle lead to madness? Armstrong's Last Goodnight and Left-Handed Liberty (1965) develop the theme of principle versus expediency. The play refers specifically to the difficulty of attending both to immediate domestic problems, like the strike, and to foreign involvements…. The implication is that Britain becomes involved in situations like that in Cyprus because the public does not care about such issues.
Musgrave's venture, which will cost the lives of all four, has apparently changed nothing…. [Neither] the colliers nor Annie show any sign that they are going to be influenced by the action so that the soldier's protest will be continued. (p. 72)
Malcolm Page, "The Motives of Pacifists: John Arden's 'Serjeant Musgrave's Dance'" (copyright by Malcolm Page), in Drama Survey, Spring-Summer, 1967, pp. 66-72.
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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 tempt a director to give it a succession of realistic sets, but this would create scene-shifting problems on the practical level, and would also, I think, reduce the general application of the themes of the play. To avoid this, Arden directs that any localization of scenes should be suggested rather than illustrated, and in order to manage quick scene-changes which at the same time will constantly remind the audience that they are in a theatre, watching a play (Arden's recurring alienation effect), he proposes the use of sliding flats or drop curtains while the actors are on stage, as in eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century theatre. This is a neat device in "The Waters of Babylon," where Krank is "discovered" by the opening curtain, and the transfer to the next scene, a street, is achieved by the closing of the scene, which subsequently opens and closes continually. The furniture and other properties disclosed then indicate the locality—an architect's office, Speakers' Corner, and so on. It may be noted that in this first stage play Arden already uses the device of direct address to the audience, to extend the scope of the stage and reduce the barrier between actor and audience, which is a repeated feature of his later work. (pp. 306-07)
[Arden emerges] as a conscious and imaginative exploiter of visual effects and stage resources. His knowledge of stage history and his trained eye add dimensions to his work that are often absent from that of more "literary" writers. These are aspects that must not be ignored when his contribution to the drama is considered, and it is through them that he is likely to make a lasting contribution to the theatre too, in helping to break down theatre conventions and in striving towards a richer and more active relationship between actors and audience. (p. 316)
Joan Tindale Blindheim, "John Arden's Use of the Stage," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1968, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), December, 1968, pp. 306-16.
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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 pacifism than it is about anarchism, a doctrine which the play tentatively (as Arden himself might put it) urges.
To start with, the key event in the play is not the atrocity which takes place before the action starts and which motivates the desertion of the four soldiers, nor is it Act 3, Scene 1 wherein Musgrave's band confronts the population of the Northern mining town, although the latter scene, of course, is the play's climax in terms of narrative. Instead, the meaning of this very tightly constructed drama is developed in the pub scene, Act 2, Scene 3, and the key event is Annie's attempt to offer her love to each of the soldiers in turn.
Arden suggests that "a study of the roles of the women, and of Private Attercliffe, should be sufficient to remove any doubts as to where the 'moral' of the play lies." (p. 45)
[The] major threat to the performance of [the soldiers'] "duty" is the "life or love" that Annie has to offer.
Let us admit that Annie is scarcely an embodiment of the Life Force! Her "life" in this bleak town is harsh and sour…. Yet despite her bitterness and the sardonic quality of her speech she represents "all there is" in the bleak landscape of the play. (p. 46)
But Hurst rejects her, and it seems to me important to understand why.
