John Arden Arden, John (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Emil Roy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Simon Trussler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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M. W. Steinberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Craig Clinton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)