Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is regarded as John Arden’s first important play. Yet interestingly, its initial British run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1959 was not particularly successful; it ran for only twenty-eight performances and was a financial disaster.
In 1966 Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance came to New York City for an Off-Broadway run. Appearing at the Theatre de Lys, the play ran for 135 performances and eventually won the Vernon Rice Award. As a result, Arden’s reputation as an innovative dramatist was firmly established.
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is set in a northern British mining town in 1880, but it draws from several contemporary sources for inspiration. Arden’s pacifist theme and depiction of the negative aspects of army life on soldiers is seen to have universal significance.
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.
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...