Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015
Act I: Scene i
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance opens on a wharf in the north of England in 1880. Three British Army soldiers—Hurst, Attercliffe, and Sparky—are nervously waiting for the arrival of their superior officer, Serjeant Musgrave. The Bargee (barge driver) appears first, ready to drive the three soldiers to their destination on his barge. Musgrave arrives and the men depart.
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Act I: Scene ii
At a public house in a small mining town, the Bargee enters and announces the soldiers’ arrival to the pub’s owner, Mrs. Hitchcock, and the Parson. The Parson infers that the soldiers have been sent to intercede in the local miner’s strike. The Bargee tells him that they have come to recruit soldiers.
After the Parson leaves, the Bargee tells Mrs. Hitchcock and her barmaid, Annie, that the soldiers will stay at the pub or a nearby barn. Annie is apprehensive of the soldier’s presence.
The soldiers enter. While they relax, the Mayor (who also owns the mine), Constable, and Parson enter the pub. The Mayor decides to use the soldiers to recruit the men who have caused trouble in his mine. The Constable wants to use the soldiers against the strikers, but the Mayor refuses.
After the officials leave, Musgrave asks Mrs. Hitchcock if she knew Billy Hicks. She tells him that Hicks had impregnated Annie before leaving to join the military and fight overseas. Eventually the baby died. Musgrave and his men leave to explore the town.
Act I: Scene iii
The four soldiers meet up in the churchyard and compare notes on the town. They agree that the townspeople are resentful and fearful of them. Three colliers (coal miners) threaten the soldiers, accusing them of coming to break the miner’s strike. Musgrave assures them that they are not.
When the colliers leave, Musgrave begins to reveal his true plan—take revenge on the town for Hicks’s death and to drive home the hardships of military life. The soldiers are worried that they will be arrested before they can achieve their goal. Musgrave draws a parallel between their cause and the corruption in the town.
After filling them in on the plan, he tells them to remain relatively sober during their recruiting party that night. The Bargee overhears the truth about Musgrave’s mission.
Act II: Scene i
At Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub, the recruiting party is in full swing. Sparky hits on Annie but she rebuffs him; his fellow soldiers warn him that he has had enough to drink. Hurst shows up, still unsure of their mission. Annie showers attention on him, offering herself for the night. He accepts.
The Constable closes the party, but the colliers do not want the bar to close. One of the colliers attacks the Constable. The soldiers intercede, and the colliers and Bargee are removed from the pub. Sparky’s drunken actions annoy the other soldiers, who start arguing among themselves. Sparky begs Annie to come to bed with him that night. Musgrave tells Annie to leave his men alone.
Act II: Scene ii
On the street the Bargee tries to lead the drunken colliers in military drills. Musgrave watches them. When Walsh, a leader of the colliers, passes by and makes fun of the soldiers, the Bargee tells Walsh he knows where to get weapons.
Act II: Scene iii
Inside the barn, Annie tries to get into bed with Hurst. He rebuffs her, and she becomes angry. When Attercliffe appears, she begs for his affections. After kissing her several times, he also snubs her. Annie begins to cry.
Sparky tries to comfort her, but Annie is not interested in him until he admits he is scared. She tells him about Hicks and their baby. As they share their fears, they become passionate.
He confides to Annie the real reason they are in town and tries to convince her to run away with him. Hurst overhears and confronts Sparky. As the argument escalates, Attercliffe gets involved and accidentally stabs Sparky to death with his own bayonet. Attercliffe is horrified by his actions.
Musgrave and Mrs. Hitchcock enter the barn. Musgrave orders Attercliffe and Hurst to bury Sparky in the backyard. He has Mrs. Hitchcock lock Annie up in a safe place.
The Bargee arrives and informs Musgrave that someone is breaking the windows of the coachhouse where their weapons are located. Alarmed, the soldiers leave and then return with Walsh. The soldiers beg Musgrave to change the plan because of Sparky’s death, but he will not.
The Mayor and Parson arrive. The Mayor says that the telegraph has been fixed and the dragoons are coming in twelve hours to quell violence. Musgrave proposes a recruitment rally in the streets to distract everyone.
Act III: Scene i
The next morning, the rally begins and Musgrave takes the stage to talk about the life of a soldier. He shows the crowd a Gatling gun, and has Attercliffe load it. Musgrave describes the horrible conditions that soldiers live in, and how duty comes before all else. In a dramatic sequence, the skeleton of Billy Hicks is revealed, hung by a noose from a flagpole. Everyone present is shocked.
Musgrave informs the crowd that they have to stay or his men will shoot them. Musgrave chronicles the story of how Hicks was killed by civilians, and in retaliation, five civilians were killed. Musgrave invites Walsh up to speak, assuming he will be sympathetic—but he is not. The town does not understand his message.
Musgrave announces that killing twenty-five townspeople will be a just revenge for Hicks’s death. Attercliffe is repulsed by Musgrave’s words— this had not been part of the original plan. No one is sure about Musgrave’s message except Annie, who reveals the circumstances of Sparky’s death.
Dragoons kill Hurst. Musgrave and Attercliffe are arrested.
Act III: Scene ii
In prison, Musgrave refuses food. He is still haunted by Hicks’s death and the death of the five civilians. Mrs. Hitchcock tells him that his message will be remembered by the townspeople.