JOHN ARDEN - an article written in about 1960 by H.B. Fortuin: (summarised by N.D.)
John Arden was born in 1930 in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and before becoming a full-time writer, worked for two years as a qualified assistant in a London architect's office. Apart from Sergeant Musgrave's Dance his stage works include Live Like Pigs and the Happy Haven - all presented at the Royal Court Theatre, London. Soldier soldier, an original play for television was presented by the BBC in 1960 and one the Trieste prize in the Prix Italia or international competition.
When in October 1959 John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, a number of people were angry about his own historical parable. Neither the play's main character nor the author seemed to have made up their minds as to what they were about. The sergeant felt strongly about war and God's word, and the author felt strongly about his characters' predicament. but neither made it clear to the paying customers and to the critics where they stood.
At the same time, many people were convinced that a play of Merit had arrived. The Times praised the author's realistic dialogue and his gift for creating an atmosphere full of suspense. But the reviewer thought these dramatic virtues got submerged in a mass of character defects. The Daily Telegraph stated that the plague missed its target. The Sunday Times also complained about the author's lack of purpose. But Arden does not care to preach confidently about what he cannot practise. Feeling strongly about man's inhumanity he is equally convinced that this is part of human nature.
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, produced by Lindsay Anderson, had memorable performances by Ian Bain as the sergeant, Freda Jackson as the landlady, Patsy Byrne as Annie the serving maid who, having lost her man to the war, is drawn to a soldier, and by the Hon L Donnelly, Alan Dobie and Frank Finlay as the three deserters. James Bree was their hypocritical bargee.
The setting is Victorian England. The sergeant and his three men are deserters from a bloody colonial war, sick of killing. Led by their puritan sergeant, they bring to a colliery town their rifles, their old Gatling gun and the body of Billie, one of their number, killed in street fighting and now returning as a corpse to his home town. In the town a strike is on the point of erupting into violence and the sergeant promises the town dignitaries that by addressing the striking miners and starting a recruiting campaign, he will remove the troublemakers. By pointing a machine gun at the crowd threatening to kill the high- ups and by showing them the body of their former mate hanging from the Market Cross, he means to bring home to them the frightful meaning of punitive expeditions. But there are further complications involving a barmaid and things do not work out as planned.
...John Arden added the following comments:
...I have tried to write about the violence which is evident in the world. I think many of us may have felt an overpowering urge to match some outrageous piece of violence more outrageous retaliation. Serjeant Musgrave tries to do this... the fact that the sympathies of the play are clearly with his original horror, and then turn against him and his intended remedy, seems to have bewildered many people. Complete pacifism is a very hard doctrine; if this play appears to advocate it with some timidity, it is probably because I know that if I am hit I very easily hit back.
N.D. adds:.........John Arden is a highly regarded playwright. His stage plays include Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, Armstrong's Last Goodnight and The Happy Haven. He has written a large number of radio plays. "Pearl" was mentioned in a survey by The Guardian as one of the best ever. He has also written short stories and novels.
The radio plays I've identified are listed below. Recordings of those with asterisks are known to exist in VRPCC collections.
NOTES ON THE PLAYS
.......John Arden's play, first staged at the Royal Court in
1959, was back in fashion with a recent production at the Nottingham
Playhouse and this version tonight (R3, 8pm, Sat 14 Dec 03). Set in the
late nineteenth century, it's a powerful poetic indictment of war,
oppression and political justification. Iain Glen plays Serjeant
Musgrave; Toby Swift directs. (....Gillian
Reynolds, Daily Telegraph)
A piece which is not to everyone’s taste. The announcer introduces it as: «…John Arden, in the form of a dream, gives a highly personal view of the problems of an English playwright of his generation.». Arden wrote this play especially for radio as a companion piece to Ionesco's L'lmpromptu de l'Alma which Radio 3 had broadcast on 26/06/1970. Arden’s work was polemical and was often concerned with tackling political issues, particularly Britain’s colonial and post colonial history. These preoccupations and his uncompromising stance led him into conflict and resulted in his work being performed less frequently than many would say it merited. Ironically the difficulties of his work being commissioned and produced served to reinforce his professional and artistic isolation. (....notes from Alistair Wyper - thank you)
This play set during the English Civil War uses a play within a play device involving Irish rebels and English Dissenters. From the play: ' I find nowt now in the whole of England fit for the tip of my pen. We spoke once to the whole people. But these days we have rejected the home-spun jackets, the square-toed shoes, and the forthright-word of the godly tradesmen. And by God, they've rejected us. There are those in Parliament have said openly they'd close down every play house if they once attained full power. And I want them to attain full power.' (....notes from Alistair Wyper - thank you)
John Arden's new play, written specially for Radio 3, is based on the memoirs of Captain Thomas Ashe, who was brought up amongst the impoverished Irish gentry. He became a soldier, but he was much more than that. The play shows him as clerk, tradesman, teacher, sailor, murderer, embezzler, explorer, impersonator, writer of political propoganda, hack journalist, plagiarist, blackmailer and more. His memoirs were somewhat exaggerated but he was a man of energy, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. He believes in 'the main chance'. He is a survivor amidst the violence of the French Revolution, even if it means changing sides. The play explores the life of Ashe in a mixture of prose, verse and ballad (the amount of verse is small) and conjures up an interesting picture of a highly unusual man.
The cast: Aidan McArdle, David Calder, Jim Norton, Colum
Convey, Rakie Ayola, Marcella Riordan. Producer and director: Roland
Info. from "Doollee", Greg Linden, Alistair Wyper, own notes and other sources.
©Nigel Deacon, Diversity website
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