Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

by John Arden

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043

Most of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is set in a coal-mining town in northern England. The action takes place in the winter; the town is isolated, thus giving Serjeant Musgrave the chance to carry out his plan. In the first scene, though, the sergeant and his three soldier-confederates are about to board a canal barge to take them to the town. A group of soldiers could be going to a mining town either to recruit soldiers—the recruiting sergeant trying to draw unemployed young men into an unpopular trade was a familiar sight in England through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—or else to assist the authorities in putting down civil disturbance. Since the town to which Serjeant Musgrave and his men are going is a mining town in the middle of a strike (or, the men say, a “lock out” by the employers), the latter would seem to be a likely explanation. The soldiers in act 1, scene 1, however, seem too nervous for such obvious explanations, as if they have some private and irregular purpose. They also have a large amount of baggage with them, including a Gatling gun (an early form of machine gun), which seems out of place for recruiting and too extreme for crowd control. One of their crates further contains, the audience learns later, the skeleton of a former comrade, Billy Hicks, who came from the very town to which they are going.

In scene 2, the soldiers’ arrival causes some uncertainty. This scene is set in a neutral place, the bar of a pub, where both the striking colliers and the town authorities could conceivably be found. In this scene, the authorities hold the stage: the parson (a clergyman of the Church of England, the established church, which is closely connected with the upper classes and the government), the constable (a rough equivalent of an American town sheriff), and the mayor (a mine owner and therefore a major employer). These men all assume that Musgrave must have come to their assistance, though they have not sent for him. He can help the constable maintain order, they surmise, or maybe he will recruit some of the striker-troublemakers and take them overseas. All assume that he can be bought.

In scene 3, the audience is shown that this assumption is a desperate mistake. Musgrave sends his men to scout the town, and they meet in a graveyard. As the soldiers begin to squabble, Musgrave asserts his authority, especially on Hurst, whom it is clear that he can dominate because Hurst is a known criminal, on the run for murdering an officer and living in terror of the gallows. Musgrave, however, is in some way or other on the run too; if nothing else, he has embezzled army money and stolen army property. At the end of this scene, and of act 1, Musgrave appears as an Old Testament prophet, dedicated to scourging sin and vice for some reason—and in some way—of his own. He tries to show the colliers (who threaten him in the graveyard) that he is on their side; he calls God to approve his “Deed” and his “Logic.”

Act 2 returns to Mrs. Hitchcock’s bar, this time occupied by the colliers. One clash in scene 1 is between the colliers and the constable, who tries to close down the bar. Another is between Musgrave and the slatternly Annie. She has had an illegitimate child by Billy Hicks, and she does not know that he is dead. She expects now to sleep with one or all of the soldiers. Musgrave, however, strongly disapproves of...

(This entire section contains 1043 words.)

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this promiscuity, though not exactly of her, seeing her sexuality as a betrayal in some way of God’s (and Musgrave’s) plan.

Musgrave has meanwhile won over the colliers, to some extent, by lavish supplies of drink. They now think that he has come to recruit them and are not totally against the idea. Their spokesman, Walsh, nevertheless is clever enough to see recruitment as a possible employers’ plot, and he tries to intimidate Musgrave into leaving. He rejects Musgrave’s assurance that he is really—if in an unexplained way—on the colliers’ side.

The final scene in act 2 is the most complex to that point, and it demands careful staging. Briefly, Annie goes in turn to Hurst, to Attercliffe, and to Sparky. Hurst rejects her advances because he is in awe of Musgrave. Attercliffe is mostly sorry for her. Sparky, finally, is afraid of what Musgrave is going to do and tries to get Annie to flee with him. When the others realize what is afoot, there is a scuffle, and Sparky is accidentally killed with a bayonet. In between these events, Musgrave is seen in the grip of a nightmare, and an attempt is made by Walsh to steal the Gatling gun. Musgrave calms the frightened mayor by saying that he will begin recruiting the next day, in the marketplace.

The next day, though, with all assembled at the start of act 3, Musgrave’s plan becomes clear at last. The sergeant has been driven mad—or perhaps sane—by remorse. In a far country of the British Empire, terrorists killed one of his men, Billy Hicks. In the ensuing roundup, five innocent civilians, including perhaps a child, were killed. Their deaths are on Musgrave’s conscience and he has decided to avenge them. However, he cannot harm his men, for they, too, are victims. Revenge must fall on those who sent them: the British public and the British rulers. In the square, he sets up his Gatling gun and explains that “logic” demands that if five civilians were killed for one soldier, then five times five Britons must die for the civilians. In a macabre gesture, he runs his flag up the flagpole: It is the skeleton of Annie’s lover, Billy Hicks.

