Born in Barnsley, son of the manager of a glass factory, he was educated at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, King's College, Cambridge and the Edinburgh College of Art, where he studied architecture. He first gained critical attention for the radio play The Life of Man in 1956 shortly after finishing his studies.
Arden was initially associated with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London. His 1959 play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, in which four army deserters arrive in a northern mining town to exact retribution for an act of colonial violence, is considered to be his best. His work was influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theatre as in Left-Handed Liberty (1965, on the anniversary of Magna Carta. Other plays include Live Like Pigs, The Workhouse Donkey, and Armstrong's Last Goodnight, the last of which was performed at the 1963 Chichester Festival by the National Theatre after it was rejected by the Royal Court. His 1978 radio play Pearl was considered in a Guardian survey to be one of the best plays in that medium.
He also wrote several novels, including Silence Among the Weapons, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and Books of Bale, about the Protestant apologist John Bale. He was a member of the Royal Society of Literature.
With his wife and co-writer Margaretta D'Arcy he picketed the RSC premiere of his Arthurian play The Island of the Mighty, because they thought the production was pro-imperialist, and they wrote several plays together which were highly critical of British presence in Ireland, where he and D'Arcy lived from 1971. In 1961 he was a founder member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100, and he also chaired the pacifist weekly Peace News. In Ireland, he was for a while a member of Official Sinn Féin. He was an advocate of civil liberties, and opposed anti-terror legislation, as demonstrated in his 2007 radio play The Scam.
- Evening Standard Award, 1960
- John Whiting Award, 1973
- V. S. Pritchett Award, 2003
- Booker Prize shortlist, 1982
- Giles Cooper Award, 1982
- D'Arcy, Margaretta; Arden, John (1988), Awkward corners: essays, papers, fragments, London: Methuen, ISBN 978-0-413-40340-7
- D'Arcy, Margaretta; Arden, John (1991), Plays: 1: The Business of Good Government, The Royal Pardon, The Little Gray Home in the West, Ars Longa Vita Brevis, Friday's Hiding, Vandaleur's Folly, and Immediate Rough Theatre, Methuen Publishing Limited, ISBN 978-0-413-65150-1
- D'Arcy, Margaretta; Arden, John (1996), Galways Pirate Women, a Global Trawl, Women's Pirate Press, ISBN 978-0-9528206-0-4
Plays written in collaboration with Margaretta D'Arcy include:
- The Business of Good Government
- The Happy Haven
- Ars Longa Vita Brevis
- The Royal Pardon
- The Hero Rises Up
- The Island of the Mighty trilogy (Part I, "Two Wild Young Noblemen: Concerning Balin and Balan and How Ignorant They Were"; Part II, "Oh the Cruel Winter: Concerning Arthur – Flow He Refused to See That the Power of His Army Was Finished"; and Part III, "A Handful of Watercress: Concerning Merlin – How He Needed to Be Alone and Then How He Needed Not to Be Alone")
- The Ballygombeen Bequest
- The Non-Stop Connolly Show
- Keep the People Moving (BBC Radio);
- Portrait of a Rebel (RTÉ Television);
- The Manchester Enthusiasts (BBC 1984 and RTÉ 1984 under the title The Ralahine Experiment);
- Whose is the Kingdom? (9 part radio play, BBC 1987).
- Coveney, Michael (30 March 2012). "Obituary: John Arden". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- John Arden's Radio Plays, Retrieved 2009-18-09
- "John Arden", Man Booker Prize website
- "O'Connor one of five new Aosdána members". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust.
- Siggins, Lorna (30 March 2012). "Playwright and political activist John Arden dies". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- Siggins, Lorna (2 April 2012). "Wake for 'teller of tales' Arden". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 2 April 2012.