In a recent article Michael Billington wrote about five flops that deserved a revival. For those who have read Billington for a long time the choices are relatively unsurprising; playwrights that were either writing or hitting their peak in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s and plays that address the great social changes and political upheaval that the period was witness to. Of all those chosen, it was most heartening to see John Arden, who died in 2012, on the list; Arden seems destined to become one of those unfortunate writers regarded as brilliant by their peers and critics but failing to gain traction with the public at large.
Over the last few years there has been a definite shift towards reevaluation of writers from this era, which was perhaps prompted by the Rattigan Centenary productions that has done much to restore the reputation of a writer that was all too lazily dismissed as representing, with Noel Coward, an old-fashioned Edwardian sense of theatre. With the status of Pinter and Osborne set in stone and recent productions of Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delagny in London, it feels the time is right to re-examine a writer whose radicalism has never quite found a fit within the British theatre scene.
Like so many writers who never quite achieve the status they deserve, Arden proved to be too radical for mainstream consumption. Radical in his politics – he was a Marxist intellectual who used his plays to challenge the established order and was an ardent pacifist- he was also a radical in his writing. Arden’s plays are a rich and vivid affairs that blend prose, poetry and songs. He had a remarkable talent for dialect that allowed his characters to spring fully-shaped from the page. He also offered the audience no obvious direction as to whether their moral sympathies should be directed – characters that would normally be signposted as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ remain equally vibrant and engaging, leaving critics unsure as to what the message of his play were supposed to be
Reading his plays (because you won’t find many on stage) leaves an impression of a writer who had managed to distill the spirit of Brechtian theatre into the British landscape. There are hints of the stringent criticism of the political order that blend with an understanding of the changing social pressures of 1950’s England and the sense of the pastoral you find in the English folk traditions. Whereas Osborne and Delagny delivered critiques from the level of the domestic, Arden works on a more panoramic scale and sets his plays in a Britain that is both immediately recognisable and entirely alien.
Like so many other writers of the period, Arden came through the Royal Court’s Writer’s Group and his first play, The Waters of Babylon, highlighted his desire to engage with the social issues of the time but also to avoid the trap of moralisation and gritty social realism. It also demonstrated Arden’s uncanny ability to pre-figure national events that were yet to break into the public consciousness, with a plot that identified the simmering tensions over immigration that were to explode in Notting Hill, eleven months after the play opened.
His plays were flops by any stretch of the imagination, Live Like Pigs managed 25% houses while Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, a play now regarded as a modern classic was dismissed by critics and saw almost 4 out of 5 seats remain empty. A reaction to the shooting of villagers in Cyprus by British soldiers, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was quickly reassessed as a major work and it won the Evening Standard Best Play award in 1960.
Whilst Arden remains underperformed Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance retains a major influence on writers. The fact that it is hard to remember how innovative it was to see a play use a historical setting to discuss current events is a measure of how ahead of his time Arden was in using a narrative device that is now a common feature of playwrights looking for a new angle in which to express old ideas.
Arden’s influence can be seen in the most recent play to be acclaimed as a British masterpiece – Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Like Serjeant Musgrave, the story of ‘Rooster’ Byron seems to exists in a nether world where the threat of the outside is ever-present but does not encroach until the latter stages of the play, the characters are portrayed with a degree of moral ambivalence that makes it difficult for the audience to apportion their sympathies and there use of dialectal realist language mixed with prose poems and songs are reminiscient of Arden’s signature style.