Themes and Meanings
The play is set in the 1880’s but has clear moral significance for the 1950’s or 1960’s. As its subtitle suggests, it is a parable, and so potentially timeless. For all its careful indications of place and time, it is also unhistorical, even (if one thinks about practicalities) highly implausible and unrealistic. How would four soldiers get home from an imperial colony? How could they conceal a skeleton and a Gatling gun?
Clearly John Arden wishes above all to make a point about guilt. Great Britain has for many years, he says, been making a profit out of imperialism—like most other developed countries, in one way or another. The victims of this exploitation, however, are double. There are the native people of the conquered colonies. There are also the agents of that conquest, the soldiers, sent abroad to do the dirty work of their rulers but receiving no share of the profits—as their rulers take no share in the dangers. The subtlety of the exercise, Serjeant Musgrave realizes, is that the two sets of victims fight and kill each other, when they should turn on those who make them do it. That is what he means to do. He is a sheepdog who has turned on the shepherd.
Another aspect of exploitation is the economic one, and that is why the play is set in a striking mining town. Here, in the strike, conflict has already been started between the rulers and the ruled. By all logic, the colliers should join the rebel soldiers. What stops them?...
(The entire section is 469 words.)