The massacre is halted by the arrival of other soldiers, the dragoons sent for by the mayor. Hurst is shot and Musgrave overpowered by the bargeman who brought them to the town in the first place. Order is restored in a drink-and-dance scene joined even by Walsh; only Annie sits out—with the skeleton. In a final short scene, Musgrave and Attercliffe moralize, waiting for the gallows.

Dramatic Devices

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Perhaps in compensation for its highly abstract theme, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is a play which has strong visual and auditory appeal. The scene is always dominated by the bright scarlet coats and shining metalwork of Queen Victoria’s infantry; Musgrave refers several times to the white chevrons on his sleeve (much larger and more clearly marked than in modern armies). In contrast to this striking display stand the grimy colliers. Both groups, at one time or another, perform the rituals of their trade or culture onstage. The colliers do a clog dance in act 2 (a form of tap dance in heavy wooden-soled shoes, local to the North of England). In act 3, Musgrave and his men perform a grisly parody of arms drill. In between, the colliers, half-persuaded to join the army, are found executing what they think is drill: It is a scene for which Arden wrote extremely careful directions, pointing out that all the movements must be made alertly and efficiently but that all the drillers must do different things, and none must obey the word of command—a most difficult effect to achieve. The idea in each case, it seems, is to show men deluded and dehumanized by false jollity or false solidarity.

The suggestion of falseness is further emphasized by several dance scenes. The scene in Mrs. Hitchcock’s bar trembles on the edge of violence, as dance turns into brawl. By contrast, at the end of act 3, scene 1 (the play’s climax), the fight with the dragoons rapidly turns into a dance. However, joining the dance, as Walsh realizes, is tantamount to betrayal and surrender. Cooperative movements, in this play, tend to mean abandonment of judgment and personal responsibility, not (as they are supposed to) good fellowship or community.

Individual voices are raised in the play, in song. Arden has in several plays been affected by the ballad-poetry of northern England, and in this play there are several traditional songs and several imitations of traditional song, usually expressing sadness, fatalism, or resignation. The songs often come from the play’s most oppressed characters: Annie, Sparky, and, at the very end, Attercliffe, waiting for death with his sergeant. There is a suggestion here, perhaps, of a traditional culture older and wiser than the rituals of the British Empire. Arden, who is himself a northerner, may well identify with this sense of antiquity.

Finally, it is clear that Arden sometimes is prepared to strain for shock effects. The raising of a skeleton on a flagpole rises beyond the macabre to the bizarre. Musgrave’s nightmare in act 2 recalls the sleepwalking sequence of Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606); few modern playwrights would risk the comparison. At several points, Arden’s own stage directions admit implicitly that his effects will prove hard to stage.

Historical Context

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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, British society was in transition. Yet one consistent factor was the dominance of the Conservative Party. From 1951– 1964 they would remain in power.

The British economy had greatly recovered from World War II. Overall, British citizens were more prosperous and affluent. Average earnings increased. While unemployment declined on the whole, it increased at the beginning and again at the end of 1959.

Labor issues came to the forefront during this period of British history. In June 1959, for example, there was a major printing strike involving 100,000 workers in London and the provinces. As a result, most provincial presses did not operate for much of the summer.

There had been a trend towards nationalization of major industries, like printing, that had begun in the immediate postwar period. This continued, though most of these industries lost money at the end of the 1950s.

Great Britain declined to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, but soon regretted the decision. They joined a rival economic group, the European Free Trade Association, in 1960, and lobbied to join the EEC in the mid-1960s.

Foreign affairs were very important in this time period. Britain had been a colonial power in the nineteenth century, but by the middle of the twentieth century, their influence was waning. Several British colonies and protectorates were seeking independence to some extent.

One historical incident inspired Arden to write Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. Great Britain had controlled the island of Cyprus for many years, but both Greek and Turkish Cypriots wanted to rule the island by the late 1950s. In 1958, a Greek Cypriot, intent on overthrowing the British, killed the wife of a British Army sergeant.

As a result, locals were rounded up and three Cypriots were killed. Two years later, Great Britain conceded control of much of the island to the Greek Cypriot majority.

There were also significant disturbances in Malta and Nyasaland in 1959.

British colonial holdings directly affected life in the home country. There was significant immigration to England. Immigration would have a great impact on Great Britain for the rest of the twentieth century.

Literary Style

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Setting Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is a realistic drama set in the north of England in 1880. Much of the action takes place in a public house (pub) in a small mining town torn apart because of a miner’s strike.

There are also a few outdoor settings, such as the churchyard and the town’s marketplace.

The settings add to the realism of the play. Both the pub and the marketplace are places where different kinds of people come together, from town officials to common colliers. The other settings emphasize the cold harshness of life in the northern town.

Songs, Verse and Dance Arden utilizes various dramatic techniques to emphasize the time and place of the action as well as develop characters. The most prominent of these are songs, poetic verse, and dances.

