Playwright and political activist John Arden dies


PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has led tributes to the English playwright and artist John Arden, who has died in Galway, aged 81.

Mr Higgins said he had heard of his death with “great sadness” and described him as “one of the giants of modern literature”, who made a “monumental” contribution to theatre in Britain and Ireland.

“His writing drew from, and continued, a great dissident and critical tradition,” Mr Higgins said in a statement, expressing “deepest sympathies” to the writer’s partner and artistic collaborator Margaretta D’Arcy and their four children.

The Arts Council expressed its “deep regret” at the passing of the award-winning writer and recently appointed member of Aosdána, who was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“His works have carried a strong social and political relevance and even today some of his early works still have enormous resonance,” the council said.

Film-maker Lelia Doolan described Arden as a “genius” and a “mighty spirit” who was committed to issues of social justice, as reflected in his art.

Yorkshire-born and reared, Arden was one of a new wave of artists, including Look Back in Anger author John Osborne, who were nurtured by London’s Royal Court Theatre artistic director George Devine over 50 years ago.

Devine was keen to encourage “hard-hitting, uncompromising writers”, in spite of limited resources for experimental theatre.

Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, written in 1959, had its premiere at the Royal Court. The work, about a group of British soldiers returning from a colonial war, received a cool reaction from critics, but is regarded as a 20th century classic.

Working with his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, he wrote plays including The Business of Good Government, Vandaleur’s Folly and Live Like Pigs, which was rejected by the Abbey Theatre board.

The couple moved to the west of Ireland more than 40 years ago, and their political activism resulted in membership for a period of Official Sinn Féin, and involvement in the civil rights movement in the North.

They staged a six-play cycle, the Non-Stop Connolly Show in Liberty Hall, Dublin in 1975, and Arden’s first novel, Silence Among Weapons, was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1982. He also held a PEN short story award and the VS Pritchett Memorial prize. The couple would maintain their political involvement over the decades.

Arden will be waked at his home in Galway’s St Bridget’s Place Lower from 8pm tomorrow until Sunday, and will be cremated on Monday in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross, Dublin, at 3pm.