Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
JOHN ARDEN 1959
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is regarded as John Arden’s first important play. Yet interestingly, its initial British run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1959 was not particularly successful; it ran for only twenty-eight performances and was a financial disaster.
In 1966 Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance came to New York City for an Off-Broadway run. Appearing at the Theatre de Lys, the play ran for 135 performances and eventually won the Vernon Rice Award. As a result, Arden’s reputation as an innovative dramatist was firmly established.
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is set in a northern British mining town in 1880, but it draws from several contemporary sources for inspiration. Arden’s pacifist theme and depiction of the negative aspects of army life on soldiers is seen to have universal significance.
On October 26, 1930, Arden was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England. The son of Charles Alwyn Arden, a glass factory manager, and Annie Elizabeth (nee Layland), a schoolteacher, Arden attended local schools until the beginning of World War II. For his safety, he was then sent to a public school in Sedbergh, Yorkshire.
After graduation, Arden served in the Army’s Intelligence Corps for eighteen months. He then entered King’s College at Cambridge University to study architecture. In 1953 he earned his B.A. and continued to study architecture at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.
In Edinburgh, Arden wrote his first play, All Fall Down, for a college drama group. After receiving his diploma in 1955, he moved to London to work as an architect’s assistant.
By 1957 Arden’s plays were being produced. The first was The Waters of Babylon, an experimental piece that utilized verse and song. With the initial success of his playwrighting career, Arden quit architecture and became a full-time writer. He also married Margaretta D’Arcy, an actress and political activist. Under D’Arcy’s influence, Arden’s plays took on a more political bent.
After completing a commission for the Royal Court Theatre, The Waters of Babylon (1958), he wrote what was arguably his most important stage play, SerjeantMusgrave’s Dance (1959). Though it was not initially successful, many critics and scholars came to view the play as a prime example of Arden’s style.
Many of Arden’s subsequent plays were historical in nature. They included his first truly successful play, Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (1964), as well as The Hero Rises Up: A Romantic Melodrama (1969), and The Island of the Might (1972).
Today he continues to write plays as well as novels and radio plays. He and his family live in Ireland.
Act I: Scene One
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance opens on a wharf in the north of England in 1880. Three British Army soldiers—Hurst, Attercliffe, and Sparky—are nervously waiting for the arrival of their superior officer, Serjeant Musgrave. The Bargee (barge driver) appears first, ready to drive the three soldiers to their destination on his barge. Musgrave arrives and the men depart.
Act I: Scene Two
At a public house in a small mining town, the Bargee enters and announces the soldiers’ arrival to
the pub’s owner, Mrs. Hitchcock, and the Parson. The Parson infers that the soldiers have been sent to intercede in the local miner’s strike. The Bargee tells him that they have come to recruit soldiers.
After the Parson leaves, the Bargee tells Mrs. Hitchcock and her barmaid, Annie, that the soldiers will stay at the pub or a nearby barn. Annie is apprehensive of the soldier’s presence.
The soldiers enter. While they relax, the Mayor (who also owns the mine), Constable, and Parson enter the pub. The Mayor decides to use the soldiers to recruit the men who have caused trouble in his mine. The Constable wants to use the soldiers against the strikers, but the Mayor refuses.
After the officials leave, Musgrave asks Mrs. Hitchcock if she knew Billy Hicks. She tells him that Hicks had impregnated Annie before leaving to join the military and fight overseas. Eventually the baby died. Musgrave and his men leave to explore the town.
Act I: Scene Three
The four soldiers meet up in the churchyard and compare notes on the town. They agree that the townspeople are resentful and fearful of them. Three colliers (coal miners) threaten the soldiers, accusing them of coming to break the miner’s strike. Musgrave assures them that they are not.
When the colliers leave, Musgrave begins to reveal his true plan—take revenge on the town for Hicks’s death and to drive home the hardships of military life. The soldiers are worried that they will be arrested before they can achieve their goal. Musgrave draws a parallel between their cause and the corruption in the town.
After filling them in on the plan, he tells them to remain relatively sober during their recruiting party that night. The Bargee overhears the truth about Musgrave’s mission.
Act II: Scene One
At Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub, the recruiting party is in full swing. Sparky hits on Annie but she rebuffs him; his fellow soldiers warn him that he has had enough to drink. Hurst shows up, still unsure of their mission. Annie showers attention on him, offering herself for the night. He accepts.
The Constable closes the party, but the colliers do not want the bar to close. One of the colliers attacks the Constable. The soldiers intercede, and the colliers and Bargee are removed from the pub. Sparky’s drunken actions annoy the other soldiers, who start arguing among themselves. Sparky begs Annie to come to bed with him that night. Musgrave tells Annie to leave his men alone.
