Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

by John Arden
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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance can be set firmly within two contexts: the “angry young men” of the 1950’s and the “Yorkshire writers” of the same era. The two groups are not quite the same but had considerable similarities. Briefly, the “angry young men” represented a reaction to the end of World War II (1939-1945) and the decline of British power, even after victory. The feeling they expressed was one of futility, that so much had been suffered for so little result. The “Yorkshire writers” expressed a sense of having been shut out of national wealth and culture after having done so much—in the “rust belt” of northern England—to create it in the past. These two strands, one may say, are combined in the “imperial” and “economic” strands of this play, the returning soldiers and the strike.

The actual incident that gave rise to this play also contains a certain symbolic appropriateness. In 1958, Greek Cypriots attempting to overthrow British rule shot a sergeant’s wife in the back while she was shopping. The ensuing roundup was carried out by British troops with obvious rage: Three Cypriots were killed. British public opinion divided between condemning the first murder and condemning the troops’ behavior. Arden is clearly trying to mediate between the two knee-jerk reactions.

In that sense, his play has proved a failure. The Cyprus scenario has been repeated many times, with repeated escalation, in Belfast and Jerusalem, Algeria and Vietnam. The removal of British rule from Cyprus ironically prompted only invasion by the Turks. Attercliffe’s hope, at the end of the play, that he and Musgrave would plant a seed in people’s minds, has proved fruitless. The play, however, after initial hostility, has been repeatedly revived, translated, and produced for television. Its artistic power has outlived its contemporary references.

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