John Arden

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Plays by John Arden

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In their introduction to the play, authors Margaretta D'Arcy and John Arden say of Ars Longa Vita Brevis: 'This little piece is not exactly a play, nor is it anything else in particular. If we must call it something, it might well be termed "A Theme for Variations."'

A satirical play, Ars Longa Vita Brevis draws comparisons between education and military conquest, suggesting that the result of both is the suppression of individual expression, and, ultimately, the death of the individual, as seen in the life of the martially-minded art master Mr Miltiades. The free rein the authors give to the possibility for production is in marked contrast to the damning, and ultimately damned, techniques of the protagonist of the piece.

The Business of Good Government

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Business of Good Government was written for and first performed in 1960 in the village of Brent Knoll, Somerset. Telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, it focuses less on the divine and miraculous, and more on the geopolitical forces at play in Herod's kingdom.

Under threat of Roman invasion from the west and Persian invasion from the East, Herod is disconcerted to receive a party of Persian delegates, wise men, whom he fears are spies for his neighbour. Realising the threat that might come from a child born which might match and ancient prophecy, he issues an edict to slaughter all males aged under two-years-old.

In spite of this heinous crime, The Business of Good Government presents a not altogether unsympathetic portrait of that infamous king, in whom we can perhaps see echoes of calculated government policy in modern times.

Still, it is the goodness of Joseph and Mary, who parent a newborn, then bear it to safety out of a hostile kingdom, which shines through. The Business of Good Government is a traditional, if human, version of the story of Jesus' birth, and was first performed in Brent Knoll's Church of St. Michael, in 1960.

Immediate Rough Theatre for Citizens’ Involvement

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'We were looking up texts for this book, and we came across a file full of fragmentary scripts (and notes for scripts) which had been a series of quickly-improvised topical plays and playlets got together in the west of Ireland and put on in houses, pubs, streets, meetings and so forth to answer immediate needs of the day.'

So the authors describe this collection of scripts etc. called Immediate Rough Theatre for Citizens' Involvement. Plays and playlets here include:

The Devil and the Parish Pump: a plot summary of an improvised piece describing a newly planned piped water scheme in a town named Corrandulla;

Sean O'Scrudu: an expansive short-play written in response to the sacking of a shop-steward from a multinational company based in Galway;

The Hunting of the Mongrel Fox: written after the sentencing to death by hanging in Ireland of two Irish anarchists named Noel and Marie Murray – who were charged with the shooting of an off-duty policeman – and the subsequent suppression of reporting on the case;

No Room at the Inn: a Christmas play highlighting the difficulty of providing shelter for members of the Irish travelling community;

Mary's Name: a plot summary describing a play about one woman's decision to retain her maiden name after she gets married;

and A Pinprick of History: a play which imagines a socialist revolution which has enveloped the entire world – except Great Britain.

The Little Gray Home in the West

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Little Gray Home in the West was a reworking of a 1972 play called The Ballygombeen Bequest which was described by the Guardian as 'a freewheeling Brechtian parable of sickness, colonialism and capitalism in Ireland'.

Chris Megson, in his book Modern British Playwriting: the 1970s described the case succinctly: '7:84's production of The Ballygombeen Bequest by John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy . . . attacked British actions in Northern Ireland and accused the British Army of using torture. The production was halted after legal advice in the final week of its run at the Bush Theatre. The controversy related to a programme note about a real absentee English landlord who was in the process of evicting a tenant and whose contact details were listed in the programme. The landlord issued a writ on the writers in a civil action and the military also complained about the play's content. The case was eventually settled out of court but the company's annual grant was removed.'

A play with songs, and a spoonful of cynicism, The Little Gray Home in the West tells the story of a businessman named Baker-Fortescue who has come to inherit a small estate in the south of Ireland, a place where communications with the locals, and the security of fences, is forever on a knife's edge.

The Royal Pardon

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

After years of war, peace is to be reached between England and France, sealed by the marriage of the English prince and the French princesse.

A company of actors are to be sent from England to Paris, to perform at a theatrical gala in celebration of the union. Croke's band of performers are carrying with them an ex-soldier Luke, on the run from the law.

Circumstances twist, turn and contrive to place the soldier on the stage, with his new found beloved, where he must ad lib a play of great ingenuity to appease royalty, and the law's claim upon him.

The Royal Pardon or The Soldier who became an Actor was first performed at the Bedford Arts Centre, Devon, in 1966.

Vandaleur's Folly

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

John Vandaleur was an estate owner in County Clare in the west of Ireland. In 1831, tired of the outrages committed by some of his tenants in the throes of a violent organisation named 'The Ribbonmen', Vandaleur established a co-operative, known as the Ralahine Commune. A system of commonwealth, it established many innovations, including a co-operative-only currency-system, and even a type of pension fund.

Vandaleur's Folly tells the story of this commune, and its, perhaps inevitable, demise after two years. In Arden and D'Arcy's version, the external influences of colonial capitalism and its attendant military force – as well as the wagering caprices of Vandaleur himself – are more than a match for the good intentions of communal farmers in the county Clare.

Picture of John Arden

John Arden (1930-2012) was a British dramatist, noted for his politically challenging and linguistically rich plays in the tradition of Brecht; he has written for radio and television as well as for the stage. After 1965 he collaborated on many works with his wife, the Irish playwright Margaretta D'Arcy. Arden's first professionally produced play was a radio drama, The Life of Mars, broadcast in 1956. In the late 1950s Arden was associated with the Royal Court Theatre, where his stark anti-war play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance opened in 1959. The play was something of a commercial failure at the time, but has been frequently revived since.

It was during the 1960s that Arden produced most of his major stage works; these include The Happy Haven (1960), The Workhouse Donkey (1963), which concerns municipal corruption in Arden's native Barnsley, Armstrong's Last Goodnight (1964), which drew parallels between contemporary political events in the Congo and machinations in medieval Scotland, and Left-Handed Liberty (1965).

In 1972 Arden and D'Arcy had a major argument with the RSC about the staging of their Arthurian play The Island of the Mighty. The argument culminated in Arden picketing the theatre and vowing that he would not write for the British stage again.He settled in Galway, Ireland, in 1971. He was elected to Aosdána in 2011, a year before his death.