John Arden, Political British Playwright, Dies at 82 | Playbill

Obituaries John Arden, Political British Playwright, Dies at 82
John Arden, a British playwright with a pungent political conscience who rose to prominence in the 1950s and was often likened to an English answer to Bertolt Brecht, died March 28. He was 82.

The playwright was a mainstay at the Royal Court, part of George Devine's English Stage Company there, when the theatre became a vigorous wellspring of new dramatic work in Britain. He later had premieres at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Mr. Arden's signature work was Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, which premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1959. The dark work was about a band of deserting soldiers who arrive in a dreary northern English coal mining town in the grips of a crippling strike. Their hidden purpose is to revenge an appalling act of violence they witnessed in the war they have abandoned. The influence of Brecht was shown in Arden's choice to adorn the play with a series of presentational songs.

The drama, directed by Lindsay Anderson, was a flop, though Mr. Arden did win an Evening Standard Award as Most Promising Playwright. But as the '60s rolled on, and anti-war sentiment grew, the play's reputation steadily improved until it was widely regarded as a classic work of London's postwar theatre scene. It is considered Mr. Arden's best work. In 1966, it was presented Off-Broadway and won the Drama Desk Award for best play.

Talking of the play, Mr. Arden said, "Complete pacifism is a very hard doctrine: and if this play appears to advocate it with perhaps some timidity, it is probably because I am naturally a timid man—and also because I know that if I am hit I very easily hit back: and I do not care to preach too confidently what I am not sure I can practice."

Musgrave's distinct political and social message was repeated in other Arden plays of this period, including Live Like Pigs, a comedy about the welfare state; The Happy Haven, about a nursing home whose residents recoil in horror at the opportunity to relive their youth; The Workhouse Donkey, about a Labour Party leader's resistance to attempts to unseat him; and Armstrong's Last Goodnight, for which he invented a medieval Scottish dialect for the characters. Albert Finney starred as the title figure, a 16th-century feudal chief. In the 1970s, Mr. Arden's Marxist beliefs brought him into conflict with both the British mainstream audiences and the English theatre establishment. A definite break came with The Island of the Mighty, the RSC premiere of which he picketed. The writer felt the sprawling piece about the Arthurian legend had been hijacked by the director, David Jones. For Mr. Arden, the playwright's vision was paramount, and he rebelled against the rise of the director in the theatre.

Mr. Arden relocated to Ireland in 1971. Together with Margaretta D'Arcy, his wife from 1957, he wrote for small Irish theatre groups. The plays frequently drew their inspiration from Irish history, and were often critical of British treatment of the Irish. The Non-Stop Connolly Show, from 1975, was about the life of the Irish unionist and nationalist James Connolly, and lasted for 26 hours at its first performance. Mr. Arden was, for a time, a member of the Sinn Fein.

Mr. Arden was also the author of several novels and many short stories. His first novel, "Silence Among the Weapons," was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1982.

John Arden was born in Barnsley, a town in South Yorkshire, on Oct. 26, 1930. He attended King's College in Cambridge and the Edinburgh College of Art, where he studied architecture. His first work of theatre was a radio play called "The Life of Man," which aired in 1956.

He is survived by Margaretta D’Arcy and their four children.

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