18 April 2012
Posted in Theatre
By playwright and Writers' Guild President, David Edgar
(Photo of John Arden courtesy of Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd)
It was saddening to hear, just before Easter, of the death of writer John Arden, at the age of 81. One of the great playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s at the Royal Court and the National Theatre, John Arden was also a committed trade unionist. His great falling-out with the British theatre, over David Jones's 1972 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) of Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy's Island Of The Mighty (at the Aldwych) was in fact a union dispute over what they saw as a misinterpretation of their play. Arden and D'Arcy were members of the Society of Irish Playwrights, affiliated to Irish Equity, and refused to undertake textual revisions as a form of strike action, picketing the theatre.
The dispute ended unhappily: the show went on in an edited form, and the Arden and D'Arcy never saw it. It was also Arden's last premiere on the London stage. But the principles at issue – the rights of playwrights not just to preserve their texts but to participate in the production process – were a crucial part of the mid-70s campaign for playwrights' contracts. Arden played a vital role in the early years of the Theatre Writers' Union, which won these rights in collaboration with the Writers' Guild, with which it amalgamated in 1997. Arden remained a Guild member.
I met him when his and D'Arcy's The Ballygombeen Bequest – a play about the Northern Ireland troubles – was being toured by the 7:84 company, which also produced a contemporary version of Arden's greatest play, Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, which emptied the Royal Court in 1959 but went on to win the 1960 Evening Standard best play award, and to enter the post-war dramatic canon. I got to know him and Margaretta (his wife as well as his collaborator) as the Theatre Writers' Group reformed itself into a union and then (with the Guild) negotiated agreements with Britain's theatre managements in the late 1970s and early 1980s. John and Margaretta were always committed, sometimes challenging supporters of the cause of playwrights' unionisation. Our agreements might have been achieved quicker without them, but they might not have been so good for playwrights as a result.
I was (just) too young to see the original productions of his Royal Court plays (including Musgrave) but I did see the two epic plays presented by the National Theatre at Chichester in the 1960s: The Workhouse Donkey (set around an engagingly corrupt northern local council) and Armstrong's Last Goodnight (about a 16th battle between rebellion and authority in the lawless Scottish borders). Arden's great 1978 radio play Pearl (produced by Alfred Bradley) is a reminder of a time when Radio 4 did serious plays at two hours' length. His novels, short stories and essays on the theatre will also survive. In particular, the last essay in his 1977 compilation To Pretend The Pretence, defends playwriting as a craft against either directors or companies who regard the playwright as redundant, and suggests that this task should be the central job of a writers' union. It's certainly worth re-reading now.