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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. Many of his works are collaborative efforts with his wife, Margaretta D'Arcy. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
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[Arden has] attained little commercial success and seems to be stuck with the reputation of being a "difficult" dramatist. The reasons may lie more in the stereotyped expectations of his audiences than in his stagecraft. His characters descend directly from comedy and melodrama, although he undercuts their reality at the same time that he depicts it. While his plots are as intricate and confused as those of Jonson, reflecting the moral chaos of his fictional societies, they are easy to follow. Even when his language reflects illiteracies as in Live Like Pigs (1958) or sixteenth-century Scots dialect in Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964), his idiom is firmly sinewed and authentic. The surface of his plays is suffused with the joys of gaming, irruptions of lyricism, and dancelike exuberance. Yet the reality below appears stubbornly resistant to change, even corrupt. (p. 107)
[Unlike Brecht, with whom he has been linked, Arden] is extremely reluctant to envisage a world polarized by good and evil in opposition. Instead, "the private self" clashes ceaselessly with the "organizing, abstract, equally self-interested" action of politics, Richard Gilman has pointed out [see CLC, Vol. 6], not only externally but deep within character…. Arden's uncertainty about moral imperatives, the doubt and skepticism which endows his clowns with stature and his heroes with criminality, blocks the empathy of his audiences.
Despite his legendary difficulty, Arden's tragicomic plots pivot on a simple device: the "biter bit." This simply binary form uncovers the impersonal forces engulfing his characters, although Arden is as fond of misplaced letters, broken vows, and other plotting devices as the most inveterate "well-made" playwright. (pp. 107-08)
Rather than viewing individuals subjectively, personifying states of mind as the absurdists do. Arden presents human beings collectively…. To conclude that ideals perish and the amoral prosper is to oversimplify Arden's sophisticated plotting, however. A close bond exists between Arden's rootless antiheroes, Krank (of The Waters of Babylon), the dilapidated Crape in The Happy Haven, Sir David Lindsay, the King's herald in Armstrong's Last Goodnight, and the buffoonish Blomax in The Workhouse Donkey. Despite differences, such characters apply their considerable gifts to self-presentation. Yearning for self-sufficiency, they mask deep feelings of insufficiency beneath claims for discipline, often perpetrating malign practical jokes. Krank's rigged lottery, Musgrave's plan to "undo" five fatalities by "doing" twenty-five civilians to death, Crape's connivance in the inoculation of a doctor with his own elixir, and the different types of blackmail applied by Lindsay and Blomax fit the pattern. Frequent changes of clothing, exemplifying their psychological disguises, manifest their determination to strip others of masks while retaining their own intact. With few exceptions, their plans fail or achieve only a temporary success. There are no conversions in the plays, implying a haunting Sisyphian sense that nothing is ever satisfyingly completed…. Consequently, man is stripped of dignity, friends, clothing, life, and even (as in Musgrave) the flesh on his bones, if not of hope and determination.
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959) is Arden's best-known, most controversial play. The title character is a stern, uncompromising moralist whose aim emerges late in the play: since five colonials died following the shooting of a soldier, twenty-five of the boy's townspeople must die....
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Paradoxically, what most angers him about England's colonialist ventures is not the contempt for supposed inferiors or brutality it unleashes, but the breakdown of logic into random, incomprehensible violence: "You see, the Queen's Book, which eighteen years I've lived, it's turned inside out for me. There used to be my duty, now there's a disease—."… In a cosmos racked by social cataclysm, a search like Musgrave's for the source of malaise is bound to seem myopic and self-defeating.
In the years following Dance, Arden has produced a cornucopia of plays, including Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964), possibly his masterpiece. (pp. 110-11)
Armstrong's Last Goodnight dramatizes the attempts of James V of Scotland to impose fealty on a set of unruly, boisterous border freebooters in the sixteeth-century…. No heroes or villains are revealed by the maneuverings between rival clans, borderers and Crown, Scotland and England. Instead, as [the character] Lindsay remarks, the action reveals first one and then another of the "varieties of dishonor." (p. 112)
Like Yeats and Brecht, Arden uses song, dance, mime, and gaming to restore outpourings of vitality to an over-repressed society. The powerful drives toward self-presentation in his plays, balanced by an equally strong skeptical caution, reflect his vision of a society suffused with cross-currents of idealism, sensuality, and discipline, all at odds. Only by identifying with his passionate but confused rebels can he keep his optimism alive; by sympathizing with their destroyers, he keeps his grip on that necessary order by which society, morality, and art alike channel the chaotic flux of imagination. His characters live and move within a close milieu of overlapping desires and consequences, providing individuals and groups alike with great depth and balance. His willingness to employ moral allegories and parables, to celebrate the lasting traditions of society as well as the excesses of individuals, makes heavy demands on his audiences' sympathetic openness. At mid-career, Arden matches impressive promise with an already significant contribution to British drama. (pp. 114-15)
Emil Roy, "The Moderns: Osborne, Arden, Pinter, Wesker, and Whiting," in his British Drama since Shaw (copyright © 1972 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 99-131.∗
