Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

by John Arden

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Characters Discussed

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Serjeant Musgrave

Serjeant Musgrave, called Black Jack, the leader of the small band of army deserters and a prime mover in the violent, ill-fated stratagem to denounce British colonialism in the home community of one of his murdered compatriots. Part prophet and part madman, he is obsessed with his mission. He seethes with a quiet, self-righteous fury that he struggles to suppress with an insistence on order and what he calls logic. Although at times aloof and distant from his men, he commands their loyalty and respect. He is humorless, tough, acrid, intimidating, and severe. Like many pious visionaries, he is spiritually myopic, and he badly miscalculates the impact of his bloody scheme.

Private Sparky

Private Sparky, one of Musgrave’s men. Youthful and insecure, he masks his doubt behind a stream of songs, idle chatter, inane stories, and card tricks, irritating his comrades. His plan to defect and run off with Annie leads to his accidental, violent death, prefiguring the play’s somber conclusion.

Private Hurst

Private Hurst, another of the band. Seemingly more mature and dedicated than Sparky, he is bloody, resolute, handsome, and vain. Although distrustful of Musgrave’s piety, he follows him for his own cynical reasons. As an atheist, anarchist, and murderer, gratuitous violence suits him perfectly. Although prevented from doing so, he is willing to fire on the crowd after Musgrave falters in purpose. His shooting ends the threat to the townspeople.

Private Aftercliffe

Private Aftercliffe, the oldest, at about fifty years, of the soldiers and a self-proclaimed cuckold. On the staid and morose side, he is far less mercurial than the other soldiers and is a stabilizing influence. Ironically, it is Aftercliffe who fatally stabs Sparky.

Joe Bludgeon

Joe Bludgeon, a hunchbacked bargee (barge man) prone to intrigue. He is cringing and obsequious before the town dignitaries, with an unfailing instinct for self-preservation. Like the morality vice figure, he makes trouble for its own sake, squirming free from all responsibility. Quick, cunning, and without honor, he senses the town’s mood and adapts to it. In the climactic scene, “as a kind of fugleman” he incites the emotions of the unseen crowd of townspeople.

The Parson

The Parson, a town magistrate and dignitary whose arrogant, class-conscious snobbery fans the fire of the workers’ discontent.

Mrs. Hitchcock

Mrs. Hitchcock, the widowed landlady at the public house where Musgrave and his followers stay. At about fifty years of age, she is an intelligent and acute observer of her fellow citizens. In a mysterious, almost motherly way, she is drawn to Musgrave.


Annie, a barmaid in the public house. Although large-boned and hardly pretty, she attracts men through her forwardness. Her former lover was the soldier whose death prompted Musgrave’s crusade. She attempts to seduce Hurst, then settles for Sparky. Their elopement plans end with his death.

The Constable

The Constable, a loud, crude, and ineffective official who bullies those he can but is deferential toward his betters.

The Mayor

The Mayor, the owner of the local coal mine. He has a narrow entrepreneur’s perspective. Although outwardly affable, he is rather bossy and uncompromising. He hopes to rid the town of the principal agitators by having Musgrave recruit them into the army. He unwittingly sets up the ill-fated confrontation of the citizenry and Musgrave and his men.

Slow Collier

Slow Collier,

Pugnacious Collier

Pugnacious Collier, and

Earnest Collier

Earnest Collier, called Walsh, the striking union members who, in desperation, are planning an insurrection. Musgrave’s hopes of enlisting their support are dashed when the reality of violence confronts them and they back down.

A Trooper of Dragoons

A Trooper of...

(This entire section contains 637 words.)

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Dragoons and

an Officer of Dragoons

an Officer of Dragoons, representatives of the military contingent that arrives in timely fashion to arrest Musgrave and Aftercliffe and abort the threatened violence.


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Annie is the barmaid who works in Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub. She earned a bad reputation by becoming impregnated by Billy Hicks, a soldier who later died. Their baby died soon after birth.

She reinforces her bad reputation by flirting with the British soldiers. Initially Annie is attracted to Hurst, refusing Sparky’s amorous advances. However, after being rebuffed by both Hurst and Attercliffe, she finds comfort with Sparky.

