John Arden, English playwright, dies on March 28, 2012, in Galway, County Galway. At the time of his death, he is lauded as “one of the most significant British playwrights of the late 1950s and early 60s.”
Arden is born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England, on October 26, 1930. He is the son of the manager of a glass factory. He is educated at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, King’s College, Cambridge and the Edinburgh College of Art, where he studies architecture. He first gains critical attention for the radio play The Life of Man in 1956 shortly after finishing his studies.
Arden is initially associated with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London. His 1959 play, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, in which four army deserters arrive in a northern mining town to exact retribution for an act of colonial violence, is considered to be his best. His work is influenced by Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre as in Left-Handed Liberty (1965, on the anniversary of Magna Carta). Other plays include Live Like Pigs, The Workhouse Donkey, and Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, the last of which is performed at the 1963 Chichester Festival by the Royal National Theatre after it was rejected by the Royal Court.
Arden’s 1978 radio play Pearl is considered in a Guardian survey to be one of the best plays in that medium. He also writes several novels, including Silence Among the Weapons, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and Books of Bale, about the Protestant apologist John Bale. He is a member of the Royal Society of Literature.
With his wife and co-writer Margaretta D’Arcy, Arden pickets the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) premiere of his Arthurian play The Island of the Mighty, because they believe the production to be pro-imperialist. They write several plays together which are highly critical of British presence in Ireland, where he and D’Arcy live from 1971 onward.
In 1961, Arden is a founder member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100, and he also chairs the pacifist weekly Peace News. In Ireland, he is for a while a member of Official Sinn Féin. He is an advocate of civil liberties, and opposes anti-terror legislation, as demonstrated in his 2007 radio play The Scam.
Arden is elected to Aosdána in 2011 before dying in Galway on March 28, 2012. He is waked in a wicker casket.
(Pictured: Photograph of John Arden, 1960 bromide print on card mount, credit to Roger Mayne, National Portrait Gallery, London)