Arden tells us in his introduction that he visualizes Hurst as "bloody-minded, quick tempered, handsome, cynical, tough, but not quite as intelligent as he thinks he is." Yet he emerges in the play in a somewhat different light. For one thing he is an obeyer of orders, a man who respects power, who cowers before the power invested in others, and who yearns to exert power of his own. Musgrave has little difficulty with him…. His rebelliousness, or at least the period during which he questions Musgrave's authority, is short lived. Musgrave can even make him accept the notion of God, or at least, pretend to accept it…. (pp. 46-7)
But Musgrave's talk of God seems, to Hurst, a fundamental weakening of the Sergeant's position. God is for parsons, old women, and other sentimentalists and in no sense can organized religion be made to correspond to the world as Hurst understands it. Life, to such a man, is tough, raw, brutal. Justice is a matter of power, and power is a combination of will, strategy, and brute strength. So Hurst's submission to Musgrave is only temporary and remains a surface matter with him until he overhears the Sergeant translating "God's plan" into secular terms…. "A clear plan, drawn out straight and black" means more to Hurst than vague talk about God. Particularly can he understand Musgrave's warning to Annie not to "stand between [these men] and their strength."…
Love equals desertion, or at least a dereliction of duty, as far as Hurst is concerned. (p. 47)
If there is little place for Annie in Hurst's violent world of discipline, authority, and good order, there is none at all in Attercliffe's. Attercliffe, Arden suggests, is "aged about fifty, grey-haired, melancholy, a little embittered." He seems to represent the position of complete non-violence in the play…. Attercliffe is dominated by an impulse to modify the behavior of others—by a desire to police the world. He interrupts the fight between the collier and the constable and it is he who puts his own body in the line of fire of the Gatling gun which Hurst has trained onto the crowd in the town square. He is, in other words, a non-violent man whose desire to reform human beings, i.e. to make them accept his point of view, involves him in violent events. He is a hollow man whose somewhat empty obsession renders him incapable of accepting the life and love that Annie offers him. He rejects her, just as Hurst does, and becomes, instead, a victim of other people's savagery. The fight in the stable, during which Sparky is killed, is at the same time an ironic manifestation of Attercliffe's own role in the events of the play, and a little parable about war: the impetus to kill comes from the savage Hurst, but the man who actually wields the bayonet, and does the killing, is Attercliffe, the man of decent and generous impulses.
Arden tells us that a study of Attercliffe's role should help us see where the "moral" of the play lies. He later suggests that the play may be advocating, "with some timidity," the doctrine of complete pacifism. If, however, the moral is complete pacifism and if this doctrine is embodied in the character of Attercliffe, then the play seems to me to fail. Attercliffe, as I have tried to show, is too much of a hollow man, too much of a "loser" to exemplify any set of values one could describe as "positive." In addition, there seems little to choose between Hurst's programmatic violence and Attercliffe's equally programmatic non-violence. Both attitudes imply authoritarian superstructures—Hurst's implies discipline, obedience, and therefore power over others, while Attercliffe's implies prevention, police work, etc.—in other words power over others. The play does not seem to me to fail, however, because there is an effective alternative to Attercliffe's position and it is expressed through the character of Sparky.
Sparky, Arden says, is "easily led, easily driven, inclined to hide from himself behind a screen of silly stories and irritating clownishness."… He appears stupid and incoherent—frivolous, even, throughout most of the play, but his emotion regarding the loss of his friend is genuine to the point of overpowering him. Coupled with this emotion is fear—chiefly of Musgrave whom he refers to, half ironically, as God…. When Annie, who has failed with Hurst and Attercliffe, breaks down and begins to weep, Sparky attempts, somewhat fearfully, to comfort her, and, in doing so, himself. When the light goes out in Musgrave's room Sparky gradually gains confidence…. And, no longer in God's eye or what amounts to the same thing, Musgrave's "good order," Sparky can offer himself to the girl…. This, he discovers, is what payment means—although Billy Hicks cannot be avenged it may be that he can be "replaced." The concept begins to take shape and Sparky, "following his thought in great disturbance of mind," expresses it "with a sudden access of resolution," and "with a switch to hard seriousness." (pp. 48-50)
At this point, then, and just before he is killed, Sparky attains a genuinely anarchic point of view which (in terms of the play) runs something like this: the problem is not one of violence or nonviolence, pacifism or hostility, rather the question is how, and with what, does a man survive? The soldiers' life is basically little different from the life of a civilian—in fact life in this bleak, wintry, coal town as a "free" man is probably worse than life in some sunlit colony. In the Army there are Musgraves, Hursts, and Attercliffes—but their counterparts in civilian life, mayors, constables, and parsons, disguise themselves a little more and are thus probably a good deal more dangerous. The point is that a man is free neither as a soldier, nor as a deserter, nor as a civilian and, in any walk of life, he encounters those who wish him to conform to their point of view and use authority, discipline, or brutality to achieve their ends. So that a man who values his freedom is everywhere on the run. But just as the Army is like civilian life in this negative respect, so is it as a means of pursuing "life and love." In the Army there is a Billy Hicks; in civilian life, an Annie. One survives by refusing to be used and the most, and the best, that one can do is to seek out love—not for mankind, or for institutions, but for individuals. One dies in the end, of course, as Sparky dies, for there is no final escape from the forces that are trying to kill. But "life and love" before this happens is an escape from authority and a refusal to allow oneself to be used—either as victim or as executioner.
