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Workhouse Donkey


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A: John Arden Pf: 1963, Chichester Pb: 1964 G: Drama in 3 acts; prose, with some verse and songs S: West Yorkshire industrial town, early 1960s C: 31m, 14f, extrasIn a northern town, the Labour Mayor Alderman Boocock and the ex-Mayor Alderman Charlie Butterthwaite (‘the workhouse donkey’, born in the workhouse and stubborn as a donkey) welcome the new Chief Constable Colonel Feng. While Feng is enjoying dinner with the Conservative Councillors, the Labour Councillors are arrested for drinking after hours. The unscrupulous Doctor Blomax conspires with the disreputable police Superintendent Wiper to induce Butterthwaite to believe that Feng is in the pocket of the Conservatives. Butterthwaite retaliates by visiting the seedy Copacabana Club, owned by the head of the Tories Sir Harold Sweetman, and by making allegations of immorality against it, forcing its closure. In order to pay the gambling debts he owes Blomax, Butterthwaite steals from the Town Hall. With Blomax's help, Butterthwaite makes it look like a burglary, causing the police more embarrassment: ‘Corruption they can live with, but incompetence—ho ho!’ The police, however, are unconvinced by Butterthwaite's story and suspect him of the theft. The Labour Councillors are so angry that they demand Feng's resignation. When Sweetman reopens the Copacabana Club as a smart art gallery, Butterthwaite organizes local working-class people to storm the gallery. Butterthwaite and his demonstrators are arrested, and Feng, defeated by the anarchy of northern politics, resigns.

A: John Arden Pf: 1963, Chichester Pb: 1964 G: Drama in 3 acts; prose, with some verse and songs S: West Yorkshire industrial town, early 1960s C: 31m, 14f, extras

Arguably the most Brechtian of British plays with its larger-than-life characters, vibrant theatricality, and easy shift into verse and song, The Workhouse Donkey possesses, in Arden's words, ‘the old essential attributes of Dionysus: noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease’. There are no rights and wrongs: the workhouse donkey is a scoundrel, everyone is corrupt (even Feng is swayed by his feelings for Blomax's daughter), politics are a mess, and English morality absurd (the Club is closed, ‘because of who saw what of what girl below the waist’).

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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John Arden (b. 1930)


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