Act II: Scene Two
On the street the Bargee tries to lead the drunken colliers in military drills. Musgrave watches them. When Walsh, a leader of the colliers, passes by and makes fun of the soldiers, the Bargee tells Walsh he knows where to get weapons.
Act II: Scene Three
Inside the barn, Annie tries to get into bed with Hurst. He rebuffs her, and she becomes angry. When Attercliffe appears, she begs for his affections. After kissing her several times, he also snubs her. Annie begins to cry.
Sparky tries to comfort her, but Annie is not interested in him until he admits he is scared. She tells him about Hicks and their baby. As they share their fears, they become passionate.
He confides to Annie the real reason they are in town and tries to convince her to run away with him. Hurst overhears and confronts Sparky. As the argument escalates, Attercliffe gets involved and accidentally stabs Sparky to death with his own bayonet. Attercliffe is horrified by his actions.
Musgrave and Mrs. Hitchcock enter the barn. Musgrave orders Attercliffe and Hurst to bury Sparky in the backyard. He has Mrs. Hitchcock lock Annie up in a safe place.
The Bargee arrives and informs Musgrave that someone is breaking the windows of the coachhouse where their weapons are located. Alarmed, the soldiers leave and then return with Walsh. The soldiers beg Musgrave to change the plan because of Sparky’s death, but he will not.
The Mayor and Parson arrive. The Mayor says that the telegraph has been fixed and the dragoons are coming in twelve hours to quell violence. Musgrave proposes a recruitment rally in the streets to distract everyone.
Act III: Scene One
The next morning, the rally begins and Musgrave takes the stage to talk about the life of a soldier. He shows the crowd a Gatling gun, and has Attercliffe load it. Musgrave describes the horrible conditions that soldiers live in, and how duty comes before all else. In a dramatic sequence, the skeleton of Billy Hicks is revealed, hung by a noose from a flagpole. Everyone present is shocked.
Musgrave informs the crowd that they have to stay or his men will shoot them. Musgrave chronicles the story of how Hicks was killed by civilians, and in retaliation, five civilians were killed. Musgrave invites Walsh up to speak, assuming he will be sympathetic—but he is not. The town does not understand his message.
Musgrave announces that killing twenty-five townspeople will be a just revenge for Hicks’s death. Attercliffe is repulsed by Musgrave’s words—this had not been part of the original plan. No one is sure about Musgrave’s message except Annie, who reveals the circumstances of Sparky’s death.
Dragoons kill Hurst. Musgrave and Attercliffe are arrested.
Act III: Scene Two
In prison, Musgrave refuses food. He is still haunted by Hicks’s death and the death of the five civilians. Mrs. Hitchcock tells him that his message will be remembered by the townspeople.
Annie is the barmaid who works in Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub. She earned a bad reputation by becoming impregnated by Billy Hicks, a soldier who later died. Their baby died soon after birth.
She reinforces her bad reputation by flirting with the British soldiers. Initially Annie is attracted to Hurst, refusing Sparky’s amorous advances. However, after being rebuffed by both Hurst and Attercliffe, she finds comfort with Sparky.
Only Annie understands Musgrave’s obsession with truth. It is she who reveals what really happened to Sparky.
Attercliffe is one of the four soldiers who have deserted the English army to seek revenge for Billy Hicks. He is the peacemaker of the group. Attercliffe truly believes in Musgrave’s cause, and follows his directives to the letter. He is also adamantly against killing anyone.
Yet he is the one who accidentally kills Sparky. This incident tears Attercliffe apart, and he wants Musgrave to change their plan. When Musgrave refuses, this marks a shift in their relationship.
During Musgrave’s speech at the rally, Attercliffe tries to promote nonviolence and refuses to kill anyone. He prevents Hurst from killing them as well. At the end of the play, he is imprisoned with Musgrave. In many ways, Attercliffe is Musgrave’s conscience.
The Bargee is the barge driver who transports the soldiers to the town. A merry fellow, he is always working an angle—even to the point of selling out the soldiers to make a little money.
He does not seem to like soldiers, and generally regards Musgrave and his mission with contempt. The Bargee is only interested in attention or financial
- Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was adapted for television by Granada Television for the BBC in 1961.
reward. It is he who sticks a gun in Musgrave’s back as the dragoons enter the town; he wants credit for capturing them.
See The Bargee
The Constable is the chief law enforcer in the town. He hopes to use the soldiers as reinforcements against the strikers.
Mrs. Hitchcock runs the pub where the soldiers stay. She is a large, good-natured woman who can defend herself effectively. Primarily, she is out to protect her own (primarily economic) interests. Yet she shows much kindness to Annie and the soldiers during the play.
Hurst is one of Musgrave’s soldiers. He is a murderer, having killed an officer with good reason. Impatient and tense, he can be mean and spends much of his time brooding. Yet Annie believes Hurst is the most handsome of the soldiers, and offers to spend the night with him. He ultimately rejects her.