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Closely identified though John Arden has become with the other young British playwrights who began writing in the late 1950s, his dramatic career has taken an entirely individual and in some ways disturbing direction. The controlled originality of his technique was the more remarkable at a time when John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, for all their uncompromising innovations in subject-matter, were still writing within conventional formal molds: and the unequivocal left-wing commitment of such writers contrasted strongly with the scrupulous balance of argumentative power in Arden's early plays. Yet in recent years Arden's professionalism has been diluted, in effect if not intention, by an almost exclusive involvement with community and fringe theater groups—and this has itself reflected a shift in the political emphasis of his plays. Bolder and often cruder in outline, they have become more and more directly propagandist, yet at the same time simply less accessible (in any sense) to a wide playgoing public. (p. 3)
In the earlier plays, in particular, Arden is determined to give every devil his due, and he does so by drawing analogies rather than blood. And if this is reminiscent of Shavian technique, it is all the more appropriate that John Arden's first stage play should have been, like Bernard Shaw's, about slum landlords. Indeed, there is a dash of Mrs, Warren's Profession besides a flavor of Widowers' Houses about The Waters of Babylon (1957): and it is interesting, too, that Arden's second play [Live Like Pigs] should have taken its title from Blanche Sartorius's outburst of contempt for the laboring classes—"those dirty, drunken disreputable people who live like pigs"—in Widowers' Houses. For Arden's approach to dramatizing a social problem is close to Shaw's, alike in his tangential way of touching upon the ethics of an issue and in his authorial attitude toward it. Underlying the refusal to simplify his work by cutting convenient polemical corners lies a deep moral consciousness and commitment. (pp. 6-7)
[The Waters of Babylon] is extravagantly plotted, generously peopled—a scenically-shuttling kaleidoscope of down-at-heel London life in the early 1950s. Coincidence functions here not with the shyly intruding excuses of the well-made play but as a fine art in itself, a satisfaction of improbable expectations. And the characters, a racial mixture of Poles, English, Irish, and West Indians, embody in this comedy of contemporary humours many of the mythic archetypes of urban life, caught from an unexpected angle. (p. 7)
Only the three-act shape of the play—including the working-up toward strong curtains Arden no doubt felt obligatory—observes the formal dictates of [more] theatrical times; and there is a freedom from overspecific scenic impedimenta, as from the usual manufactured contiguities of characters and events in a single sitting-room, that is rare in plays of this period. The narrative progress of the work is surely controlled, its exposition unashamed; and the switches between colloquial dialogue, astringent song, and that whimsical, house-arrested free verse Arden has since made his own are purposeful in their inversion of idiomatic convention. (p. 8)
[Soldier, Soldier is] clearly a product of the earliest period of Arden's creative career, whether in its method of interchanging prose and verse, or in its imposition of an outsize character upon an essentially small-time plot. (p. 9)
If The Waters of Babylon explores the problems of municipal housing and of community relations in a lighter vein than Live Like Pigs, then Soldier, Soldier can be seen as an even-tempered trial run for the harsher and more demanding Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. In spite of the differences of season, century, and style, there is, as Arden has himself commented, the same "air of violence from the outside world coming in on a closed community." But Soldier, Soldier succeeds much less well in establishing self-consistent conventions for making its violence credible. The deception on which the plot depends is flimsy—scarcely more than an excuse, indeed, for exploring the reactions of a small-minded household to the presence of a larger-than-life scapegrace. (pp. 9-10)
[Despite] its greater thematic density, Arden's next play, Live Like Pigs (1958), is also concerned less with developing an action than defining a situation—the situation of the once-nomadic Sawney family, enmeshed at last in the charitable net of the welfare state, and compulsorily council-housed on an aspiring-to-middle-class estate. (p. 10)
[Live Like Pigs] is superficially naturalistic, but one has only to consider the sturdy-beggarly tongue in which the Sawneys speak to realize that Arden is here employing a device which was to become more familiar in his historical plays for distinguishing a way of life through its language…. The ballads which introduce the scenes, and the occasional snatches of song within them, underline the danger of approaching the play naturalistically: yet they should, specifies Arden, "be in some way integrated into the action or else cut out." This organic purpose of song in Arden's plays is in marked contrast to the deliberately interruptive purpose it usually serves in Brecht's: balladry is best regarded as another of Arden's invented languages, the problems it poses dramatic rather than musical. (pp. 11-12)
Arden's most discussed and thematically resonant play—if not his most accomplished work—is undoubtedly Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959)…. Arden's earlier works had all been more or less comic in emphasis, and set in the urban dinginess of a more or less contemporary England: and the combination in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance of a more serious tone with an archetypally Victorian setting creates an important precedent that relates significantly to Arden's stylistic assumptions. Musgrave and the later Armstrong's Last Goodnight and Left-Handed Liberty are not "period" plays in the same sense as Osborne's Luther, or even John Whiting's The Devils: rather, history is here used as a kind of moral correlative—a means of making slightly unfamiliar, and so of objectifying, continuing ethical dilemmas. There is no dissembling about this intention—Musgrave is subtitled "an un-historical parable"—and nothing whimsical about its realization. The plays create utterly convincing worlds of truly-textured humanity—but worlds which are self-defining, and so self-contained. Rooted in a profound sense of the past—Armstrong's Last Goodnight, in particular, has an almost uncanny feeling of authenticity about it—Arden's history plays are nevertheless mythic rather than pedantic in their treatment of events and preoccupations: they distill from the past those elements to which the present will respond because they speak to and even anticipate its needs. (pp. 13-14)
