Obituary: John Arden, popular and passionate playwright whose creativity often exceeded his diplomacy

Born: 26 October, 1930. Died: 28 March, 2012, aged 81

I SAW John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance at the Old Vic in 1984, with Albert Finney in the title role, and fearsome he was as a homicidal tin soldier.

Two provincial writers were in the audience, the sharp-eyed but now sadly neglected William Cooper, and a dying John Braine, who had moved from left to right.

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Arden’s eclipse (only a fraction of his output is now staged) reflected more on the politics of British culture than on any fading of his genius. No-one since Joyce Cary – also a graduate of Edinburgh Art School – evaluated more shrewdly the tangled loyalties of the islands, and the music, resplendent as well as discordant, that this could create.

Arden wrote of his debt to Robert Kemp and Tyrone Guthrie’s revival of Sir David Lindsay’s The Three Estates seen at the Edinburgh Festival: “Now I knew what Brecht was about!”

Lindsay would turn up as the compromised diplomat in his ‘Scottish Play”, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, in an oeuvre as ambitious as Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels.

In what many reckoned his masterpiece, The Workhouse Donkey (1964), what’s expressed isn’t just a spectacularly corrupt Yorkshire Labour council, but an exhilarating chunk of the life-force in its Lord of Misrule Alderman Charlie Butterthwaite, played by Frank Finlay, in a cast including Robert Stephens, Jeremy Brett, and the young Sir Derek Jacobi – in Chichester of all places.

The play took drama to the brink of possibility: Arden wanted to abandon the stage, run it for hours – with the audience strolling around and joining in. Theatre directors rebelled. John McGrath thought the project great and his 7:84 Theatre would achieve much of it in The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

Post-2008, Arden and his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, seemed cannier about Tiger Ireland than they were given credit for, and his 80th birthday bash was hosted by its arch-critic Fintan O’Toole.

To Present the Pretence titled Arden’s autobiographic essays. Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven bears the same non-conformist brand: the “secular eucharist” Arden wanted to achieve. That he couldn’t do so was for “The Common Wealth” – the pendant concept he always believed in – a ritual tragedy.

Mind you, Arden’s creativity often exceeded his diplomacy. Ken Campbell remembered him at a political gig reciting a poem about the Irish troubles, which went on and on, concluding with respectful, relieved applause. The next performer began, only for Arden to shout: “Oh Christ! Here are 30 verses I’ve forgotten!”

CHRISTOPHER HARVIE