Though Hurst follows most of Musgrave’s orders, he is full of doubt about their mission. He threatens to kill Sparky when Hurst finds out that he was going to leave. At the climax of the play, Hurst rejects some of Musgrave’s ideas and is ready to kill the townspeople. He is killed when the dragoons shoot him.
The Mayor runs the small town: in addition to being its highest officer, he also owns the coal mines. He is despised by most of the townspeople. Throughout the play, the Mayor tries to use the soldiers’ presence to his own advantage.
Also known by the nickname Black Jack, Musgrave is the protagonist of the play. He is the leader of the group of four soldiers; it is his plan they are implementing.
His true intentions are unclear for most of the play. Like the other soldiers, he has deserted the army while stationed in a foreign land. Several incidents prompted the desertion, particularly the death of Billy Hicks and the killing of some civilians. To fund his plan, Musgrave stole money from the army.
Musgrave wants to communicate the negative aspects of army life, especially the corruption and how it wastes lives. He wants to avenge the deaths that haunt his consciousness. Yet no one realizes how mentally ill he is until he reveals his true plan: killing twenty-five townspeople. He ends up in prison, worrying that his message will be forgotten.
The Parson is the supposed moral center of the town. He is clearly on the side of the Mayor, and does not have much sympathy for the colliers and their plight. When the soldiers arrive, he is most concerned that they do not act drunk and disorderly.
Sparky is the youngest and most volatile of the soldiers. He seems to have known Hicks the best.
At the recruiting party, he gets drunk and tries to get together with Annie. Sparky becomes jealous when she picks Hurst. Though he does not win her over immediately, he is the only soldier who shows her real kindness in the barn. With Annie, Sparky decides to leave.
For his disloyalty to the plan he is killed by Attercliffe and Hurst. Annie uses his senseless death as a symbol of truth during the play’s climax.
A leader among the colliers, Walsh is suspicious of Musgrave’s true intentions. His paramount concerns are with the labor problems in the town.
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.
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.
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.
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,
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Compare and contrast the character of Serjeant Musgrave with Mother Courage from Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children. How does armed conflict impact the lives of these characters?
- Research psychological and sociological writings on army life and desertion. How do the military characters in the play embody these theories? Why do Hurst, Attercliffe, and Sparky follow Musgrave’s orders as long as they do?
- What was the state of the British economy at the time of the play, particularly in the north of England? Focus on the impact of labor strikes. Does this give you a new perspective on the characters of the colliers? Are economic conditions part of the reason why the colliers are not as sympathetic to Musgrave’s message as he expects them to be?
- Pick one of the dances, songs, or poems in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. Research its origin and history. You might choose “Michael Finnegan,” the song often whistled by the Bargee. What does the song or dance add to the play and how does it reflect the play’s themes?
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.
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.
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.
From its first production, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance has been controversial. Reviewers of the initial British productions found flaws with the play’s structure. Hilary Spurling of the Spectator contended: “There is no conflict. I defy anyone to explain the plot, except perhaps as a series of expedients to stave off the grand climax until the last act...”
Only a few critics favorably assessed Arden’s play. Alan Brien asserted that “I have never seen a play which created its own mad, obsessed, other-world so completely as Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.”
American critics offered mixed reviews of the drama. Stanley Kauffmann of The New York Times maintained, “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance . . . has been hailed as the best postwar English play and has
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1880: Queen Victoria rules Great Britain; she is in the forty-third year of her rule. She has significant 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.
been derogated as murky. To me, there seems to be good argument on both sides.”
An anonymous critic in Newsweek asserted: “There is no single ‘point’ to Musgrave. Read by some as a muddled pacifist tract and by others as an equally muddled anti-imperialist one, its real dramatic vision is that of the horror of single-mindness, of ends determining means and even more crucially of abstraction in moral life.”
Only a few American commentators praised Arden’s work, such as Henry Hewes of The Saturday Review. He found “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance... a deeply evocative and earth-rich dramatic experience.”
Most critics took the tone of Harold Clurman. He claimed: “One cannot see Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance... without realizing that one is in the presence of a real dramatist, a man of passion and power. A cross-grained poetry emerges from his work. Yet one is not wholly satisfied...”
Many American critics delineated the many problems they found in Arden’s text. Kauffmann composed a list: “Control of the central image is dissipated; tensions slacken; the theme is unclear and unresolved, even somewhat arbitrarily tied up.”
Along similar lines, Edith Oliver of The New Yorker maintained: “Mr. Arden’s writing is not the clearest on earth, and he certainly is a relentless man with an obvious point, hammering away long after it has reached home. Sifting out his subsidiary ideas and the twists of his plot from all the clatter and clutter becomes a problem.”