Many of the main characters sing folk-type songs and recite verse. Sparky sings many times, commenting on the action and revealing much about himself and his attitude towards life. Mrs. Hitchcock, Annie, and the Bargee also sing, while Walsh, other colliers, and Attercliffe (especially at the very end of the play) chime in with enlightening verse. The Bargee is always whistling the song ‘‘Michael Finnegan.’’

During the recruiting party, everyone but Musgrave sings and dances. Two of the colliers do a clog dance while the Bargee and others provide the music. This creates a festive atmosphere that belies the true meaning for the soldiers’ visit, and gives a sense of the culture of Northern England.

Musgrave lets loose only in the play’s climax, in which he both sings and—as the title of the play indicates—dances. His furious words and movements are a release from his tight-lipped presence throughout the play. The song and dance allow him to express the true meaning of his appearance in town: to display the skeleton of Billy Hicks, avenge Hicks’s death, and educate the townspeople about the horrors of war.

Audience Participation In the climactic scene of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, the audience becomes part of the drama. In the marketplace, a small crowd gathers to hear the speeches. Yet because there is no crowd of townspeople beyond the handful of characters, everything is addressed to the audience. It is as if Arden is making his argument directly to the audience.

The Bargee is especially important in this scene. He is the link between the audience and the action on stage. The directions call for him to ‘‘create crowd-reactions.’’ When Musgrave and his men pull out their rifles and Gatling gun, they aim them at the audience, emphasizing that this message is addressed directly to them—the townspeople of the world.

Compare and Contrast

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1880: Queen Victoria rules Great Britain; she is in the forty-third year of her rule. She has signifi- cant political power.

1959: Queen Elizabeth II is in the seventh year of her reign. Her political role is small; instead, the parliamentary system sets policy.

Today: Queen Elizabeth II continues her rule. She is basically a figurehead with minimal political influence.

1880: Great Britain is a significant world power, with significant colonial holdings in Asia and Africa.

1959: Many of Great Britain’s colonial holdings had gained or were seeking independence. India had gained independence in 1947.

Today: Great Britain has a few colonial holdings and protectorates.

1878: Great Britain acquires Cyprus at the Congress of Berlin.

1959: Greek and Turkish Cypriots demand their independence from Great Britain. Within a year, the request is granted although Britain retains the areas around their military bases.

Today: Internal strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriots has resulted in a split on the island. While an independent country of Cyprus covers most of the island, one-third of the island is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Media Adaptations

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Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was adapted for television by Granada Television for the BBC in 1961.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Billington, Michael. ‘‘Finney as Musgrave,’’ in Manchester Guardian Weekly, June 3, 1984, p. 20.

‘‘Black Jack’s Prayer,’’ in Newsweek, March 21, 1966, p. 98.

Brien, Alan. ‘‘Disease of Violence,’’ in the Spectator, October 30, 1966.

Clurman, Harold. A review of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance in The Nation, March 28, 1966, p. 372.

Hewes, Henry. ‘‘Journey Into a North Wind,’’ in Saturday Review, March 26, 1966, p. 45.

Kauffmann, Stanley. ‘‘Colicos in Title Role of John Arden’s Play,’’ in The New York Times, March 9, 1966, p. 44.

———. ‘‘The Art of John Arden,’’ in The New York Times, March 20, 1966, section 2, p. 1.

Oliver, Edith. ‘‘Doleful Dance,’’ in The New Yorker, March 19, 1966, p. 162-63.

Spurling, Hilary. ‘‘Royal Fortress,’’ in the Spectator, December 17, 1965.

A review in Time, March 18, 1966, p. 80.

Further Reading Arden, John. ‘‘John Arden,’’ in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 4, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 29-47. This autobiographical essay reveals much about Arden’s background, family, and childhood.

Page, Malcolm. John Arden, Twayne Publishers, 1984, 175 p. Full-length critical analyses of Arden’s work, including Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.

Trussler, Simon. John Arden, Columbia University Press, 1973, 48 p. A critical overview of Arden’s work, including Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.


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Sources for Further Study

Anderson, Michael. Anger and Detachment: A Study of Arden, Osborne, and Pinter. London: Pitman, 1976.

Brown, John Russell. Theatre Language: A Study of Arden, Osborne, Pinter, and Wesker. New York: Taplinger, 1972.

Counts, Michael L. “John Arden.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Hayman, Ronald. John Arden. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Hunt, Albert. Arden: A Study of His Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.

Leeming, Glenda. John Arden. Harlow, England: Longman, 1974.

Malick, Javed. Towards a Theatre of the Oppressed: The Dramaturgy of John Arden. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Taylor, John Russell. Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1969.

Trussler, Simon. John Arden. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

Wike, Jonathan, ed. John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994.


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