[What happens in Serjeant Musgrave's Dance matters less] than the conflicts of motive that underlie the action. And Arden's own feeling "that there is something wrong with the play" relates less to any failure in doing what it sets out to do than to its cramming in too much besides. (pp. 15-16)
But the play's top-heaviness is not so much in exposition as in explication, and what is lost in the blurring of the narrative line is regained dramatically in a detailed unraveling of the texture of time and place. Thus, however ambiguously the play's message may emerge, the cumulative details of Victorian working-class life compel and convince, whether in the individuality of the characters—particularly in the public-house scenes—or in the glimpses of the class system and the class struggle that emerge when bosses and workers conflict. (p. 16)
"I think a play set in the modern age," Arden has said, "should have the atmosphere of the modern age which the future historian would recognize." His own sense of history, as Musgrave affirms, is in just this Whig tradition: yet in approaching the present he has almost always felt it necessary to temper its immediacy by adopting a variety of comedic tones. The variety is itself suggestive of uncertainty, and The Happy Haven (1960) is the least formally assured of all Arden's full-length plays. Veering between claustrophobic mannered comedy and the stylized convolutions of commedia dell' arte, the enacted obsessions of comedy of humours [add] their own confusing flavor to the hotchpotch…. (pp. 16-17)
The return to contextual explicitness in his next comedy, The Workhouse Donkey (1963), was accordingly all the more welcome. This is a raucous belly-laugh of a play—gutsy and flamboyant, yet full of unexpected nooks and crannies in its characterization. (p. 18)
[A] certain irrelevance is as much at the core of The Workhouse Donkey as an undoubted irreverence…. [However, without all] its extraneous events, the play would be tidier and more controllable—but it would also have lost much of its heart.
Though Arden's reworking of the Christmas story into The Business of Good Government dates from 1960, and thus strictly precedes The Workhouse Donkey (just as its title ironically anticipates the theme of the later play), it is probably more helpful to regard it as a tentative exploration of the territory the dramatist was to explore more fully in Ironhand, Armstrong's Last Goodnight, and Left-Handed Liberty. For if The Workhouse Donkey is a wildly inventive contemporary extravaganza, the politics of the other plays are, like those of the nativity piece, at once more sober and—as seriousness almost invariably implies in Arden's work—a matter of history. Not that "seriousness" is to be equated with solemnity: simply, there is not the same need—when time lends a distance of its own—that Arden's broader style of humor should set the action back a further pace. But the dilemma faced by his pragmatic Herod in The Business of Good Government is that of any moderately well-intentioned politician confronted with the certain perils and uncertain advantages of any revolutionary force…. (pp. 21-2)
[While] Arden is indeed almost unique among his contemporaries in his ability to dramatize such abstractions as "historical processes," he is able to do so precisely because he humanizes them: and the living creatures he creates, like those twentieth-century anachronisms the Sawneys in Live Like Pigs, remain, awkwardly but indisputably, as physically there … as that "great bull … of a man," the title character of Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964). This play had its beginnings in Arden's overlapping reading of the medieval Scottish "Ballad of Johnny Armstrong" and the book on the then still turbulent Congo situation by Conor Cruise O'Brien, To Katanga and Back…. In transposing the Congolese problem into mid-sixteenth-century Scotland Arden was not, he emphasizes, attempting a roman à clef: for the similarities between Lindsay's and O'Brien's situations were not political or economic, let alone racial, but moral. The questions confronting both were of political expediency—its virtues and, more particularly, its limitations. (pp. 24-5)
[The] plot is simple, and seemingly in a tradition of medieval romanticism sustained not so much by the Middle Ages as by Sir Walter Scott. Yet the tone of the play instantly qualifies such an impression. Armstrong's instincts are all as primitive as his loyalties—his cruelty, when aroused, as uncompromising—and he is capable of being overwhelmed by even the most trivial trappings of "civilization." His clansmen inhabit another world from that of the polished commissioners: and these peripheral characters contribute to an antithesis that works both visually—in the contrast between Armstrong's tough, naturally aristocratic tribe and the bland, begowned diplomats, for instance—and verbally, in the different habits of mind that can be discerned in the distance between the Armstrongs' brief, broadly functional utterances and the measured, sophisticated cadences of the court. (p. 25)
The play is … much more medieval than it is romantic. Even for its staging, Arden suggests a modification of the "simultaneous mansions" convention: Armstrong's castle at stage right, James's palace at stage left, with a single tree up center representing the wild lands of the border. The fluidity of the play's movement is thus increased—appropriately, for its action amounts much more to an unfolding explication of character than is usual in Arden's work, which tends to employ an episodic structure to focus attention on the interaction of events. (p. 26)