Thematic concerns were the focus of several reviews. The anonymous Time critic asserted: “He tries to practice consensus drama, a contradiction in terms. For Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance to possess any intrinsic vitality, there would have to be a respectable body of thought holding that war is heavenly. As it is, Arden is merely preaching to the converted.
Oliver also considered Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance’s lack of vitality. She contended: “For all the noise and movement, the play has little real vitality, being neither moving nor stirring. Underneath its jumpy surface, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance seems to me... conventional, sentimental, and,
what is worse, condescending to its own characters, most of whom are of the working class and could have been assembled from old Punch cartoons.”
Between the 1960s and 1980s, Arden and his play were closely scrutinized by scholars. He came to be viewed as an icon in British theater, as Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was interpreted and studied from every angle.
By the time the play was revived in Great Britain in 1984, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was an integral part of England’s theater history. Many reviews acknowledged its iconic status. As Michael Billington of the Manchester Guardian Weekly asserted, “But, when all one’s reservations have been registered, the blunt fact is that Arden’s work is one of the best post-war political plays and deserves to be seen as well as studied.”
In this essay, Petrusso contends that though most critics and scholars maintain that Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance promotes pacifism, the play is actually a pro-war and pro-army drama.
Although Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance has been extremely controversial from its first production in 1959, most critics and scholars agree that the play is pacifist in nature. That is, they believe the play depicts armed conflict and army life in very negative, futile terms.
Yet to accomplish this, Arden explores both the positive and negative aspects of military life. Many critics point to this duality as a hallmark of Arden’s developing style—though they also claim that it bogs down the play’s true meaning.
However, I contend that Arden implicitly supports violence, the army, and war throughout the play. Pacifism loses in Musgrave, and while the audience could walk away believing that pacifism should triumph, Arden does not do much to give hope that it will. Indeed, he seems to be illustrating that the military is important—and that there is a point to fighting.
In this essay, I explore the elements of the play that could be defined as pacifist; counter these points with examples of Arden’s pro-violence message; and finally, provide a new perspective on the end of the play.
Many critics maintain that Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance promotes pacifism. They believe that
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- 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 deserts the army.
- Voices from the Ranks: A Personal Narrative of the Crimean Campaign by a Serjeant of the Royal Fusiliers is a memoir written by Timothy Gowling and edited by Kenneth Fenwich. Published in 1954, the book reflects on the conditions of army life during the Crimean War.
- Arden’s 1960 play entitled Happy Haven features characters who question and rebel against authority.
- Written by Bertolt Brecht in 1941, Mother Courage and Her Children is an antiwar epic that illustrates the devastating effects of violence and war.
Musgrave has led the soldiers to this coal-mining town in order to show the citizens how war has negatively impacted one of their own citizens—Billy Hicks.
Billy Hicks was a soldier who died unnecessarily while serving in the army. His death in an unnamed British colony inspired controversy and anger against the civilians in the area. To avenge Hicks’ death, some locals were rounded up and five were killed, including a young girl.
Hicks served with Musgrave, Sparky, and Attercliffe. Shocked at their friend’s death and the army’s response to it, these soldiers deserted their posts, picked up Hurst (who had killed an officer under circumstances Musgrave could rationalize), and traveled to Hicks’s hometown to settle the score.
The soldiers have different reactions to the violence of military life: Attercliffe does not want to kill anyone; Sparky tries to desert the deserters; and Hurst is ready to kill at an instant.
Yet Musgrave is the most seriously affected of the four men. Believing that he is on some sort of mission from God to avenge the deaths, he plans to kill twenty-five prominent citizens of the town (five times the number of civilians killed) as retribution. He is stopped before he can go through with it, but all these components are perceived to underscore the idea that the play is pacifist.
Another pacifist aspect of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is the character of Annie. The barmaid in Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub, Annie was Hicks’s lover. In fact, she was pregnant with his child, but he left for the army before the child’s birth. When the baby was born, it was deformed and sickly. The child died before it was two months old, around the same time Hicks was killed.
So Annie is a victim of the violence of war. An outcast because of her bad reputation and her out-of-wedlock child, Annie is taken in by Mrs. Hitchcock.
At the climax of the play, Annie takes possession of Hicks’s skeleton. When Musgrave tries to write off Sparky’s murder (after Hurst discovers that Sparky intends to leave, Hurst threatens to kill Sparky, though Attercliffe accidentally does the deed) as “barely material]” to his antiwar and anti-army message, Annie relates the truth about Sparky’s death. To Annie, Sparky’s death is just as important in terms of revealing the truth about the army, violence, and soldiers.
Despite the power of these pacifist elements of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Arden subversively champions violence, war, and the military. Violence is an inherent part of all the lives depicted in the play. There were violent tensions even before the arrival of the soldiers, which depicts violence as a way of life.