Only Annie understands Musgrave’s obsession with truth. It is she who reveals what really happened to Sparky.

Private Attercliffe
Attercliffe is one of the four soldiers who have deserted the English army to seek revenge for Billy Hicks. He is the peacemaker of the group. Attercliffe truly believes in Musgrave’s cause, and follows his directives to the letter. He is also adamantly against killing anyone.

Yet he is the one who accidentally kills Sparky. This incident tears Attercliffe apart, and he wants Musgrave to change their plan. When Musgrave refuses, this marks a shift in their relationship.

During Musgrave’s speech at the rally, Attercliffe tries to promote nonviolence and refuses to kill anyone. He prevents Hurst from killing them as well. At the end of the play, he is imprisoned with Musgrave. In many ways, Attercliffe is Musgrave’s conscience.

The Bargee
The Bargee is the barge driver who transports the soldiers to the town. A merry fellow, he is always working an angle—even to the point of selling out the soldiers to make a little money.

He does not seem to like soldiers, and generally regards Musgrave and his mission with contempt. The Bargee is only interested in attention or finan- cial reward. It is he who sticks a gun in Musgrave’s back as the dragoons enter the town; he wants credit for capturing them.

Joe BludgeonSee The Bargee

The Constable
The Constable is the chief law enforcer in the town. He hopes to use the soldiers as reinforcements against the strikers.

Mrs. Hitchcock
Mrs. Hitchcock runs the pub where the soldiers stay. She is a large, good-natured woman who can defend herself effectively. Primarily, she is out to protect her own (primarily economic) interests. Yet she shows much kindness to Annie and the soldiers during the play.

Private Hurst
Hurst is one of Musgrave’s soldiers. He is a murderer, having killed an officer with good reason. Impatient and tense, he can be mean and spends much of his time brooding. Yet Annie believes Hurst is the most handsome of the soldiers, and offers to spend the night with him. He ultimately rejects her.

Though Hurst follows most of Musgrave’s orders, he is full of doubt about their mission. He threatens to kill Sparky when Hurst finds out that he was going to leave. At the climax of the play, Hurst rejects some of Musgrave’s ideas and is ready to kill the townspeople. He is killed when the dragoons shoot him.

The Mayor
The Mayor runs the small town: in addition to being its highest officer, he also owns the coal mines. He is despised by most of the townspeople. Throughout the play, the Mayor tries to use the soldiers’ presence to his own advantage.

Serjeant Musgrave
Also known by the nickname Black Jack, Musgrave is the protagonist of the play. He is the leader of the group of four soldiers; it is his plan they are implementing.

His true intentions are unclear for most of the play. Like the other soldiers, he has deserted the army while stationed in a foreign land. Several incidents prompted the desertion, particularly the death of Billy Hicks and the killing of some civilians. To fund his plan, Musgrave stole money from the army.

Musgrave wants to communicate the negative aspects of army life, especially the corruption and how it wastes lives. He wants to avenge the deaths that haunt his consciousness. Yet no one realizes how mentally ill he is until he reveals his true plan: killing twenty-five townspeople. He ends up in prison, worrying that his message will be forgotten.

The Parson
The Parson is the supposed moral center of the town. He is clearly on the side of the Mayor, and does not have much sympathy for the colliers and their plight. When the soldiers arrive, he is most concerned that they do not act drunk and disorderly.

Private Sparky
Sparky is the youngest and most volatile of the soldiers. He seems to have known Hicks the best.

At the recruiting party, he gets drunk and tries to get together with Annie. Sparky becomes jealous when she picks Hurst. Though he does not win her over immediately, he is the only soldier who shows her real kindness in the barn. With Annie, Sparky decides to leave.

For his disloyalty to the plan he is killed by Attercliffe and Hurst. Annie uses his senseless death as a symbol of truth during the play’s climax.

A leader among the colliers, Walsh is suspicious of Musgrave’s true intentions. His paramount concerns are with the labor problems in the town.




Critical Essays