Underrated and relatively seldom performed though it is, I believe Left-Handed Liberty succeeds, and does so not least in its recognition and turning to account of its own limitations. Its theme has no such point of tangential reference in contemporary events as Musgrave or Armstrong, but was the result of a commission for Arden from the City of London for a work to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. And its language, while achieving an appropriate colloquial robustness, made no such attempt to find an acceptable means of rendering its own archaic quality as did that of Armstrong. Indeed, if the idiom of that previous play had grown out of its own use of balladry, Left-Handed Liberty is the more completely a prose work, the punctuating purpose of its verse passages more reminiscent of their use in Musgrave. But in other respects Left-Handed Liberty takes Arden's historical method to its logical extreme. In beginning rather than ending his play with the signing of Magna Carta, Arden sets out to show the ineffectiveness of a document drawn up as a political compromise which neither side intended to respect, but which has been hewn into a cornerstone of English liberty by later historical accidents. (pp. 28-9)
Ultimately, what is vindicated is not an act of political expediency or its idealization by later generations, let alone one side of the struggle in its contemporary trappings, but everyman's essential fallibility…. [The] play makes clear at its outset that, judged in the light of history, the main action itself is irrelevant. What is extraneous, whether in the sprawling set-piece scenes or the subtle undercurrents of conflict between personalities, is precisely what gives the play its flavor. And the confrontations between characters of widely differing political or moral philosophies become the more revealing in their isolation from heavily illustrative purposes. (p. 30)
Left-Handed Liberty is, as I write, Arden's most recent major work for the stage: and a discussion of the plays he has written in the seven years since its performance—as of one or two earlier works so far passed over—will demand rather different critical terms of reference. Of these, three—Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, Friday's Hiding, and The Royal Pardon—are "community dramas," intended as scenarios for elaboration rather than definitive texts. Two—The Hero Rises Up, and an as yet unperformed work about the Irish situation—are "romantic melodramas." One, The Bagman, is an autobiographical allegory for radio. Another, Harold Muggins Is a Martyr, is an agitprop extravaganza which has been performed but not published. And only The True History of Squire Jonathan and His Unfortunate Treasure (1963) falls within a more conventional dramatic genre, albeit one previously little explored by Arden—that of the anecdotal one-act play. (pp. 31-2)
The play is pleasantly anecdotal, fitting appropriately into a playing time of about forty minutes, and it is memorable for linguistic flourishes as self-consciously Gothic as its setting: like so much of Arden's less ambitious work, it has no pretensions to be more than it is—a recollection distorted in tranquillity by an author who "no longer bore anybody malice."
Squire Jonathan and The Bagman are exceptional among Arden's later plays in lacking a collaborative title-page credit to his wife, the actress Margaretta D'Arcy. But although Miss D'Arcy had earlier had a share in the writing of The Business of Good Government, the extent and nature of the Ardens' collaboration remains conjectural. And it may or may not be significant that the two of his more recent works for which Arden asserts sole responsibility should also be those open to a more or less orthodox critical approach—unlike, say, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (1963), which was originally commissioned for a series of children's plays, and was also performed professionally during Peter Brook's Theatre of Cruelty season in 1964. The play's half-a-dozen episodes, even shorter in sum than Squire Jonathan, seem to have been selected more for their theatrical effectiveness than for any particular expository purpose…. (p. 33)
[Ars Longa, Viva Brevis works] both as a snippet of absurdist insight and as a kind of concise coda to Arden's work so far. As Theatre of the Absurd—or the closest Arden has ever come to exploring its potential—the play veers between scrupulously overgrammatical awkwardness and a stream of revelatory half-consciousness that is reminiscent of Ionesco's early work. (p. 34)
[In] their next collaborative work, Friday's Hiding (1965), Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy [used] very few words at all…. The play's dialect stage-directions in free verse constitute rather more than nine-tenths of its printed script—making the work impressionistically a curious combination of The Playboy of the Western World and Peter Handke's My Foot My Tutor…. The play is in sum "an ironic statement—not an affirmation—of the deep-rootedness of conservative values." It is also very funny: yet its humor stems not from the grossness of baldly mimetic actions but from the clear recognition of a way of life which has been temporarily tilted off-balance.
The Royal Pardon (1966) came as a natural though not altogether satisfactory culmination to what might be called the rural rather than the urban aspect of the Ardens' work in the field of "community drama." The earlier playlets had been closely rooted in the particular societies or conditions from which they sprang, which happened to be of the countryside. They were evocative rather than overtly critical in manner, and more or less found their own appropriate brevity. In stretching itself to full-length, and to some extent losing touch with its own kind of pastoral particularity, The Royal Pardon succeeds as a good quality children's play of a conventionally "mythic" kind…. But although the action is ostensibly more ambitious than that of Good Government or Ars Longa, the total impression is confusing—the anarchy muted and almost decorous. (pp. 35-6)
The action of [Harold Muggins Is a Martyr] evolved during its rehearsal period, and was strongly influenced by the ideas and performance style of an agit-propagandist fringe group called the Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre, from which the play was largely cast. What emerged was a rambling tale of a café proprietor caught between rival protection rackets…. Set-pieces in Arden's more strident rhyme-patterns—Muggins himself in self-pitying soliloquy, or the gangster boss Mr. Big on his organic role in society—merge into mock-heroic tableaux, episodes of writhing caricature, downbeat scenes of domestic crisis, or tablesmashing punch-ups. The combination of Arden's linguistic discipline with the tortuous, harsh-tempered physical expertise of his actors was unexpected, and often irresistible.