“THE CLIMAX OF THE PLAY IS THE PINNACLE OF ARDEN’S ANTI-PACIFISM: MUSGRAVE DISPLAYS HICKS’S SKELETON, PROVIDES THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF HIS DEATH, DESCRIBES THE HARSH LIFE OF A SOLDIER, AND THEN PREPARES TO TAKE HIS REVENGE.”
The town officials fear violence from the colliers, and rightfully so. These workers are on strike or have been locked out of their workplace, and are quite angry about how they have been treated. Violence is one of the only ways they can express themselves.
At first, the colliers also hate the soldiers, believing they represent the same kind of authority as management. The colliers resort to violence to intimidate the authorities. They throw stones at soldiers and the Constable’s office. They try to steal the Gatling gun (a precursor to the machine gun). Colliers also physically attack the Constable when he tries to close the bar.
The climax of the play—the recruiting rally—occurs as town officials hope to prevent violence by the colliers. Musgrave has other plans; they involve the murder of twenty-five relatively innocent people. More violence seems to be his answer for everything. This is hardly pacifist.
As depicted in the play, army life has many positive points. Though Hicks lost his life and Musgrave is arguably insane, neither is necessarily a direct result of the army. Mrs. Hitchcock describes Hicks as this: “Not what you’d call a bad young feller, you know—but he weren’t no good either.” Who is to say he would not have had problems if he had stayed at home—perhaps he would have died in a colliers’ strike.
In the military, Musgrave gained discipline, organizational skills, and a moral compass. He learned how to be in charge of men and have them execute his plan. Throughout the play, Musgrave uses the army and its methods to prove his point, though he ultimately fails. Yet that is because of his deficiency of character. Without the army, Musgrave would not be the same man.
The army represents authority and order. The colliers hate the soldiers because they believe that they have been called by management to break the strike. While this is not true, the town’s officials believe that the soldiers have come to recruit new soldiers. To that end, they try to identify troublemakers for the soldiers to recruit.
While this would directly benefit management, it might also be good for the colliers as well. There would be less competition for jobs, and the soldiers who join up would have the opportunity to become authority figures themselves. They will get the chance to learn important life skills that will only help them when they return. The colliers even allow themselves to be led in a drunken drill by the Bargee in an attempt to put themselves in authority’s shoes.
Arden implies that wars are continuous, though not always with men in bright uniforms or on foreign soil. Every time there is an economic crisis in the coal industry, there will probably be a war between management and colliers. There can be no pacifists in this war, because both sides have too much to lose. Musgrave believes that all wars are the same—but they are not. The rally at the marketplace utterly fails to prove their point.
The climax of the play is the pinnacle of Arden’s anti-pacifism: Musgrave displays Hicks’s skeleton, provides the circumstances of his death, describes the harsh life of a soldier, and then prepares to take his revenge. He asserts that he wants to end war, but his methods work in an opposite manner. He plans to take twenty-five innocent lives as revenge for Hicks’ death, hoping to drive his message home.
Yet if the townspeople are threatened, there is no reason why they would listen to this pacifist message. If Musgrave and Hurst had begun firing, many of those gathered would have fought them. Defending one’s self is not particularly pacifist. Musgrave tries to draw a parallel between his war against war and the colliers’ struggle against management, but they see through it. The kind of wars Musgrave is talking about cannot compare to their daily fight to survive.
At the conclusion of the play, the authorities restore order: the dragoons arrive, killing Hurst and arresting Attercliffe and Musgrave. After the arrests, the Mayor does not use the dragoons on the colliers, at least right away. He tells an officer, “Well, I’d say it was about all over now, young man—wouldn’t you?”
Musgrave and Attercliffe are imprisoned. Mrs. Hitchcock tries to give Musgrave hope that their message will be remembered—but there is nothing to hope for anymore. It seems that pacifism does not get one very far.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Forsas-Scott examines the conflict between the plot structure of the play and Musgrave’s message.
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is probably John Arden’s best-known play. It is also a play which has generated much critical argument, the focal point tending to be Black Jack Musgrave himself. Frequently, however, the Serjeant has been interpreted in conventional naturalistic terms, the reasons for his failure being traced to his outlook, his personality, and his mind. When John Russell Taylor asserted, in Anger and After, that “this is a play about individual, complicated human beings,...” he defined a view of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance which has continued to play an important part in the critical discussion.
