Ever since the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain has suffered from terror of the tramp. She has whipped her beggars back to their parishes, enclosed them like sheep in workhouses, and now, in what may be the coup degrace, she is starting to file them away under the Welfare State. John Arden has not exactly taken up the tramps' cause, but in Live Like Pigs he looks into the plight of the Sawneys, a group of nomads who live something like a family and something like pigs.
The industrial-state "Corporation" has just hauled them out of a tramp car where they had sunk temporary roots, and pushed them into a new Formica wonder in a housing development. They run their, lives not by push-cards, but by a series of such disorderly urges as lust, the desire to kill, hunger, and pressure on the bladder. And they choose to ignore the Health Services, the schools, the police, and the rules in general.
But the middle-class system chooses not to ignore the Sawneys. Next door live the Jacksons, the clean little family who have just arrived in the lower middle class and who are always irritating the Sawneys. The bobbies are always poking around, and the building inspector keeps checking up on the march of decay that is sweeping over the Sawney's house. The Sawneys grunt, roll over, and start to rebel. In a superb gesture of contempt, old Sailor Sawney, the clan's patriarch, pisses in the Jackson's geranium pot. Before they know it, the police, the neighbors, the Welfare State have crushed the dirty, free, vicious vagrants.
Naturally, we are waiting for the playwright to champion his individualists, no matter how loathsome they are, over that bourgoeis juggernaut. But he never does; he never takes sides. He doesn't entirely approve of either the Jacksons or the Sawneys, but he writes a play about them because they are all good for a laugh. John Arden is a playwright who has negative capability in spades.
Another thing about Arden. He began his professional life as an architect, and in the course of that career he seems to have worked all calculated design out of his system. As a playwright, he scatters dramatic climaxes around as if they were props. His last act contains at least three brilliant curtains, as if he couldn't decide when to end his play, and ended it three times just for good measure. Not only that; his second act goes on forever, and some of his poetic dialect is redolent of the absurd sailor-talk O'Neill wrote when he had on his tinear.
The reason for all this unconventional behavior is that Arden is not making points, but people. He has nothing to prove and nothing to sell, and therefore he doesn't have to manipulate his characters into demonstrating a proof or making a sale. They are there in the stark altogether in order to make us laugh, and we laugh because they are disgusting and hypocritical, not because they are airing the writer's gags. And when any playwright gives his characters as much free reign as Arden does, he is bound to overwrite, as Arden most certainly does.
The production of Live Like Pigs at the Tufts Arena Theatre is probably as good as the play will ever get. Philip Eck has built a set that is just as fascinating as the one (which shows up in every third comedy) where the resourceful little woman turns the junky garret into the tasteful penthouse. Only this one works in reverse; the wallpaper gets ripped off, the bannister collapses, and the pile of garbage slowly rises. The ever-decaying set helps keep the play going in an uncanny way.
Sherwood Collins has directed with an eye for striking light effects and sharp blackouts. He helps give the show backbone where it has none. And the players, all 14 of them, are uniformly good, projecting age convincingly and boasting authentic-sounding accents. Even the accents that wouldn't fool a Midlands mockingbird are consistent, and that is what counts. Best of all, this production somehow catches the gypsy superstition and ballady poetry of the play, and never lets the numberless moments of high passion numb the audience.