And yet, in the most politically committed play to which he had turned his hand, Arden managed to puzzle his audience more than ever…. Certainly, it seemed typical of an earlier Arden in its refusal to take sides, rounding off even its flattest characters with ifs-and-buts of motivation: was, then, the blunt-instrumental style of the production inappropriate to a play which needed to hint at complexity as well as to make propaganda? Was it, in that case, good propaganda, if the audience's response to it was so complicated? Or was this simply a first experiment in urban community drama which had lost its way in the process of collaborative and sometimes argumentative creation? (pp. 37-8)
The Hero Rises Up is … recognizably a successor to Armstrong's Last Goodnight, crossbred with The Workhouse Donkey. It progresses in loosely linked episodes from Nelson's inglorious reconquest of Naples to his legendary death at Trafalgar, deriving a unity of sorts from its counterpointing of political actions with the personal and social effects of its hero's ill-concealed love affair with Emma Hamilton. (p. 39)
The Hero, assertive in its latter-day chapbook style, is less fruitfully ambiguous than that earlier piece of equivocal pacifist propaganda, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. If Musgrave was a puritanical pacifist who compromised his gospel by staining it with blood, this Nelson is a vulgar little sailor who personifies the vanity and cruelty of his militaristic society, and who is redeemed in death only in so far as a grateful nation is revealed to be more hypocritical than himself.
The Hero Rises Up is not, then, really a "community drama" at all—at least, not in the sense in which the Ardens originally conceived the form—though in production it was perhaps the attempt to impose the play upon an amorphous urban community that doomed it to fail, whereas a more orthodox and professional production might, on an admittedly limited scale, have succeeded. Why Arden was not prepared to work within such limitations becomes clearer—as does much else relating to his recent work—from The Bagman; or, The Impromptu of Muswell Hill (1969), a dream play for radio. In a sense, it is already out of date, for Arden's feelings about the uses of violence and the artist's involvement in political activity underwent a drastic change following a lengthy visit to India: and he now regards the attitude of the central character—his own persona—at the end of The Bagman as "reprehensible, cowardly, and not to be imitated." In spite of this, he decided to publish the text as representative of his feelings at the time, adding that it would "be better to demonstrate my opinions of 1971 in a new play—which is not yet written." So The Bagman serves, for the moment, as Arden's provisional taking-stock of his own achievements.
The play has something of the dreamlike texture of a dramatized Alice in Wonderland, and its feeling for the acceptable telescoping of times and places is consummate. But it is infused, too, with the concealed contemporaneity of a Gulliver's Travels—its surreal clarity of vision through the dark glasses of dream greatly enhanced by the nature of its intended medium, from which it would not readily adapt to the visual demands of stage performance. (pp. 40-1)
[It is presumably the concept presented in this play—that] the artist's duty [is] to observe and record—that just a few years later Arden was describing as "reprehensible, cowardly, and not to be imitated."
Thus, while the so-called angry young men of his generation have gradually succumbed to political disillusion, to affluent middle age, or to a conviction of the artist's impotence, Arden—who once seemed the least openly committed of them all—has arrived by his own tortuous route at an opposite conclusion. Since he has declared even his most recently performed play to be unrepresentative of his present, more militant thinking, it is, however, difficult to predict whether the balanced dialectician can transform himself into an active propagandist and still retain not his integrity—which has never been in doubt—but the qualities which have made his work to date both worthwhile and distinctive. (pp. 43-4)
[Arden] is the best craftsman of his generation—which is not necessarily to claim that he is also the best artist, though it argues strongly for his staying power and capacity for development. It would be as difficult to describe any one of his plays as a masterpiece as similarly to single out one of Shaw's—though there is the feeling that Arden's own Heartbreak House may not be all that far off. And the sheer range of his work is clearly as much more ambitious than Shaw's as it is more impressive than that of any of his contemporaries. Mannered comedy, grotesque farce, period problem play, autobiographical allegory, ballad opera, community drama, epic chronicle, mime play, melodrama—he has experimented in all these forms, and several hybrids besides, and in few has he failed outright…. And because he remains intensely conscious of what can and cannot be done on a stage, he has from the first been able to extend the boundaries of what is acceptable in the theatre—although, as is often the fate of pioneers, he has generally been rewarded with bafflement at the time, only to be belatedly recognized for his innovations when poetasters have made them familiar. (pp. 44-5)
[A] prior acquaintance with the story is implicit in the nature of chronicle plays, and Arden's acceptance and utilization of this fact may help to explain why he is the one modern playwright apart from Brecht who has been able to dramatize history into more than hopefully intellectual costume dramas. And history also lends that degree of distance from an action that Arden, again like Brecht, prefers to maintain—though in Arden's case this distance serves not so much Brecht's purpose of making the familiar strange as of making the strange familiar, often by suggesting a parallel that tangentially illuminates the present.
Arden is also, it follows, a civic playwright, whether his concern be with municipal housing or the politics of war and peace: but until recently his own dramatized politics, although passionate and certainly not impartial, have never been propagandist…. [His] own particular distinction as a playwright lies in a feeling for dialectics, and for the sheer complexity of the seemingly straightforward, that is usually several degrees more devastating than any direct hit aimed from one side of the polemical barricades. Arden's characters may not be as "neat and well considered" as those that tumble out of his bagman's bag—but he might do worse than bear in mind his little people's ironic warning of an attitude toward art that ultimately asserts only its impotence:
If you bring us into battle You bring us only unto grief and woe Fracture and breakage that we cannot repair They will snap our wooden joints And pull out our cotton hair. Please let us please let us get back into the sack When the battle has been won We can peep out again and creep back.
The battle may not be won: but one hopes that Arden's characters—not little men, these, but ungainly, cussed, calculating, and craggy—will before very long come bursting out of his bag, their old energy reinforced by all that Arden has learnt as an artist, and experienced as a man. (pp. 45-6)
Simon Trussler, in his John Arden (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 65; copyright © 1973 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1973, 48 p.