The most notable divergent approach to the play—and indeed to Arden’s play-writing as a whole—is that which has been advocated by Albert Hunt. Hunt sees Arden’s work as belonging, not to the naturalistic theatre of illusion, but to a broader and more ancient tradition which he exemplifies with theatre as different as British pantomime and the dramas of Shakespeare and Brecht. The theatre of illusion, Hunt argues, is “a theatre of persuasion”; the tradition to which Arden’s plays belong, in contrast, “has precisely the opposite aim: to question appearances.” Consequently, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, if “Played for identification with the audience,... becomes incomprehensible. For the true statement of the play lies in the way Musgrave’s pacifist message is judged against the action of the play and found inadequate. If you’re too close to Musgrave, this judgement is never seen.”
Hunt’s view of Arden’s drama is, I believe, essentially correct. In this essay, I want to investigate more closely what Hunt calls “the action of the play” and demonstrate how Arden uses a given plot structure as a means of making a statement in artistic terms. As Hunt indicates, the central conflict is between this plot structure and Musgrave’s message, but Musgrave’s particular brand of pacifism is
“MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE SONGS AND VERSE BRING OUT AND ENHANCE THE STYLIZATION OF THE CHARACTERS WHICH IS SO CENTRAL TO THE OVERALL DESIGN OF THE PLAY, SETTING THE FEMALE CHARACTERS SHARPLY AGAINST THE MALES.”
compounded of elements which have a special historical significance with regard to drama as well as politics. It seems to me that only when these dimensions become clear to us, can the full implications of the play’s confrontation begin to emerge.
In an illuminating essay on Macbeth, Glynne Wickham has shown that the structure of Shakespeare’s tragedy can be seen as a combination of two famous sequences from the medieval Cycle Plays: the story of Herod the Great and the Harrowing of Hell. According to Wickham, “The essentials that [Shakespeare]... drew from the [Herod] play are the poisoning of a tyrant’s peace of mind by the prophecy of a rival destined to eclipse him, the attempt to forestall that prophecy by the hiring of assassins to murder all potential rivals and the final overthrow and damnation of the tyrant.” With Macbeth as a Scottish Herod, his eventual damnation foreshadowed by frequent references to him as the Devil, Macduff, his chief protagonist, plays the role of Christ. “As Christ harrowed Hell and released Adam from Satan’s dominion,” Wickham explains, “so afflicted subjects of mortal tyranny will find a champion who will release them from fear and bondage. This Macduff does for Scotland....”
Wickham begins his analysis with a detailed examination of the familiar Porter scene, often so strangely out of place to a modern audience, but to the Elizabethan theatre-goer, a well-nigh unmistakable reference to the Harrowing of Hell. Like Shakespeare, Arden draws on a popular dramatic tradition for the plot of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and brings this tradition sharply into focus at a crucial point in the dramatic action. The type of popular drama which Arden uses has survived into the present time, and in Act III, Scene I of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance it surfaces with full force and all of its customary paraphernalia, the significant details being underlined by the Bargee who sets the scene in the market-place:
Here they are on a winter’s morning, you’ve got six kids at home crying out for bread, you’ve got a sour cold wife and no fire and no breakfast: and you’re too damn miserable even to fight—if there’s owt else at all to take your mind off it—so here you are, you lucky people, in your own old market-place, a real live lovely circus, with real live golden sovereigns in somebody’s pocket and real live taddy ale to be doled out to the bunch of you!
This is the setting for a Mummers’ Play. Mary B. O’Connell, in an article published in Modern Drama in 1971, has pointed to certain parallels between Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and the Mummers’ Play, more especially the type known as the Wooing Ceremony or the Plough Play. In O’Connell’s opinion, the Plough Play has served Arden “as his model for characterization and plot development,” and she has convincingly identified several of the characters in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance with their prototypes in the ancient folk-play. But with regard to the plot, it seems to me that Arden’s consistent use of the Wooing Ceremony as the basis of the dramatic action in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance invites us to make rather more far-reaching comparisons than the ones presented by O’Connell. Once this has been done, it also becomes apparent that Arden has taken the liberty of giving the Mummers’ Play a personal but highly significant twist which I believe to be central to the overall message of the play. O’Connell has concluded that Arden, in dealing with “the problems of our contemporary world,” has “attempted to use a ritual pattern which helped previous generations to cope with their particular world structures.” To my mind, however, Arden’s employment of this ritual pattern aims far beyond the passive concept of coping; ultimately, it charges the action of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance with revolutionary dynamism. Let us take a closer look, therefore, first at the Wooing Ceremony and then at its application in Arden’s play.
