Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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?

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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? One thing is Musgrave’s own lack of clarity, another is the dubious patriotism which the colliers have been taught (which makes them reluctant to identify their own condition with that of nonwhite native peoples in a conquered country). A third is their suspicion that anyone in a red coat is, in almost all cases, an instrument of oppression. The ironies of mixed and mistaken loyalty in the play are very strong. Walsh, the most intelligent of the colliers, fails to understand Musgrave until too late. In the end, even he accepts a drink, which the officer of the dragoons is pouring, to celebrate the return of “normal life.” Normal life, for Walsh, means going back down into the coal mine to make profits for the mayor. He has little to celebrate; however, without the Gatling gun, protest will do nothing for him—he might as well take the drink.

A final point is that Musgrave is mad. He is trying to avenge violence by more violence, and his cause is vitiated, if nothing else, by the violent death of Sparky. His remorse may do him credit, but his actions do not. Arden raises a difficult question: Given these facts, what would an acceptable and effective form of protest be?

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Guilt
Guilt and remorse underscore much of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. Musgrave is overcome by guilt over the death of Billy Hicks as well as the five civilians who were killed in retaliation. Two of his fellow deserters, Attercliffe and Sparky, also knew Hicks and share these feelings. In part, guilt prompted them to desert their posts in order to travel to this coal-mining town.

Musgrave wants to force England to share responsibilities for these deaths. To that end, he makes a public display of Hicks’s skeleton, showing the townspeople how one of their sons died in vain. Musgrave also plans to shoot twenty-five of the town’s leading citizens, but his dastardly scheme is fortunately stopped.

Ghosts
The ghost of Billy Hicks haunts many of the characters of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. Musgrave and two of the three soldiers, Attercliffe and Sparky, have deserted their regular posts in order to do something so that Hicks’s death was not in vain.

The soldiers assume that the rally will be a peaceful display of Hicks’s skeleton and an explanation of the horrors of army life—but Musgrave has other ideas. He wants to kill in order to exorcise Hicks’s ghost from his head and drive his point home in a very dramatic fashion.

In a way, Hicks’s ghost represents the futility of war for Musgrave and his men. At the end of the play, the ghost still haunts Musgrave and Attercliffe.

Hicks’s ghost also haunts Annie. He was her lover and the father of her baby. After Hicks left town to join the army and the baby died, Annie was left alone and rejected as an outcast. Unlike the soldiers, Annie gets a chance to excise Hicks’ ghost during the rally at the end of the play. She uses his death to tell the truth about Sparky’s untimely demise at the hands of Attercliffe. This gives her the strength and insight to reveal questionable aspects of Musgrave’s beliefs.

Hurst is being haunted by another ghost—not that of Billy Hicks. Hurst deserted the army because he was accused of killing an officer. In an attempt to escape his fate he runs away with Musgrave, only to be killed by the dragoons late in the play.

Loyalty
Serjeant Musgrave demands absolute loyalty from his fellow soldiers. He is their leader and believes that he has God on his side. Although Musgrave has deserted the British Army, he still adheres to some of its values. While he believes that unnecessary killing is wrong and that troops often live and work in abysmal conditions, Musgrave is not above callousness to his own men.

For example, after Sparky is accidentally killed by Attercliffe, the Serjeant writes off his death as ‘‘immaterial’’ when he learns that Sparky was going to desert them.

Similarly, Musgrave expects Attercliffe to help kill twenty-five civilians, despite the fact that he knows Attercliffe is totally opposed to killing.

All the soldiers remain loyal to Musgrave through much of the play—although they all question his values at some point. Sparky dies the moment he considers disloyalty. Hurst dies taking loyalty to an extreme by preparing to kill innocent civilians.

One of the moral lessons of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is that loyalty can be abused and should have its limits.

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