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Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is largely an exploration of the place of violence in society and our varying responses to it. Although the setting of the play is nineteenth-century England, the contemporary relevance of Arden's theme is obvious as increasingly in our twentieth-century society violence is becoming accepted as an inescapable mode of political expression…. Arden is very much aware of the dilemma facing many thoughtful and morally responsible persons in a liberal society [who recognize the need for change but are unwilling to accept the means and ends of violence]…. It is with this dilemma and the consequences of the tragic antitheses of our responses to the social challenge that Arden is primarily concerned.
The moral-political question is given sharpest focus and most acute and challenging dramatic expression through Serjeant Musgrave, a zealot so convinced of the absolute rightness of his cause that he is willing to adopt horrifying means to achieve his goal, and so unswerving and single-minded in his devotion to his avowed purpose that he refuses to be distracted by any consideration not immediately relevant. (p. 437)
Arden does more than set out the problem, though he offers no happy resolution. The critics who regard the author's refusal to make a simple, obvious commitment as evidence of inconsistency or irresolution, or admirable detachment, seem to miss or underemphasize what there is of affirmation and hope in the play…. [To] imply that Arden takes no position, that the actions do not take place within a system of stated or implied values, that Arden's view of his characters and situations is "unflinchingly amoral," is to make the play virtually though perhaps unintentionally an absurdist play, and to deprive it of its dramatic and moral force…. It is true that to achieve greater dramatic effectiveness and to explore more comprehensively and enable the audience to consider more critically the central issues, Arden tries to maintain in his play and transfer to his audience a high degree of objectivity. The songs which he intrudes successfully into the play and other non-naturalistic devices, derived largely from Brecht and perhaps Behan, are designed to make the audience aware that we are watching a play. Like the distancing in time of the contemporary episodes that provide the kernel of the plot, these devices help us achieve the psychic distance the better to enable us to avoid the kind of early commitment that would close our minds to points of view other than those we immediately sympathize with. But objectivity does not mean continuing detachment from the issues being dramatically unfolded. The fact that we must not identify does not mean that we do not sympathize, and the fact that we achieve a measure of objectivity does not mean that Arden does not have values to which he expects us to respond positively…. Arden's sympathies and the values to which they are attached emerge clearly in the several conflicts that constitute the action of the drama. His realization of the inconsistencies and limitations in the points of view of his characters compels him, however, to check and qualify any tendency to over-simplify responses and prevents him from offering any dogmatic or even firmly conceived resolutions to the issues. The play is complicated perhaps unduly because Arden tries to convey too fully the inter-connected patterns of violence in our society as he explores the divergent elements in the conflicting groups, each with its own needs and responses. (pp. 438-40)
Complicating the plot in which we have a conflict within the town between the Establishment and the workers, and a conflict between the group of army deserters and their society that accepts and uses violence as a way of life, there is an overlapping conflict that embraces both, a conflict between the townspeople and the soldiers—that is, between the 'insiders,' the settled inhabitants, and the 'outsiders' who come into their midst and are regarded with mistrust. (p. 442)
Underlying these conflicts which are provoked by social conditions is yet another conflict, perhaps even deeper in its implications and more universal, the encounter that Richard Gilman in an excellent study of Arden's plays [see CLC, Vol. 6] has termed "the confrontation of a deadly impulse towards purity … and the impure, flawed, capricious, and uncodifiable nature of reality beneath our schemes for organizing it."… To be fully understood and fairly judged, [this position, exemplified in the figure of Musgrave,] must be examined in the light of the opposition between his viewpoint, that of the 'purist' or 'prophet', abstract though passionately dedicated, sacrificing and self-sacrificing, and that of Mrs. Hitchcock…. It is the antagonism that sets duty, discipline and order, the values of the soldier, which here are virtues because they are intended to destroy violence, against the humane, less heroic attitude that cherishes tolerance, tenderness, love and life. (p. 444)
[At the end of the play] when the Dragoons enter, Musgrave, who was, according to Arden, "temporarily at a loss," suddenly seizes the machine-gun and covers the Dragoons, in effect commanding the situation. At this point the Bargee seizes a rifle and sticks it into Musgrave's back, commanding him to put his hands up. But as Arden carefully points out in the following stage direction, "Musgrave is pushed forward by the rifle, but he does not obey." Musgrave knows that surrender means conviction and death, and holding the Gatling gun he can still act violently, but he does not do so. Instead he submits quietly to the trooper when called on by him to surrender. In a sense Musgrave fails in his immediate mission because of his inner division, this scruple which holds him back. In another sense he fails because his view of life is too constricted: he does not realize that the common man from whom his support must come, cannot kill in cold blood for a more or less abstract principle, even when that principle is made visible by the dangling skeleton of a fellow-townsman; and he does not recognize that the particular plight of the colliers is more immediate and pressing to them than the long-range though probably more important ideal of non-violence. In part, too, Musgrave fails because his single-minded and narrow-minded, though righteous, obsession leaves no room for still other human qualities, and needs, and for the element of chance, the unpredictable in life. He is austere, Puritanical, in his divine service in which love and joy have no place. In his vision of life, all must be orderly, duty and obedience paramount, as on the parade ground. But life is not like that. There is spontaneity and irregularity, individuality, growth, crossing of lines, and there must be tolerance for error, mercy, forgiveness, a place for love and life. These aspects of human experience are brought out by Mrs. Hitchcock, who comes closest to expressing what appear to be Arden's outlook and positive values. (p. 447)
But Arden refuses to regard the Musgrave position, terrible as it is in its acceptance of violence, as evil or even meaningless. Though Musgrave's militancy involves a limited vision and brings death, since it is in a good cause the ultimate consequence is martyrdom, which has a positive outcome. Mrs. Hitchcock, knowing the townspeople, and understanding and sympathizing with Musgrave, comforts him. The joint dance of the oppressors and the oppressed, the anti-dance of God's Word, she assures him, is "not a dance of joy. Those men are hungry, so they've got no time for you. One day they'll be full, though, and the Dragoons'll be gone, and then they'll remember." The importance of remembering is stressed throughout the play. Though Musgrave is doubtful about Mrs. Hitchcock's reassurance, he drinks from the glass which she puts to his lips, an act which, seen in the light of his refusal to drink from it at the beginning of the scene, must now be regarded as an act of acceptance and reconciliation, a sharing of her hope, a partaking in a ritual of fellowship. This symbolic affirmation or rather suggestion of the possibility of salvation through sacrifice, for it is not much more than a suggestion, is reasserted in Attercliffe's song which ends the play.
