Remembering John Arden

The late John Arden. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

The late John Arden. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

It was Ronald Reagan who first introduced me to John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy. Well, indirectly. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

I first heard of John Arden many years before I met him, and that was thanks to John Osborne. Well, indirectly.

It was 1963 and I had gone to a Chicago cinema to see Tom Jones, a wonderfully funny and richly atmospheric film directed by Tony Richardson, starring Albert Finney and a host of brilliant British actors I had never heard of before. Henry Fielding’s large, sprawling novel had been condensed brilliantly in a screenplay by John Osborne, whom I had never heard of either.

I went along to my local library to see if I could find out anything about Richardson, Finney, and Osborne. This was long before the Internet made such information available at the click of a key, so I pored through magazines until I found one called – I think - Stage and there I found an article about Osborne. And there I first came across the name of John Arden, in a list that also included Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter. There was a reference to a play Arden had written called Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.

And that was that, until I came to Ireland in 1967 to attend UCG. The first time I ever saw John Arden was in a room of the Protestant school across from the Courthouse. He was sitting on a chair on top of a table which itself sat on a larger table, and he was reading a play he had written called The Ballygombeen Bequest dealing with an eviction of a family in Connemara by an absentee English landlord.

Brilliant in so many ways

John Arden was so brilliant at so many different things – plays, poetry, novels, short stories, theatre criticism, music – but that day I was enthralled by his acting. Poets are sometimes not the best readers of their own poetry, and there is nothing that says a novelist will be the best person to read aloud his novel. But Arden that day brought his play alive in a way that captivated everyone in that crowded room. With sweeping gestures, changes of voice, penetrating gazes at invisible characters, he swirled around, high on his eyrie, with such life I was afraid he would topple to the floor. If he had, I’m sure we would have all applauded.

After university I went to England and didn’t return to Ireland for seven years. And it wasn’t until June of 1984 that Ronald Reagan at last introduced me to John Arden and his wife Margaretta D’Arcy.

I had started doing freelance writing for the Galway Advertiser and had interviewed Colm Ó hEocha, president of UCG at the time. Although most of the city’s population looked on the Reagan visit as either an honour or at least as good for tourism, a substantial minority strongly objected to his presence and was outraged at the fact he was to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law.

Large crowds of protesters lined the route the presidential entourage took to UCG, and the only glimpse most people had of the president was his hand waving behind darkened bullet-proof glass.

In the days before the visit, John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy had positioned themselves on two chairs at the top of Eyre Square, making their own protest at US support of the nationalist Contras in their opposition to the Marxist Sandinista government. To intimidate the government, the US had mined Nicaragua's harbours.

There they sat, each day, happy to talk to anyone who wondered what they were doing and why. It was a peaceful, dignified, and principled protest, and many people did stop to talk. Arden and D’Arcy, throughout their lives and careers, were firm believers in the crucial importance of local community involvement and activism, and their protest was of a piece of this.

On one of those days, it rained heavily but they maintained their vigil. I decided to approach them about maybe doing an interview. They invited me to their house in Corrundulla, where I spent a fascinating afternoon listening to them talk about their lives and careers. The interview, for various reasons, was never published, but I still have the notes I made. I felt enormously privileged as they reminisced about the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and George Devine, the visionary founder of the English Stage Company, where the early plays of Arden, Osborne and Pinter were first produced. One snippet: Arden had been approached by a Hollywood producer and asked to write a screenplay for a film about the 19th century Boxer Rebellion in China. “I think they asked me,” he reflected, “because after Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance they thought I must be an authority on the British army.”

Fondness

I became very fond of the two of them. Although our political views tended to diverge, I was always deeply impressed by their integrity, their willingness to put themselves in the forefront of any issue they felt strongly about – and there were many of those! – And the way they consistently involved the local community in their various projects, from Radio Pirate Woman to cinema afternoons in their house in Galway.

In 1987-88, I did some research for them. The first of the projects I was involved with was the series of radio plays they wrote for the BBC called Whose is the Kingdom? One of things that always attracted me about Arden’s work was his sense of history. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was about three deserters from the British army in 1879, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight dealt with the Scottish Borders in 1528, The Hero Rises Up took a sceptical look at Lord Nelson, and Left-Handed Liberty was a complex take on Magna Carta. In each case, Arden shows how the past can reflect and comment on the present, while still keeping its own historical integrity.

Whose is the Kingdom? was about nothing less than the first three centuries of Christianity, and how a religion originally of outsiders and outcasts was co-opted and distorted by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and lost its original revolutionary impulse. I was asked to work out the complicated family relations of Constantine. I would have been happy to do the research for nothing, but they insisted that, as they had a budget from the BBC, they wanted to pay me for the work I did for them. When the plays were published, I was sent a signed copy and told to turn to page xxix of D’Arcy’s introduction, where she referred gratefully to the research I had done. One footnote: my name was spelled ‘Geoff’ and a few days later I received a postcard from Arden in which he apologised for the misspelling, adding that I, at any rate, would know who was being referred to!

One of Arden’s finest novels is The Books of Bale, which tells the story of John Bale, a16th century Protestant cleric who was bishop of Ossory. He was a strong supporter of the Reformation and found himself in danger when Mary became Queen, although he flourished in Elizabeth’s reign, and helped popularise the tales of English Protestant martyrs. He was also a playwright, which was rather unusual for a cleric. Set in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, it ranges back and forth in time and between England and Ireland, focusing on the lively and highly competitive world of playwrights and actors.

Research

I was doing research at the time in the British Library, and Arden asked if I could arranged to have a copy made of Bale’s autobiographical work, The vocacyon of Johan Bale to the bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande his persecions in the same (1553 ). It was a pleasure to be associated with one of the finest historical novels I’ve ever read, right up there with the historical novels of Robert Graves.

One afternoon, during the time I was doing work for them, I found myself in the living room of their house in Galway, telling them about the recent death of my mother. My mother was Protestant, and there were several small complications that made it a bit of a story. A few months later, I received in the post a copy of Awkward Corners, a collection of their essays and letters to newspapers. In D’Arcy’s section, there was a piece called ‘County Galway Vignettes’. As I read the first one, I suddenly realised it was a re-telling – no names, only initials – of the circumstances of my mother’s death and funeral! I was delighted, and I am only sorry my mother couldn’t share my delight. My dear mother had, shall I say, ‘pretentions’, and she would be so chuffed that her passing had been immortalised in ‘literature’.

Now John is gone. A great spirit stilled. Before I ever met him – and it is impossible to think or speak of him without his loving and creative partner for most of his life – I felt Galway was privileged to be the home of one of the finest and most original and most passionately committed English/Irish writers of the second half of the 20th century. In truth, I knew him only slightly. But his memory I will cherish always.

 

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