John Arden: Vox Pop: Last Days of the Roman Republic; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.


by E. Christian Kopff

The fact that John Arden has written a novel is important news for people who care about the health of the English language and its literature. As with his plays, the basic idea for the book is a good one, vigorously expressed in racy and idiomatic English; like most of his plays, the whole does not quite come off.

The story is set in the early years of the First Century, B.C., from about 91-81, a time for which the sources are scattered and confused, and which means, therefore, that an author, historian, or novelist, has considerable freedom to invent motives and adjust chronology. Arden takes full advantage of this necessary freedom. Roman domination of the Mediterranean, initially moral and restrained, was breaking down into the immoral rapacity of generals such as Marius and Sulla, the predecessors of Pompey and Julius Caesar, “the greatest brigand of them all,” as Harvard’s Ernst Badian has called him.

Ivory, the hero of Vox Pop, is a gimpy-legged theatrical agent and nostalgic ex-actor in Ephesus, a Greek city on the coast of Asia, modern Turkey. He becomes entangled with Irene, actress and secret agent of Mithradates of Pontus (A.KA. “Strychnine”). Mithradates rules a barbaric dictatorship on the shores of the Black Sea from which he attempts to subvert the republican Roman Empire that dominates the Mediterranean. Ivory follows Irene to Italy, where he takes part in or witnesses many of the important historical events of the day and finally disappears, perhaps slain, in General Sulla’s “conservative” proscriptions of 81, while Irene, safe in the arms of Mithradates, uses his spy network to search for Ivory. Rome’s “Old Crowd,” represented by the brilliant but degenerate Sulla, love Greek art and admire, or, at least, tolerate the artists, but ultimately they are as ruthless and destructive as the “New Crowd,” led by the brutal but popular general, Marius. Mithradates is also brutal and ruthless, we are merely told; Arden concentrates on Roman vulgarity, its suppression of a south Italian revolt (the Social War, or War of the Italian Allies of 91-89), and the massacres and proscriptions that Marius and Sulla visit on their political enemies. The narrative is punctuated by brutality, vulgarity, and aimless sex.

While the book is a relative failure, its author is of interest. During the 1950’s Arden wrote plays for the state-supported Royal Court Theatre in London, all of which were initially financial failures. One of these plays, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, (1959) is a tragedy about a 19th-century British soldier who turns against the British Empire after a “peace-keeping” atrocity and is destroyed by the violence he unleashes when he tries to awaken a British coal-mining community to its role in the horrors of imperialism. The play has been repeatedly produced, has gained both financial and artistic success, and has become required text for English school children. Arden’s plays are neo-Brechtian, indifferent to naturalism, wildly dramatic, sometimes preachy, sometimes heartrending. Their language ranges from vulgarity to song. His wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, is a leftist ideologue; under her tutelage his plays have become increasingly filled with “agitprop,” a term he uses with ironic approval in his prose. They now live in Ireland, D’Arcy’s birthplace, and Ireland’s past and present traumas with British imperialism occupy a large part of their work. (Ireland is also a country where proceeds from artistic endeavor are not subject to taxation, a useful location for those who must still dance to Sergeant Musgrave’s tune.) Arden’s cooperation with D’Arcy has not only resulted in an increase in the propaganda content in his work, but also in a break with Britain’s state-supported theater, once the main backing for his work.

His plays are usually a strong mixture of leftist ideas and autobiography, and are often set in the past. For example, Pearl, a recent BBC-Radio play takes place at the time of the Great Rebellion against Charles I, involves denunciations of British policy in Ireland, and echoes in its plot Arden’s and D’Arcy’s problems with the state-supported Royal Shakespeare Theatre over their play, The Island of the Mighty. The most striking change in Arden’s work, however, has not been its greater leftism or unmarketability, but its vision of men and women. Sergeant Musgrave is a classic Aristotelian flawed hero, who dominates the action and who is destroyed because he goes too far in his virtuous but singleminded obsession. The women are diverse. In more recent work, Pearl or Vox Pop, men who are not imperialists are gentle, artistic, and weak; the women are strong, ideological, wise, if at times with an evil wisdom. Above all, they are ruled by hate. Irene in Vax Pop loves Ivory, but her  hatred of Rome is stronger and she is always subservient to the brutality and lust of the barbaric Mithradates, because “as long as he lives, the City dies a little.” (This theme in Arden’s work is at times ludicrous. He and D’Arcy wrote a sequence of six plays on James Connally, a socialist who took part in the Dublin “Easter Rebellion” of 1916, The Non-Stop Connally Show. Connally outwits and out-argues all comers, especially stock figures of fun and hate such as the capitalist, Mr. Grapitall, but is refuted in argument with Rosa Luxemburg. If Arden ever writes on the Rosen bergs, he will have Ethel leading Julius around by the nose.)

Arden has said that he was turned into a full-fledged revolutionary socialist by a visit to India in 1969, where, on a search for the still-living roots of Indian popular theater, he confronted for the first time real poverty. But does a better argument for imperialism than India exist? British rule, once it moved past the Warren Hastings stage, was a blessing for India, whether one looks at the unification of the subcontinent, the introduction of English law, or just the abolition of Suttee. The result of turning over India to the famous fakir and his cynical successors included an avalanche of massacre and murder which has destroyed—and continues to destroy—countless lives, and the wrecking of any hope for economic progress. That India has not sunk into total chaos is largely the result of the survival of British customs and institutions, not the least of which is the English language itself. Ireland, is a harder case, but since a socialist religion is only another cover for exploitation, serious discussion soon bogs down in complexity or gaily sails away into the thin air of Marxist abstractions.

Arden, an opponent of Western imperialism, selected what is, for him, an ideal period. From 91 to 31 B.C., the Romans took advantage of their empire in a cruel and immoral way. After 31, under the Emperor Augustus, they returned to the responsible customs that had preceded Tiberius Gracchus, some 100 years earlier. The peace, prosperity, and security that resulted was by no means unbroken and it finally collapsed, but it lingered in men’s minds for a thousand years, inspiring such diverse people as Charlemagne and Dante. Rome fostered not only peace and prosperity, but artistic creations and, most importantly, even Christianity. In addition, earlier achievements, especially the masterpieces of Greek art, literature, and philosophy, survived because of Rome’s empire and its responsible assumption and performance of its duty.

Roman atrocities—the numbers of people Marius and Sulla killed, for example—were real, but ought to be seen in the context of the alternative, Mithradates of Pontus, master, political and sexual, of Vox Pop‘s dominating figure, Irene. Although Arden sets the book during a low point of Roman rule, he must move the scene from Ephesus to Italy in a hurry because in 88 B.C. Mithradates arrived in Asia (Turkey) with his army and killed 80,000 men, women, and children. The victims of Roman brutality do not come near that number.

In the course of Vax Pop Ivory is drawn by Irene and her machinations away from his life in the theater and his mission of continuing and preserving the traditions of Western theater. By the end he has vanished. In Vax Pop Arden seems to be saying that all people—including himself—must turn away from Mithradates and Irene, the ideologues, and toward improving the imperfect world and its traditions. The goosestep of the triumphant ideologue has no room in its march for the crippled Ivory or the dancing Sergeant Musgrave, and John Arden may himself be limping back to recognition of that insight. If so, the relative failure of Vox Pop may be the harbinger of renewed success, of new beauty and its truth. It is the one thing the artist knows on earth, and in the face of the ideologues’ murderous hate, it is, as Keats saw, all he needs to know. 


Professor Kopff is with the department of classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.