For the apple holds a seed will grow In live and lengthy joy To raise a flourishing tree of fruit For ever and a day.
The symbol of the apple and its seed, which suggest continuing life, reinforces the theme that even though violence may be inescapable and must have its place for the present at least, love, too, must be recognized and have its place, and though death is present, life is paramount and ultimately will prevail. (p. 449)
The symbol of the apple and its seed suggests more. Ideas and visions and heroic deeds of martyrdom are also seeds. This hopeful reminder, though put in the form of a question, closes the play, as Attercliffe, after his song, says, "They're going to hang us up a length higher nor most apple-trees grow, Serjeant. D'you reckon we can start an orchard?" Up till this concluding scene the answer would have had to be a clear 'no,' but by the end, a tentative 'yes' is possible. (p. 450)
In some respects Serjeant Musgrave's Dance can be seen in terms of the theatre of the absurd. The need for action and the seeming futility of action, with more death the only apparent consequence of action; the way in which the end of the play seems to bring us around again to the beginning, with the present situation basically unchanged; and the ironical comment provided by the linked dance of the miners, mine-owner, clergyman and constable, all convey a sense of the absurdity of the human scene. Above all, the role of the Bargee, Joe Bludgeon, reinforces this element of the absurd…. [Insofar] as the Bargee acts as a Chorus, an Everyman, commenting on the crisis action that follows, Arden seems to heighten this element of the absurd in life. But even this interpretation has limited validity if we use it to identify Serjeant Musgrave's Dance as an absurdist play. In the first place, even the Bargee, repulsive figure that he is made out to be, is not entirely a negative force. He helps us to see the empty pomposity of the Establishment figures and by his pantomimic gestures and ironic echoes deflates and at the same time alerts us to the dangers of the dogmatic absolutism of zealots like Musgrave…. Furthermore, the Bargee represents only one aspect of Everyman. Mrs. Hitchcock, standing outside the conflicting forces and commenting on them in recognizable human and humane terms, sounds the closing note with her affirmative, reassuring statement.
Arden, then, very much aware of the complex factors that make up the contemporary scene with all its brutalities and inequities, has no easy answer. On the surface at least, at the end of the play, social conditions remain unchanged. But Arden is reluctant to end on so pessimistic and hopeless a note. He is aware of the possibility of change. He acknowledges the role that increasingly enlightened and bold leaders like Walsh might play, and more important, he reminds us that the dramatic martyrdom of a dedicated hero like Musgrave may have incalculable significance. Though Arden's complex exploration of the place of violence in life and the various responses to it is not encouraging, his vision certainly is not bereft of hope. The ground on which the seeds fall, life, is not barren, and the seeds, slow though the process may be, will fructify. (pp. 450-52)
M. W. Steinberg, "Violence in 'Serjeant Musgrave's Dance': A Study in Tragic Antitheses," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 437-52.
