Other Literary Forms

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An important work for understanding the dramaturgy and politics of John Arden is To Present the Pretence (1977), a collection of his essays that originally appeared in various publications over a number of years. Many of Arden’s plays are also accompanied by informative prefaces, especially concerning the genesis and composition of individual plays, their production, and the dramatist’s own sometimes stormy relations with the professional theatrical world. Arden’s first novel, Silence Among the Weapons, was published in Great Britain in 1982.


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Along with John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and Harold Pinter, John Arden is one of the early leading playwrights of the so-called New Wave (or New Renaissance) of British drama. Encouraged primarily by the English Stage Company, directed by George Devine at London’s Royal Court Theatre, the playwrights of the New Wave have given Britain some of the most lively drama in the contemporary world. Arden has been an important part of the movement, both through his own work and through his influence on later dramatists.

Throughout his career, Arden has been a controversial figure in his own country. None of his plays has enjoyed commercial success, and some have been attacked by critics. His best-known work, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, lost ten thousand pounds at the Royal Court Theatre; the critic Harold Hobson called the play “another frightful ordeal” and Punch dubbed it a “lump of absurdity.” Arden’s early critics complained that he sermonized and that his sermons were not clear. Audiences had trouble identifying with his central characters, and his plays were even called amoral. These confused reactions say as much about the ingrown nature of British drama at the time as they do about the plays themselves, though it is true that in his early plays the young playwright was struggling with his own uncertainties. Arden generally wrote in a mode resembling the “ epic theater” of Bertolt Brecht, filling his plays with ballads, narration, emblematic actions and sets, and other “alienating” (that is, deliberately theatrical) effects. Arden’s mode also draws on an older tradition in Britain: Besides Brecht, Arden has acknowledged the influence of Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and medieval drama. Part of Arden’s achievement is that he has helped break down audience expectations of naturalistic drama to reintroduce the British to their own traditions.

Despite the initial critical reception of his work, Arden’s reputation grew. Harold Hobson changed his opinion about Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance as the play became popular with university theater groups. Eventually, it reached the status of a set text for secondary school examinations in English. Arden attained a peak of official acceptance in 1965 when the Corporation of the City of London commissioned him to write Left-Handed Liberty for the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Thereafter, whether by choice or otherwise, Arden gradually drifted further away from the London professional theater, writing mostly in collaboration with his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, and becoming more involved in experimental, community, and political theater.

Meanwhile, Arden’s reputation spread abroad (particularly to Germany), and he has become a subject of scholarly study, including several books. This attention is deserved, even though Arden’s work is uneven in quality. For example, the ambitious three-part work The Island of the Mighty is a disappointment, and some of the less ambitious short pieces are of minor interest. Arden’s best plays seem to be several modern comedies, The Waters of Babylon and The Workhouse Donkey, and the historical parables Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, The Hero Rises Up, and Vandaleur’s Folly . The key to Arden’s best work is the same quality...

(This entire section contains 564 words.)

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that appeals to university audiences: a combination of Dionysian energy with treatment of the big issues in today’s world. As those issues are not likely to go away soon, probably Arden’s dramatic reputation will continue to grow.


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Anderson, Michael. Anger and Detachment: A Study of Arden, Osborne, and Pinter. London: Pitman, 1976. Places Arden in a wider literary context, comparing him with John Osborne and Harold Pinter.

Gray, Frances. John Arden. New York: Grove Press, 1983. The introduction points out the inherently noncommercial “manner” and “matter” of Arden’s structure, subject matter, and cast of characters, and it uses the theme as an organizational device for discussing Arden’s work. Brief bibliography and index.

Hunt, Albert. Arden: A Study of His Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974. A good source.

Malick, Javed. Toward a Theater of the Oppressed: The Dramaturgy of John Arden. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. This study examines the plays of Arden, looking at the theory behind them and the way they were performed. Closely examines Island of the Mighty. Bibliography and index.

Page, Malcolm. John Arden. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise biography of Arden that examines both his life and his work. Bibliography and index.

Page, Malcolm, comp. Arden on File. London: Methuen, 1985. A compilation of facts on Arden’s productions (twenty-one plays described and annotated), themes, growth as a writer, and self-evaluation through the course of his career. Easy to use, full of names and dates, and the pith of reviews. Contains a chronology and a select bibliography.

Shaughnessy, Robert. Three Socialist Plays: “Lear,” “Roots,” “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.” Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1992. Shaughnessy looks at the political thought expressed in Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Arnold Wesker’s Roots (pr., pb. 1959), and Edward Bond’s Lear (pr. 1971). Bibliography and index.

Wike, Jonathan, ed. John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1995. This casebook looks at the works of Arden and his wife, D’Arcy. Bibliography and index.


Critical Essays