This, then, seems to me to be the message of the play. If Arden were to have allowed Sparky to survive after he has, at last, ceased to "hide from himself" the play would not have been any the less pessimistic (if the message is, in fact, pessimistic) and his action would have been weakened structurally. For it is the knowledge that Sparky has been killed that causes the colliers to refuse to join in Musgrave's insane dance. (pp. 50-1)
John Mills, "Love and Anarchy in 'Sergeant Musgrave's Dance'," in Drama Survey (copyright 1969 by The Bolingbroke Society, Inc.), Winter, 1968–69, pp. 45-51.
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[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 illustrate that life and set it within the historical and legendary tradition of our culture'. (p. 76)
Like Brecht, Arden is a political playwright but only in the sense that he feels it is impossible to avoid being political since man is a political animal. Everything that man does is a political act. For Arden politics means the art of living together and if the actual technical aspects are the province of the politician everyone should be concerned and recognise that any play about people is political. But where Brecht, as a practising communist, is didactic, Arden sees the Marxist analysis as only one of many sources and solutions. It can be used, as in Sjt. Musgrave's Dance, but not to the extent of making the play Marxist. Arden discovered Brecht the theatre technician only after writing plays and believes that both Brecht and himself had been inspired by the same things: the Middle Ages, the Elizabethans and various styles, such as the Chinese and Japanese theatres. Arden does invite us to watch and judge the action of the play (like Brecht) but like his contemporary dramatists on a human rather than an ideological level. [Brecht] achieves alienation through the use of blatantly theatrical devices, like song and dance, but for Arden such devices must be integral rather than interrupt the performance.
The Waters of Babylon (1957) showed the Arden method albeit in confused shape. Starting as a satire on Macmillan's Premium Bond scheme it deals with the career of Sigismanfred Krankiewiecz—a pimp, an unscrupulous landlord and at work during the day in an architect's office. The play shows a use of plot, a large amount of incident and a large number of characters—all three necessary to exhibit the triple life of the central character…. The dialogue is written in too many styles, and the private lives of the characters are too lively for them to be submerged in the public events which are Arden's main interest. But the play is always interesting and presents, if one looks at it closely, the embryonic shape of that opposition between vitality and order which is the basis of most of Arden's work.
This opposition emerged in his next play Soldier, Soldier (1960)…. Here most of the characters speak in prose but the central character uses a rough type of blank verse. Arden intended this to suggest values: the strident, disorderly soldier (verse) and the respectable, quiet townsfolk (prose). The soldier enjoys the kind of life which invites trouble while the townsfolk sacrifice everything, including pleasure, to avoid trouble…. Arden intends this soldier to be seen as representative of every soldier and likeable: as the poetry in life. But he also insists that we do not think of the victims as contemptible, a balance explored dramatically in [Live Like Pigs (1958)]…. It is written almost entirely in prose and looks at the results of putting a gypsy family on a housing estate somewhere in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Many critics felt … that it needed pruning; but they also noted the racy, turbulent vitality of the play. Most critics also seem to feel that our sympathy was intended for the intruders and that at the end, as with the town in Soldier, Soldier, order may be restored but life is none the better for that. If sympathy on Arden's part is limited for restored order his dispassionate presentation scarcely makes the gypsies likeable as neighbours. (pp. 77-8)
Arden broke with naturalism fairly decisively in Sjt. Musgrave's Dance (1959) and has since been moving towards simplicity, extreme formalism and a bold use of primary colours…. [The] complex plot is hardly susceptible to précis and confusing in the theatre. Is Arden supporting pacifism in his play, as he certainly does in life, or is he pointing out the complex roots of violence with a pessimistic conclusion? Arden himself confesses that he had problems; he started with the climax of the play and was then left with the task of making that climax credible in a number of scenes which would allow both the soldiers and the townsfolk to reveal their attitudes…. The play owes something to Brecht's version of The Recruiting Officer—Drums and Trumpets—and took hints from an American film called The