(Michael Coveney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/29.)

One of the most significant British playwrights of the late 1950s and early 60s, John Arden, who has died aged 81, was in later life an almost forgotten theatrical figure. However, a revival of his early classic, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, by the Oxford Theatre Company in 2003 was a stunning reminder of his rich talent for theatrical poetry and political metaphor.

The play told a tale of four Victorian Army deserters arriving in a northern mining town to exact retribution for an act of colonial violence. Arden had been prompted by an incident in Cyprus in 1958 when British soldiers killed five innocent people in an anti-terrorist reprisal. Its time had come again as public concern grew over the war in Iraq – to which Arden was unflinchingly opposed – and the terms of the British involvement. The revival made most of new contemporary drama seem puny and self-indulgent in comparison.


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