There is no definitive version of the Wooing Ceremony, just as there is no standard Sword Play or Hero Combat; what we have is simply a number of individual plays which, although they often vary considerably, can be recognized as constituting a distinctive group. To illustrate my argument here, I have chosen the well-known Wooing Ceremony called the Bassingham Play, reproduced by Chambers in The English Folk-Play and used by Brody in The English Mummers and their Plays to exemplify the Wooing Ceremony as a type. In the Bassingham Play, the action consists of a Prologue; a threefold wooing of the Lady; the appearance of Old Dame Jane, who brings a baby allegedly fathered by the Fool; a continuation of the wooing action; a fight between St. George and the Fool, in which the Fool falls; the revival of the Fool by the Doctor; and the Lady’s acceptance of the Fool. In the so-called Children’s version of the Bassingham Play, the action concludes with the Fool’s invitation to the wedding. Significantly, a number of Wooing Ceremonies involve a Recruiting Sergeant as a principal figure. These plays follow a pattern similar to the one outlined above, but they also include the Lady’s repeated rejection of a young recruit, and frequently the Sergeant himself proceeds to woo the Lady.
O’Connell has identified Sparky as the Fool and the Bargee as the Devil in Arden’s play, and she has also pointed to the significance of Annie and Mrs. Hitchcock, Arden’s equivalents of the Lady who woos the Fool and the Old Woman connected with the bastard child. To this list we can then add the Recruiting Sergeant, who dances and sings, moreover, just as Musgrave does in the marketplace. Further, numerous details in Arden’s drama reinforce the parallels with the Mummers’ Play. Like true mummers, the soldiers are visitors to the community. Their all-important anonymity, traditionally achieved by means of disguise, has been expanded into the circumstantial disguise provided by the confusion surrounding the soldiers’ mission. Their peace mission can be seen, in fact, as a modern reflection of the very function of the Mummers’ Play, making explicit its concern with overcoming death and destruction for the sake of ensuring the continuation of life. The soldiers’ role as mummers is further underlined by the Mayor’s questions on first meeting Musgrave: “How do you propose to work?” he asks, “... I mean, d” you tramp around the streets drumming, or set on your fannies in a pub—or what?” The image of the men tramping around the streets drumming clearly conjures up the Mummers’ Play. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance also contains direct verbal echoes of the Mummers’ Play; perhaps the most striking is the Bargee’s irreverent stanza about the Constable:
Constable Constable alive or dead
His head is of leather and his belly’s of lead.
Chambers quotes a range of similar lines which are part of the dispute preceding the fight between the two combatants, and he also demonstrates, most convincingly, that the reference originally was to a dragon. With the Constable being a feeble and helpless man, the implicit comparison would seem to add to the disrespectful irony of the Bargee’s words, but it can also be taken as a more direct indication of the true power which the Constable is ultimately seen to represent.
Having thus noted that Arden’s play has obvious similarities with the Mummers’ Play in general and the Wooing Ceremony in particular, we shall turn to the application of this traditional pattern in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. To begin with, the Mummers’ Play customarily ends with a collection of money among the spectators. In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, however, the pattern is inverted. Virtually as soon as the soldiers have arrived, they are offered money, and not by the community at large, but by the Mayor, who uses bribery as a means of assisting Musgrave in what he takes to be a recruiting campaign. The soldiers are thus to be rewarded, not for ensuring the fertility and prosperity of the community, but for taking away as many of its young and able men as they can to the death and destruction of war.
This inversion of the traditional pattern is not a unique occurrence, but a consistent feature which assumes a profound significance in Arden’s play. Thus, for example, we would normally expect the Recruiting Sergeant to woo the Lady himself. But clearly the man who treats Annie to a long speech about the dangers of interfering with the soldiers in his charge would never even contemplate behaving in accordance with the traditional pattern:
Look, lassie, anarchy: now, we’re soldiers. Our work isn’t easy, no and it’s not soft: it’s got a strong name-duty. And it’s drawn out straight and black for us, a clear plan. But if you come to us with what you call your life or love—I’d call it your indulgence—and you scribble all over that plan, you make it crooked, dirty, idle, untidy, bad—there’s anarchy. I’m a religious man. I know words, and I know deeds, and I know how to be strong. So do these men. You will not stand between them and their strength! Go on now: take yourself off.
Obviously, this emphatic effort to ward off the threat posed by women undermines the very strength which Musgrave is claiming for the soldiers. But even more important is the fact that here the Serjeant, quite deliberately and explicitly, separates his men and himself from the Lady. This amounts to a violation of the pattern of the Wooing Ceremony and, indeed, of the Mummers’ Play as a whole. For with the Mummers’ Play being a fertility ritual, the role of the women is crucial. When Musgrave attempts to banish Annie to the very fringe of the dramatic action, the traditional pattern is quite blatantly inverted.
At the centre of the action in the Mummers’ Play is a symbolic killing followed by a revival. And just as in the Wooing Ceremony, the Fool in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is killed: Sparky dies as the result of a fight. The quarrel begins in truly farcical style as a battle over a pair of trousers, and the killing occurs quite inadvertently with Attercliffe, the pacifist, happening to hold the bayonet which pierces Sparky’s body. A central sequence of the ritual is thus presented as taking place by mistake, an impression which is reinforced by Musgrave’s reaction: “Desertion. Fornication. It’s not material. He’s dead. Hide him away.”