Raid. It is Arden's first excursion into a historical setting. But where dramatists like Osborne and Bolt concentrate on an individual, isolated and therefore modern, and using language in a heroic manner, Arden is interested in groups and his historical setting deliberately suggests no particular period while evoking many…. Some of the characters are still far from convincing even as representatives (e.g. the mayor and the parson) but Arden has described them as caricatures by omission rather than exaggeration. Some of the situations are clearly decided by the plot rather than by character—for example the reaction of the soldiers to Annie in the stable. The colliers, who are to look like figures in a Lowry painting, do not need to stand out but when one has to speak as an individual the dialogue is not strong enough. Possibly this weakness stems from the ballad tradition espoused by Arden. (pp. 79-80)
Arden sees the ballad as the bedrock of English poetry and the method by which he could become a poet of the theatre. He recognised that he must not become too private or his plays would be valuable only for reading, or, like Yeats's, actable only in a drawing-room theatre before an inevitably élitist audience. The ballad, with its sense of season, the passing of time, strong primary colours and strong narrative line was suitable for a theatre where costumes, movement, verbal patterns and music must all be strong and hard. If verse is to be used it must be obviously verse as opposed to the surrounding prose and never allowed to droop into what Arden calls 'casual flaccidities'. Arden, therefore, sought simple but basic situations and themes to express social criticism and a framework of traditional poetic truths to give weight to what might otherwise be only contemporary documentary facility. Such a technique can be misunderstood since audiences find it difficult to give a simple response to the story. In the ballad, as in the fable, we draw our own conclusions. Arden chose verse though he recognised that other forms are available and has remarked, for example, on the effects gained by Pinter whose dialogue becomes poetic. His choice of the ballad is political. It reaches back into history and works in a moral atmosphere of multiple standards which he prefers and demonstrates in Sjt. Musgrave's Dance. There we meet the dilemma of war and violence in which pacifism (his own instinctive choice) is shown to be not self-sufficiently right…. The issue of war and violence, of order versus anarchy, has … shifted into terms of good government and the clash between principle and expediency. (pp. 80-2)
The commedia dell'arte mask obviously appealed to Arden for [The Happy Haven (1959–60)]. He wanted a style of theatre which used types [as he] was using young people to play old characters. The masks were appropriate, for age is seen as a mask which has hardened over the years and can be ripped off by rejuvenation. Possibly, too, the circumstances of the play led Arden to award the victory to anarchy in this play as the old people refuse to be made young (albeit for very childish reasons) and turn the doctor into a child.
Arden returned to the subject of good government in 1960 with his nativity play…. The Business of Good Government is an odd title for a Nativity play but Arden's version is scarcely orthodox. Its central character is really Herod, a man pushed into a corner from which the only escape is by massacring the innocents. Arden admits that his Herod is blatantly unhistorical. Critics have complained that the end of the play is inconclusive and that Arden should have kept his initial focus on Herod. However fascinating that exercise would have been the play is restored to its proper direction and ends with the miracle of the field of corn that shields the Holy Family on its flight into Egypt. Arden is noticeably trying to simplify the dramatic action aware that people have no time to watch and listen. But he still uses language contrasts. The Angel [for example] speaks with Biblical grandeur…. Herod on the other hand uses colloquial prose although at the end of the play when he discusses the business of good government this rises to something nearer the poetic. (pp. 82-3)
[The Workhouse Donkey (1963)] is an apparently domestic play, a comedy or as he called it a 'vulgar melodrama' in an idiom close to that of 'low music-hall and seaside picture postcards'. In this he revived a favourite character Alderman Charlie Butterthwaite…. It is a full picture of the local borough as a modern city state (and hence not domestic in scope) derived from Arden's observation of how councils still ran the boroughs of the West Riding in the grand nineteenth-century manner. Its subject is the business of good government dealt with through groups which cover all the social elements (except, curiously, the working class) attached to a story which centres, as in Ironhand [a translation and rewriting he did of Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen], on two men, Butterthwaite and Feng…. In the end both men lose their positions and Arden pointed out that if his personal preference was for Butterthwaite he does not want to convert anyone. There are many people who would have integrity at any price rather than corruption. But the only conclusion, as in Ironhand, is that the ones who survive are the compromisers, the little men. (p. 84)
