Serjeant Musgrave's Dance Analysis

John Arden

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,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, British society was in transition. Yet one consistent factor was the dominance of the Conservative Party....

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is a realistic drama set in the north of England in 1880. Much of the action takes place in...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast the character of Serjeant Musgrave with Mother Courage from Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Royal Pardon: The Soldier Who Became an Actor (1966)is a play written by Arden and his wife. It also concerns a soldier who...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.