Arden at eighty

Town Hall celebrates eminent playwright

ON FRIDAY October 1 the Town Hall Theatre is presenting a tribute to author John Arden to mark the writer’s 80th year.

John Arden first came to prominence as one of the much-feted Royal Court playwrights in the late 1950s. His best known play, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, shocked the critical establishment when it premiered in 1959 and Arden’s radical stance has been consistent ever since.

With his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, he also increasingly became interested in Irish issues - their most ambitious project on an Irish theme was the 26 hour Non Stop Connolly Show which was staged in Liberty Hall in Dublin in 1975. Since the 1970s he has made Galway his home.

The evening will present a unique collage of short excerpts from Arden’s work, introduced by himself, illustrating the wide diversity of his themes, from rackety brothels in London, to the fallout from colonial war, to the life and death of James Connolly, to a 1970s eviction in the west of Ireland, to Garda ‘storm‘n’stress’ when George W Bush came to Shannon – all in a mix of music, songs, and archival film clips, including Arden in his acting role as the overbearing landlord in Bob Quinn’s acclaimed Caoineadh Art Uí Laoire.

The evening will also feature a rehearsed reading of the final scene from Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, directed by Eamonn Draper. Arden wrote the play in the wake of an atrocity committed by British troops serving in Cyprus in the mid 1950s.

“I still don’t feel all that distanced from Musgrave as, depressingly, it seems to have a lot of relevance today,” says Arden. “I would have preferred not to have written a play that is quite so meaningful so many years later. I really would have liked the international situation to have changed a bit.”

Sean O’Casey was an early supporter, calling it, “far and away the finest play of the present day”. By 1968 the critic Raymond Williams announced that “it has been clear for some years that John Arden is the most genuinely innovating of the generation of young English dramatists of the fifties”.

Eamon Draper has been an admirer of Arden’s work ever since he first saw a production of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance by Cork’s Everyman Theatre which “blew him away” as he recalls.

In 1974, Draper directed an Irish-language translation of the play for An Taibhdhearc which featured the late Mick Lally as Musgrave. Remarkably, given Arden’s long association with Galway, this is the only one of his plays to have been produced by the city’s local companies.

Draper sees this Town Hall tribute as a way for Galway of giving Arden some long-overdue appreciation.

“The man has been here for 40 years and got very little in terms of recognition in the city,” he observes. “John Arden is the kind of man who should be getting an honorary doctorate from the university here, when you consider that he is one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is still one of the great anti-war plays.”

The evening will be divided into two halves, with the first half delving into Arden’s early English plays, like Live Like Pigs, Workhouse Donkey, and Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, as well as his Irish-themed works such as Ballygombeen Bequest and Non-Stop Connolly Show.

The second half of the evening will be devoted to Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and will include footage from the Granada TV screening of the play, as well as TV interviews with Lindsay Anderson who directed the original production, and Ian Bannen who first played Musgrave.

It will conclude with a reading from one of the play’s final scenes, featuring Paraic Breathnach (as Musgrave ), Roisin Dignan, and Sean Forde.

What should be a memorable tribute evening to John Arden commences at 8pm next Friday in the Town Hall. Tickets are €10 and there will also be a reception to mark the occasion.

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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