Arden reaches his clearest statement of the basic theme in his work with Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964)…. After reading Conor Cruise O'Brien's To Katanga and Back he fused the desire to write a play about the Congo with this incident in Scottish history making O'Brien into Lindsay and Tshombe/Lumumba into Armstrong. Through these characters he shows the inadequacy of political expediency and yet deliberately avoids suggesting whether there is an alternative. As before, the characters fall into groups and the plot resolves itself into the familiar conflict between two principles: anarchy (the robber baron Armstrong) and order (the mature, but devious, Lindsay). (pp. 84-5)
As in his Nativity play Arden shifts the centre [in Left-Handed Liberty (1965)] to the character usually thought to be the villain of the piece: King John. The conflict here lacks epic scope but it also lacks the linguistic difficulties encountered in Armstrong's Last Goodnight where Arden had deliberately invented his own version of Middle Scottish. The themes are liberty, the value of treaties and the irony of history. There is clarity of argument but also the sense that texture and individuality are lost beneath historical research…. The play sustains the idea that 'an agreement on paper is worth nothing to nobody unless it has taken place in their minds as well'. (pp. 85-6)
If the central attitudes to naturalism have not been seriously challenged, Arden has added ambiguity to identification and illusion as a theatrical method. This is more than lip service to Brecht whom Arden places with dramatists like Euripides, Jonson and Ibsen as makers of a new idiom in the theatre. Since Brecht is closest in time he is probably the strongest influence. But Arden's dramatised attitudes are seldom absolutes—right or wrong—and his personal preferences never obtrude and are, as he continues to insist, irrelevant. These attitudes he tries to strengthen and make universal by the use of historical parallels which challenge an easy judgement and require, as it seems to him, that mixture of prose and verse he has worked at with such earnestness. (pp. 86-7)
It is the plays themselves [and not the staging] that create a sense of strangeness—by incident and language—revealing a vision of the world which is essentially pessimistic, and shows life as senseless, absurd. But it is more than Brechtian devices that separates Arden from the theatre of the Absurd. His plays are acted out in the real world not dream or fantasy, and the vision is not subjective. Absurd Drama reaches social problems through individuals whereas for Arden individuals are representative, and however vigorous and lively as individuals, their failure or success is first and foremost a tragic comment on the state of society. It is always the social predicament that faces us at the end of the play. Moreover, Arden needs plot to create the network of social inter-relationships from which this judgement proceeds, whereas the theatre of the Absurd must positively discourage plot to convey its sense of futility.
Arden appears to be sitting on a fence; and he pleases few. As he ruefully recognises, from Live Like Pigs onwards, his plays have resisted the propagandist and the poetic: not programmatic enough for the former and too documentary for the latter. The only absolute to emerge from Arden's work is that absolutes—even in good causes and for better reasons—only drive their followers into a simplistic attitude. This attitude overlooks the complex nature of human beings and society and finally serves only itself rather than human ends and desires. By Armstrong's Last Goodnight Arden can show sympathy towards both Lindsay and Armstrong but he curtails warmth towards either; the audience probably expects warmth. More than any other contemporary dramatist Arden seems to find the lack of forms and conventions frustrating. He continues to be worried by the fact that people find his plays incomprehensible. Theatre, after all, is a public art and a dramatist who is out of touch is failing to practise his art properly. On the other hand, if theatre is not to atrophy, a dramatist must get out of touch to step forward. Perhaps a lapse of time is needed to show whether Arden took one step too many and resolve the paradox of this twentieth-century poetic dramatist. (pp. 88-9)
Arnold P. Hinchliffe, in his British Theatre 1950–70 (© Basil Blackwell 1974), Rowman and Little-field, 1974.