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Individual and Society in the Early Plays ofJohn Arden PAUL W. DAY • CRITICS HAVE BEEN WARY in their attempts to come to terms with the works of John Arden. The majority of them, in fact, confine themselves to an astonished description of his several works, with tolerant comments on their "diversity," "unpredictability," "uncommitedness," "amorality" and so on. Only two or three have approached the works in tentative analysis - among them John Russell Taylorl and J.D. Hainsworth.2 And Hainsworth's article springs from a minor disagreement with a statement by Taylor. Taylor's criticism of Arden in Anger and After seeks to validate his contention that this writer changes his ground continually, seeking in every fresh playa fresh viewpoint: "There seems to be brooding one basic principle: not exactly the obvious one that today there are no causes - that would be altogether too facile, and in any case just not true - but that there are too many."3 Hence, he says, Arden is perpetually neutral, refusing to display moral preferences. He invokes a statement of Arden's as support for this view. Arden "expressed grave objections to being presented with a character on the stage whom you know to be the author's mouthpiece." And elsewhere has said that he "cannot see why a social play should not be so designed that we may find ourselves understanding the person's problems , but not necessarily approving his reactions to them." It should be pointed out at once that deploring the inert kind of dialectic in which the "right" attitude repeatedly encounters, and overmas239 240 PAUL W. DAY ters a series of "wrong" attitudes is a different thing from espousing no moral principles at all. But actually Arden himself has put his method very clearly in an article written in 1960.4 "Social criticism ... " he wrote, "tends in the theatre to be dangerously ephemeral and therefore disappointing after the fall of the curtain. But if it is expressed within the framework of the traditional poetic truths it can have a weight and an impact derived from something more than contemporary documentary facility." Social criticism as poetry: that seems a positive idea that is overlooked in Taylor's study of the plays. Hainsworth's paper takes issue with Taylor over the opinion that Arden is completely unaffected by the Theatre of the Absurd. Like Taylor, he gives a description of the narrative content of the plays, suggests that like the absurd dramatists, Arden go~s in for farce, is pessimistic and that his plots show a tendency to cyclic repetition. These would seem obvious , but fairly slender similarities. One sentence of Hainsworth's is, however, worth quoting. "The reliance on plot that accompanies Arden's concern with the outside world can also be seen as an aspect of his preoccupation with society." This view - not developed in Hainsworth - I endorse; and I propose , from an analysis of the first three plays that Arden wrote, (if we ignore the unpublished radio play The Life ofMan) to demonstrate the thesis that Arden, so far from being uncommitted and anarchical, displays his adherence to a scale of values that are highly individual and at the same time interesting, wise, and humane. It is easy to see why writers on this author should hesitate to go deeper than the surface of the plays. The reason is that that surface is, in itself, so unusual, so beguiling, and so worthy of detailed examination and description, that it arrests the eye - persuades the reader, in fact, that this fascinating fabric is all. Tone, atmosphere, setting, and characters differ so utterly from play to play that the opinion has become widely accepted that Arden is at the mercy of his material, abandoning coherent comment, forswearing moral judgment, in order to pursue the cranky individuals who people his stage, in their idiosyncratic gyrations. But the structure of each of Arden's first three plays can be analysed, I believe, into a quite simple formula. The dramatic framework is uniformly recognisable: it resembles the Brechtian epic structure, but really is based on the music hall convention ofa series of dramatic sketches, interspersed with song and dance.5 It is the tone...


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pp. 239-249
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