completion, at its author's request, of unfinished last radio play by John Arden
(page in progress)
Arden had assured BBC Radio 4 and his Director that this play was 'almost complete'. Perhaps it was so in his head, leaving (as always) 'only the writing to be done'. For, among the papers that his widow Margaretta d'Arcy sent to me, there was a story and some synopsis material, but nothing in dramatic form, not so much as a draft fragment even, which might have given me a steer as to how to proceed. Ever in hope that a more developed version would show, I could meanwhile work only from the story - a story splitting its seams with so many 'unchancy' narrative twists and shifts of scene, such wealth of eldritch detail, a synopsis would take longer to tell.
Perhaps a teasing question or two must suffice. Who is the strange new member of staff at the Edinburgh John Knox Academy for Boys, substituting for a PE colleague who was never ill before? How is it that some see him duly present at the start-of-term assembly, others see only his empty chair? Befriended by a junior history master and his artist wife, he begins to wreak macabre damage to their marriage - till, lured by him to King Arthur's Seat by night the husband beats his skull in with a torch - to learn that his wife also has killed him that same night on a Galway shore. And that is only the beginning. Rather than 'who' is this eerie character, a better question perhaps is what?
Arden's last piece is a horrible imagining - and it is simple to see it as a nightmare transmutation of the dark adversary that had taken up lethal residence in its author's spine. More is going on in this. There is a mischief here, a mordant observation, a headlong energy - a life - that triumphs over Arden's death.
The more miserably disappointing, then, that the then BBC drama commissioning editor rejected it, on the grounds that he didn't 'understand' it. (An earlier commissioning editor, David Rose, had avowed that he didn't 'understand' my tv screenplay Penda's Fen - but he knew its author, and he trusted him. That film is now a tv 'classic'; and at its fortieth anniversary screening he quietly said to me, 'I still don't understand it.') 'Understand': Arden was prophetic here. He had, d'Arcy told me, chosen me to finish the piece 'because only [I] would understand it'. So there, for now, this mongrel monster languishes. I am vexed with wondering, have I been its kiss of death?