I was apolitical and bored as a school student, until John Arden changed my life. I am immensely grateful that I got to tell him that in person before he died last month. He changed my life because I was persuaded to channel my boredom into appearing in a production of Sergeant Musgrave's Dance.
Musgrave is the finest anti-war play ever written. I know that's a large claim, but I make it because it has become fashionable to denigrate or ignore Arden's work in the more than 50 years since he wrote it. The play tells the story of a group of soldiers who bring imperialist war home to a mining town in the middle of a strike. The tensions and complications that this creates are spelt out in the lives of the characters - even minor characters are drawn with a vivid brevity - as the play rushes towards its furious conclusion. This is followed by an extraordinarily quiet little scene at the end which reminds us of why we get involved in every struggle, large and small.
I saw the play again in 2004, shortly after the start of the Iraq war. If anything it seemed more relevant than it had 30 years before. So I'll say it again: it is the finest anti-war play ever written.
In the years after, John wrote many more very fine plays, but his refusal to bend to the fashionable or the commercial meant that it became easy for critics and theatre managers to push his work aside, to pretend that he was too difficult to work with (he picketed a production of one of his own plays because he had fundamental disagreements with the director!), that his work had weakened or that his plays were impossible to stage.
Much of this criticism was, at root, political. During the 1960s, 70s and on into the 80s his work in collaboration with his partner Margaretta D'Arcy focused on the politics of Ireland. A series of political, theatrical, legal and physical confrontations followed and it became easier just to ignore him. One of his responses to this situation was a "dramatic cycle of continuous struggle" that took about 24 hours to perform and so doesn't get many trips out.
The Non-Stop Connolly Show is a complex study of the ideas and legacy of the great revolutionary socialist James Connolly. It was first staged at Liberty Hall, Connolly's headquarters in Dublin. Its strength is its ambition; its weakness is that it includes some very long speeches.
This tendency marks several of the later plays and reflects the retreat away from big political theatre with big casts. It was balanced by work that moved in two other directions. First, Arden produced a number of short, sharp plays written to mark an occasion. Second, Arden began to write novels and short stories. His novel Silence Among the Weapons is a furious attack on political corruption in the form of stories of people at the bottom of Roman society. This theme continued through all the later novels and collections of short stories, as they found their content in both historical and contemporary settings.
To the very end John was committed to the cause of human freedom from wars, inequality and prejudice. His death has torn a hole. I was privileged to have shaken him by the hand, sat down and argued with him. It is his writings, though, that will stand as a mighty memorial. Seek them out wherever you can: read the books. Watch the plays. Stage your own productions. Remember him.