I was surprised to learn recently that I shared a theatrical experience with the journalist and commentator Fintan O’Toole. Years ago Fintan went to the toilet during one of the many intervals in John Arden’s The Non-Stop Connolly Show (it was non-stop for an amazing 24-hours ). The toilet was just behind the stage. When Fintan came out, the performance had restarted, and he was on stage. The audience applauded the embarrassed young Fintan.
I was in London in the late 1960s and was sitting in the audience at the Roundhouse Theatre, Camden Town, enjoying Arden’s The Hero Rises up. In the Arden style, the play was a burlesque debunking of the much revered Horatio Nelson. Inevitably there was a huge battle scene. The playwright, wearing a long overcoat, suddenly came on stage. He shouted over the noise of battle, and a manic steam organ, and divided the audience with his hands saying: ‘This half are the French; this half are the British. Now everyone on stage, and let’s have a battle’. And that’s what we had. But the French ‘won’ which was not supposed to happen. For a time there was confusion, before the play got back on track.
Imagine my surprise when later I came back to work in Galway, to see John Arden, in the same long overcoat, walking down Shop Street. He had become the darling of the subversive British Look back in Anger theatre of the late 1950s and 60s. His best known play is probably Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, which is a play on many levels, but tells the story of three soldiers and their sergeant who desert from a foreign war, and arrive in a north of England town in the grip of cold winter and a coal strike. The men are traumatised by the revenge taken by the army who had killed five civilians following the killing of one of their own. In some convoluted way the deserters come to believe that if they execute 25 townspeople now, the original atrocity will be excised
There were several more plays, usually received with high critical acclaim, including The Workhouse Donkey , about municipal corruption, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, inspired by political events in the Congo, and performed by the National Theatre starring Albert Finney. And then later with his wife, and artistic collaborator Margaretta D’Arcy, there were novels, awards, more plays and protests.
As well as a sizeable artistic output, the couple enjoy a long history of being associated with radical left-wing politics in the UK and Ireland. Educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh universities Arden was a founder member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100, and was involved with the pacifist weekly Peace News. He became a member of Sinn Féin, and was bitterly critical of the British government’s presence in Northern Ireland, and its anti-terror legislation. For a time Margaretta was imprisoned in Armagh where she went on a protest and hunger strike. In his lexicon of pet hates, Arden couldn’t bear landlords. Back in the late 1970s, there was a long protracted row on behalf an elderly tenant in Oughterard and Commander Burges in Sussex, who sued him for libel.
In the end, Arden and Margaretta even fell out with the British theatre establishment. In one famous incident they both picketed the Royal Shakespeare Society’s premiere of his Arthurian play The Island of the Mighty. But at this stage, Britain finally threw up her hands in exasperation; and the couple moved first to an island on the Corrib, then to Corrandulla (where they ran an annual arts festival ), and finally to Bohermore (where Margaretta ran a pirate radio station ), where they have lived for almost 30 years.
No happy endings
You might imagine that after all that John Arden would be a humourless old curmudgeon. Far from it. Both he and Margaretta were in expansive mood recently at the Galway Civic Museum where Fintan O’Toole launched his latest collection of short stories: Gallows - And Other Tales of Suspicion and Obsession.* John is entering his 80th year but speaks loudly with an English accent with a slight Yorkshire brogue. He explained to the crowded room (which included some of his old Cambridge friends ) that he could no longer hold a pen or use his computer for any length of time. Margaretta reassured everyone that this impediment would not stop his writing. He would simply talk into a newly adapted computer which would type out his words. “It’s exactly what Barbara Cartland used when she couldn’t write any more,” enthused Margaretta, and we all laughed at the thought of the ludicrous white blond hair and the elaborate costumes worn by the late Miss Cartland. John Arden, who does share her white hair, was hugely amused. “ But without her money,” he said regretfully.
John and Margaretta have five sons (one of whom sadly died ). Finn is a film maker. His father’s latest book includes a CD of the illustrations Arden did for the book, as well as an interview with him working and living in Galway.
“ I love to observe Galway people,” says Arden, wearing a Col Gadaffi hat when he works. “ They all seem to have some sort of obsession, or a suspicion about someone, or about the city council, or the church. The degree of paranoia in personal relationships is really quite horrific!”
“ I am fascinated by the origin of conspiracy theories. The Guy Fawks conspiracy, the Fenian plots of the 19th century. No one really knows what went on at 9/11, or the cause of the war in Iraq that got the Irish involved with the Shannon stopover. It’s all unaccountable. And when the facts do turn up years later it’s too late to do anything about it.
I don’t do happy endings.”
Amusing and lusty
It was while waiting for the London publishers, Methuen, to make their mind up whether to accept Arden’s latest collection of short stories or not that prompted Arden to take up illustration. In the end, Methuen, which published all Arden’s work to date, pleaded cut-backs and turned it down. The book is self-published. And there are 27 interesting pictures which are featured on Finn’s C D.** Many of Gallows stories, and they are probably like nothing you have read before, are a mixture of Hogarthian melodrama, and black humour that dip in and out of earlier centuries and the present. From a ghost story to the gunpowder plot, to the murderous breakdown of a soldier after Belfast and the Gulf War; a London clergyman out of his depth with the Fenians in the 1880s, a Yorkshire family ducking and weaving its way through corrupt provincial politics, to the xenophobia on a Bus Éireann express. The latter story was prompted, writes Arden, ‘after a perfectly dreadful experience with a ill-tempered bus driver in Limerick. I went so far as to complain to the Bus Éireann company: They said he was quite right to have tried to prevent waiting passengers getting onto a bus in a snow storm; it was company policy. But he should not have been so rude...’
It’s vintage Arden. The illustrations, with lots of bottoms and boobs, are in the tradition of the outrageous 18th century satirist Rowlandson. They are amusing and lusty. Nothing is sacred. He even enjoys a gentle dig at his life-long artistic collaborator. In his story Molly Concannon and The Felonious Widow, he touches on the visits of American presidents Ronald Reagan, and George W Bush and the protests of Molly, who at one stage threatens to burn down a police station... ‘ Molly Concannon was a small excitable personage between fifty and sixty years old, of some literary reputation and well able to put backs up, public authorities no less than fellow writers....She had very little money; her poetry and stories were not as well known as perhaps they should have been...her countenance was strangely attractive, the look of a quick sharp tabby-cat sidling around your ankles, expecting to be stroked but only too ready with its claws...’
Finn asks: “ Is this a description of Margaretta?”
Arden just giggles.
One thing is certain: Arden may be entering his 80s, but he is still an artist in full inventive flight. Fintan O’Toole said that it really should be Britain that honours John Arden, not only his adopted land.
* Gallows - And other tales of Suspicion and Obsession, by John Arden, published by Original Writing, now on sale €24.99.
**Prints of John Arden’s illustrations ( €10 each; or €250 for complete set ) are signed and available to buy online at www.margarettadarcy.com/johnarden