One of the most outspoken radical feminist icons in British theatre and cinema in the 1960s and 70s, Jane Arden has since been virtually silenced by near-invisibility: her books long out of print, her plays unperformed, and her films unscreened until the present revival.
Born Norah Patricia Morris on 29 October 1927, she grew up in Pontypool, Wales, and was educated at Newport High School for Girls. After training at RADA, she began a professional acting career in the late 1940s, appearing in supporting roles in a live BBC adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (tx. 5/10/1947) and two ‘B’ thrillers, Black Memory (d. Oswald Mitchell, 1947) and A Gunman Has Escaped (d. Richard Grey, 1948). She married the director Philip Saville and, after a short spell in New York, where she began writing, they settled in Hampstead where their two sons were born in 1953 and 1958. Saville directed her first stage plays and many of her early television scripts, including Curtains for Harry (tx. 20/10/1955) and The Thug (tx. 15/12/1959), while her domestic drama The Party (1958) presciently combined Charles Laughton’s final London stage appearance with Albert Finney’s first.
From the mid-1960s, Arden became increasingly involved in feminist politics, the dramatic watershed being the Saville-directed The Logic Game (tx. 9/1/1965), which she wrote and starred in. She also began a long creative and personal relationship with director Jack Bond, initially on his BBC documentary Dali in New York (tx. 14/4/1966). For this, she asked the veteran Surrealist painter some memorably combative questions, to the point when he nearly abandoned filming because he considered her insufficiently submissive. After playing a minor role in Saville’s controversial erotic drama Exit 19 (tx. 8/8/1966), in which Bond starred, she wrote a screen treatment called Checkmate, the basis for their debut feature Separation (1967), in which she also played the female lead.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Arden cementing her reputation as one of Britain’s leading feminist voices with such plays as the multimedia piece Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven (opened February 1969), which took full advantage of the recent abolition of theatre censorship to assault its audience with deliberately shocking images, such as a gigantic projection of the title organ, through which the cast emerged to invade the audience. She then formed Holocaust, an eight-strong all-female theatre troupe, and directed A New Communion For Freaks, Prophets and Witches, a piece which opened London’s Open Space theatre on 5 May 1971, and whose script and cast would form the raw material for Arden’s only film as a solo director, The Other Side of the Underneath (1972).
The mid-1970s were dominated by lengthy trips to North Africa and India, and further collaborations with Bond on the experimental video pieces Vibration (1975) and Anti-Clock (1979), the latter their third and final feature. Both Anti-Clock and the prose-poetry collection You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? (1978) were inspired by Arden’s increasing interest in the way natural instincts were usually sublimated by the dictatorship of the rational mind (which she mockingly labelled ‘Rat’).
On 20 December 1982, Jane Arde took her own life at the age of 55.
Michael Brooke, 2009