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Arden's work could generally be described as "civic" in nature; his themes are for the most part political, and his protagonists are frequently involved with the machinations of government. His plays develop characters that represent a wide spectrum of society, and his loosely linked scenes encompass a panorama that is sometimes quite vast. The preoccupation with political themes is linked with another quality—almost enigmatic. Arden's work is typified by a certain neutral quality on the author's part; he does not espouse causes nor attempt pat answers to the questions his drama prompts. His characters seem to exist apart from the author's judgement, helpless cogs in a political machine—a machine which the author clearly sees as a social necessity, but unfortunately one which molds individual lives while remaining beyond individual control. One observes time and again in Arden's work an anarchistic individual who is crushed by the society around him. The point would seem to be that, invariably, there cannot be social evolution without the very mixed blessings of strong government. In Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, a rebel protagonist is first betrayed and then destroyed, and the forces of order triumph in the inevitable, though far from desirable, conclusion. This scenario forms the basis for a number of Arden's plays; indeed, in certain respects, he appears to be writing the same play time and again. It is equally true that Arden frequently seems to be observing his characters in the clear and cold light of intellectual detachment. It is as if it were the business of the artist merely to present, not to preach or judge; the world is too complex. Each point of view in the moral spectrum of an Arden play is painstakingly delineated and, at the resolution, the scale of right versus wrong seems balanced between opposing views. Of course, such scope demands a text that leans to length rather than brevity, and surely Arden's work could never be characterized as laconic. The tendency to what could be termed prolix indeterminateness might prove less enervating if Arden's bleak and often dour sensibility were varied with a bit of laughter, but comic counterpoint, when it occurs, appears to be mustered through a supreme effort of the will. For an author who has written a fair number of plays which he describes as comedies, John Arden is agonizingly humorless. (pp. 48-9)
Arden's dramas make it clear that, as far as the playwright is concerned, choices are not easily made, and answers are as ephemeral as the breath that utters them. Ambivalence is the only constant. The playwright obviously sees these qualities in Brecht, and has frequently acknowledged his admiration for the German dramatist. Certainly Arden's use of verse and song in his drama, and his belief in theatre as an institution dedicated to reaching and awakening social consciousness, remind one of Brecht. (p. 49)
Even though Arden had, by the early 1960's, a covey of loyal and distinguished followers (Sean O'Casey was to call Serjeant Musgrave's Dance "far and away the finest play of the present day"), yet he was dismayed. Coterie approval stuck in his craw, the approval he received from the critics was meager, and popular approval totally nonexistent. The sting of public rejection may in part have prompted an active movement toward a new focal point for Arden's dramaturgy, and certainly he found a kind of popular acceptance unparallelled in his career with the ingenuous plays written specifically for what he calls "community theatre." The plays are of interest primarily because they are collaborations with his wife, Margaretta D'Arcy, and while they began as simple diversions without pretense to professionalism, in time the distinction between the "community" and "professional" work disappeared. (p. 50)
To a certain extent [Armstrong's Last Goodnight] can be considered an amalgam of all Arden's major ideas. Political expediency, order and anarchy, conflicting life-styles, and betrayal are all concepts which the author dealt with in earlier plays; in the story of Johnny Armstrong, the playwright finds a fable in which he can incorporate all these themes. (p. 51)
Although motivation is at times problematic, certainly Arden's central thematic concern is not difficult to detect. He makes it quite clear that a political life is one of corruption; it is a life without honor, a life of betrayal….
Armstrong utilizes Arden's standard themes, yet one gets the impression that, for all his obsession, the author has not broken through the surface of his material to discover its subjective, emotional core. For all the lustiness and vitality, one gets the impression that within the body of an Arden play there is no heart; the mind is doing the pumping. (p. 52)
Almost everything Arden maintained as a dramatist-thinker was expressed in this play, and the fact that it fared no better than it did must have been a severe blow, possibly enough to prompt the redirection of the author's artistic career, a redirection that was to culminate in the 1968 production of The Hero Rises Up—a play that will no doubt prove to be a watershed in Arden's development.
The fact that The Hero Rises Up is a collaborative effort on a large scale marks it as a true curiosity….
The Hero Rises Up divides its focus between the career of Admiral Nelson and the workings of the society that worshiped him as a hero. Nelson's exploits are portrayed, both military and sexual, revealing the man as a bloodthirsty egomaniac. Although we see that he is regarded by England's populace as a national hero, the relationship between the man and the society which produced him is never satisfactorily explored. (p. 53)
Interestingly, the most significant feature of the play is the bluntness with which it makes its points. This bluntness is implicit in the characterization of Nelson: he is brave, vain and cruel. The society that supports him admires his bravery, mirrors his vanity, and ignores his cruelty. The hypocrisy of both the man and his society is underscored time and again by the authors, and unlike past efforts on Arden's part, the conclusion of this play leaves very little in suspense. The blunt statement of an obvious message, the over-extended scenes with their underdeveloped ideas, and the anticlimactic finale make the play a more blatant sociopolitical propaganda piece than any of Arden's other works….
Although the conceptual base of this play remains what might be termed "traditional" Arden, the manner in which the concept is stated has changed considerably. We do not see the hovering neutrality of the early plays, but find instead a vigorous directness in which a blatantly stated political point is developed through the utilization of superficial stylistic elements from Brecht's Epic Theatre—elements appropriated on a scale unparallelled in Arden's earlier works. Songs and placards giving plot information proliferate, as do expository speeches directed to the audience. One must bear in mind that at one point in his career Arden noted that his drama lacked what in Brecht amounted to the "strength of didactic dialectics." It appears Arden was attempting to cultivate this strength in The Hero Rises Up and had determined that the best way to put across his message was by utilizing Brecht's eminently successful theatrical techniques. (p. 55)
[If] one judges from this and other collaborations, it appears likely that Miss D'Arcy has succeeded in channeling Arden's nonspecific liberal tendencies into drama rooted in radical dogma. One might conclude that she has blasted Arden from his intellectual fence-sitting, and together, hands linked and banners unfurled, the two have set out to produce activist drama which will appeal to both chic and popular audiences….
Unfortunately, collaboration has not proven to be of special benefit to Arden; the balance and ambiguity are gone from his work, and stylistic embellishment cannot relieve the tedium of blunt—if not tersely stated—conclusions. His career thus far has not fulfilled its initial promise. In the 1970's John Arden is writing what one critic has termed "a pedant's idea of popular theatre." (p. 56)
Craig Clinton, "John Arden: The Promise Unfulfilled," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1978, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XXI, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 47-57.