The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 1043 words.)