Political playwright who never wavered


JOHN ARDEN: JOHN ARDEN, who has died aged 81, was a playwright, novelist and short-story writer at the forefront of innovative drama in the 1960s. Widely held to be the heir of the English literary tradition of Blake and Shelley, he fell out with the British theatrical establishment and in the 1970s moved to Ireland with his wife and artistic collaborator Margaretta D’Arcy.

He made his name with Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance in 1959, but described The Non-Stop Connolly Show, which he wrote with D’Arcy, as the play of which he was “most proud and happiest with”.

The 26-hour play, based on the life of executed 1916 Rising leader James Connolly, was staged only once in its entirety, at Liberty Hall, Dublin, on Easter weekend 1975. The production was supported by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and Official Sinn Féin (later the Workers’ Party).

Terence McGinity, from Glasgow, played Connolly. The writer Desmond Hogan played WB Yeats, while D’Arcy played Constance Markievicz. Other cast members included Vinny McCabe and Garrett Keogh. Film-maker Jim Sheridan was one of the play’s directors.

For the authors it represented the fulfilment of their ideas about transforming the stage into a forum for revolutionary debate through the dramatic depiction of Irish history.

Benedict Nightingale in the New Statesman complained about the “combination of didacticism, bad rhymes, folksiness and revivalist bounce” in the performance.

But theatre historian Christopher Murray thought the “recreation of folk and street theatre” was at the heart of the play’s success.

And in her study of political theatre in Britain since 1968 Catherine Itzin singled it out as a “masterpiece”, while Albert Hunt described it in New Society as “the major theatrical development in Britain [sic] in the 1970s”.

John Arden was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, in 1930. His mother was a former primary school teacher and his father, a veteran of the first World War, managed a glass-making factory.

With the advent of the second World War, Arden was sent to boarding school in York and then on to Sedbergh School in Cumbria. He played Hamlet in a school production at Sedbergh where the theatre is now named after him.

During national service he served in the Intelligence Corps. In 1953 he began studying architecture at King’s College, Oxford. From there he went to Edinburgh College of Art.

By 1955 he was working as an architectural assistant in a London practice and also writing for the stage. His first play All Fall Down, with a student cast including himself, led to the BBC commissioning a radio play which impressed George Devine of the Royal Court, which staged Arden’s play The Waters of Babylon for a single performance “without décor” in 1957.

The Daily Mail critic saw “high promise” in the play, and the following year the Royal Court commissioned Live Like Pigs, about a gypsy family being forced into council accommodation.

Lindsay Anderson directed Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance in 1959, and also defended and promoted it in response to the initially cool critical reaction.

Set in Yorkshire in the second half of the 19th century, the anti-war play centres on four soldiers returning from a colonial war who range themselves against the local worthies in a strike-bound northern English town, using the bones of a dead comrade to win over the community. The play was critically reassessed, and it won the Evening Standard award for best play in 1960.

There followed The Workhouse Donkey (1963), Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (1964) and Left-Handed Liberty (1965), commissioned by the Corporation of London to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.

Arden met D’Arcy when she was in The Seagull in a London theatre club. After they were married they lived for two years in Bristol where he was writer in residence at the university drama department.

The couple moved between England and Ireland before finally settling in Corrandulla, Co Galway, in the early 1970s.

The tax exemption for writers was one reason for the move, but Arden also felt there was no place for him in British mainstream theatre. He acknowledged that his plays got terrible notices and did not attract audiences, and “at the Royal Court if your play wasn’t a success you were dead”.

Having “bumped around” British radical politics in the 1950s and 1960s, he and D’Arcy joined Official Sinn Féin for a time but left over policy differences.

They became embroiled in a major row over The Island of the Mighty, a play based on the Arthurian legend which had been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Ardens ended up picketing the 1972 production at the Aldwych theatre.

Their play The Ballygombeen Bequest, based on the eviction of an elderly widow in Oughterard, Co Galway, was at the centre of a libel action heard in London, which they lost.

Arden later said that he was not “constitutionally suited” to rows, adding: “But one sometimes finds oneself stuck against a wall and you have to do something and I can do a scrap if I have to.” Disenchanted with commercial theatre, Arden turned to literary fiction. As he saw it he was drawing from the same well, it was “all storytelling”.

His novel Silence Among the Weapons was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982. Books of Bale (1988), about the eponymous 16th-century bishop of Ossory, was followed by Cogs Tyrannic (1991), a quartet of novellas, which was awarded a PEN short story prize.

His final novel Jack Juggler and the Emperor’s Whore was published in 1995, and in 2003 The Stealing Steps, a collection of nine short stories, was published. One of these, Breach of Trust, secured the VS Pritchett memorial prize.

The publication of a second volume of stories Gallows and Other Tales of Suspicion and Obsession coincided with his 80th birthday.

John Kenny’s review in this newspaper highlighted Arden’s distinctive qualities: “an effortless moving between historical periods; interest in textual flotsam (posters, letters, journals, headlines); a capacity for digression rare in current fiction; a sense of the clamorous that realistically precludes happy endings for his characters”.

Arden’s pen may have been “more blunderbuss than blade”, Kenny wrote, but it was “heartening to think of him head high on the battlements, blasting away into the open while others plotted more cautiously below”.

Arden also wrote radio plays and plays for children. And he was a painter.

Predeceased by his son Gwalchmai, who died in infancy, he is survived by his wife Margaretta and sons Finn, Jacob, Neuss and Adam.

John Arden: born October 26th, 1930; died March, 28th, 2012