Plays by John Arden

Armstrong's Last Goodnight

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Armstrong’s Last Goodnight opens on the border of Scotland and England in the year 1530, where a group of officials are meeting to hammer out a peace agreement between their two countries. The final bone of contention is the continued cattle raids carried out on English landowners by Scots living on the border. The commissioners dispatch Sir David Lindsay to end the raids by placating the main offender, John Armstrong of Gilnockie.

First presented by the National Theatre in 1964, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight demonstrates John Arden’s mastery of epic theatre as he employs song, verse, and wit to tell the tale of a man who confronts authority and goes head to head with the consequences of doing so.

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.

The Happy Haven

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

At the Happy Haven care home, Dr Copperthwaite is working on a medical miracle: the cure for old age. But between placating the ever-complaining Mr Crape, overseeing the romantic advances of Mr Golightly to the ancient Mrs Phineus, keeping the charity cash box away from the light-fingered Mrs Letouzel and trying to find Mr Hardrader’s illicitly kept dog, Dr Copperthwaite’s efforts to concoct his youth elixir are constantly interrupted.

A seemingly ill-timed intrusion into the lab by Mr Crape leads to the doctor’s discovery of the correct formula for eternal youth. Yet when the five elderly patients find out about Dr Copperthwaite’s plans for the Happy Haven community, they’re not so sure that they’d like their youth back. A farcical depiction of institutional life, The Happy Haven explores whether it really is better to be forever young or if wisdom does indeed come with age.

John Arden’s first collaboration with his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, The Happy Haven was produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in September 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.

Left-Handed Liberty

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In dramatising the creation of the Magna Carta, John Arden inhabits the minds of 13th century England with great skill and ingenuity, presenting the establishment of the founding of the charter, on which modern Britain's constitutional law stands - as a time of great confusion and insecurity.

Of the research that drove the play, Arden wrote: 'When I accepted this commission, I knew little more about the Charter than what I had been taught at the age of fourteen. It was a considerable surprise for me to discover how soon the agreement between [King] John and the Barons was repudiated, and how unfortunate his reconciliation with the Pope had proved for the Baronial party. This apparent complete failure of the Charter struck me as a more fruitful theme for a play than the more obvious one of the events leading up to Runnymede [i.e. where the Magna Carta was sealed]'.

Left-Handed Liberty was commssioned by the Corporation of the City of london to commemorate the 750th Anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, with the first public performance given in June 1965.

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.

Live Like Pigs

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Forced to move from their tramcar on a caravan site, the Sawneys, an unruly family of travellers, unwillingly arrive at their new home on a council estate. Living next door are the Jacksons, eager to establish themselves as middle class. When busybody Mrs Jackson comes over to welcome the new arrivals to the neighbourhood, she is driven off the property with a tirade of insults. But it’s the new friendships and attractions between the two families that ultimately prove more dangerous than this initial antagonism.

As more travellers descend on the Sawneys’ home and threats of eviction are made, the Jacksons become increasingly entangled with their new neighbours. John Arden’s domestic drama is both hilarious and moving in its portrayal of what happens when these two worlds collide.

Live Like Pigs was first presented by the English Stage Society at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in September 1958.

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.

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is an ‘unhistorical parable’, a fabular interrogation of the ethics and consequences of war loosely set in the late 19th century.

Serjeant Musgrave and three other deserters return the body of a dead soldier back to his home town, a mining community in the grip of a coal strike and cut off by snow. They pretend to be visiting to recruit more soldiers, but Musgrave plans to confront its people with the realities of warfare. He holds the town at gunpoint, hoists the skeleton of the dead soldier up a lamp-post, and makes his demands.

The play questions the futility of war, pivoting on Musgrave’s attempt to use violence to end national conflict, in which pacifist protest twists into aggressive retaliation.

First performed in 1959 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance continues to resonate in a post-colonial world gripped by internecine wars and cultures of retributive violence within borders.

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.