Sparky has a double in his friend Billy Hicks, killed overseas and brought back by the soldiers to his home town, where they eventually display his skeleton as their own crude means of communicating the futility of their trade. The skeleton in its box throws an ever-present shadow over Sparky’s life, pointing ahead to the death of the Fool. The parallel is emphasized by the fact that both men die as a consequence of their profession, Sparky actually provoking the fatal quarrel with his decision to desert. And the deaths of these Army men are final. Billy Hicks is carried around as a skeleton, the very emblem of Death; and Sparky, in sharp contrast to the pattern of the Mummers’ Play, cannot be brought back to life. The Doctor, indispensable in the Mummers’ Play as the figure who revives the dead, simply does not exist in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.
As a result, the Mummers’ Play for which the Bargee sets the scene in the market-place can never be performed. This section of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, so often criticized, is a deliberate hiatus. The situation of the community and the arrangements in the market-place add up to a perfect setting for a Mummers’ Play, but on closer inspection, several of the central figures are missing. The Fool lies buried in Mrs. Hitchcock’s midden, the Lady has been locked away, and the bastard child whom the Old Woman ought to bring is dead too, for Annie’s baby with Billy “came a kind of bad shape, pale, sick: it wor dead and in the ground in no more nor two month.” And with no Doctor to revive the dead, there can be no invitation to the wedding as the action draws to a close; all we get is a pathetic reminder of the events that ought to have occurred as we watch Annie cradling Billy’s skeleton.
The scene which opens with promises of the ancient ritual degenerates into a confused sequence of speeches, preaching, and demonstrations of weapons, eventually disintegrating into arguments and chaos. This is the great opportunity to convey his message for which Musgrave has been waiting—blind to the fact that in the meantime the ritual which is an inherent refutation of death and a celebration of life has been enacted around him. For the first two acts of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance contain the traditional Wooing Ceremony, albeit in a stunted form. Sparky’s magnificent entry into Mrs. Hitchcock’s pub announces the beginning of a performance; Billy Hicks is the play’s equivalent of the young man who has enlisted after making advances to the Lady; and the story of the bastard child is told by Mrs. Hitchcock. There is a threefold wooing, with the Fool being the final and successful suitor, and as in the Wooing Ceremony, the Fool is killed after an exchange of challenges. But here the similarities end, the scene in the market-place confirming the collapse of the ritual.
The reasons for this collapse are brought into focus by the inversions of the traditional pattern. The Mayor, who bribes Musgrave with golden sovereigns, is using the recruiting party to solve his own problems. His coal-mine is at a standstill, layoffs and wage-cuts having provoked a strike, and the simplest solution, in the words of the Mayor, is to “clear out half the population, stir up a diversion, turn their minds to summat else. The Queen’s got wars, she’s got rebellions. Over the sea.... Get rid o’ the trouble-makers.” It has been pointed out that the wintry weather in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is of a piece with the traditional setting for a Mummers’ Play, but clearly the real strangle-hold on this community is that which is exerted not by the winter, but by the Mayor, as Mrs. Hitchcock stresses poignantly in her stanza about him:
I am a proud coalowner
And in scarlet here I stand.
Who shall come or who shall go
Through all my coal-black land?
Being a fertility ritual, the Mummers’ Play revolves around the community’s fundamental relationship with the powers of nature. In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, by contrast, the pattern of the Mummers’ Play throws into relief the deep divisions within the community and the consequent shift of focus on to man’s relationship with his powerful fellow men. The livelihood of the community in Arden’s play depends not on “the eternal pattern of the seasons,” but on the actions of the Mayor and owner of the colliery—who inevitably has his own interests at heart.
The arrival of Musgrave and his men does not merely confirm these divisions within the community: it contributes to making them wider still. The Serjeant is instrumental in achieving this greater divisiveness, his most conspicuous measure being his banishment of Annie. Musgrave’s treatment of the Lady in the Mummers’ Play adds up to a deliberate suppression of the ancient fertility ritual with its inherent power of revitalizing the community. Instead, this community is left entirely in the hands of men. Their rule, Arden emphasizes, can be only sterile, divisive, and destructive.
Musgrave’s impact on the course of the Mummers’ Play is not the result of mere personal eccentricity. The inclusion of the Recruiting Sergeant in the Wooing Ceremony in the first place is a good illustration of that capacity for adaptation and expansion which has been one of the conditions for the survival of the Mummers’ Play into the present century, and Arden has shrewdly exploited this capacity by turning his Recruiting Sergeant into a member of Cromwell’s New Model Army. In an apparently casual remark in the Introduction to the play, Arden himself has hinted at this significance of his Serjeant: “he could well have served under Cromwell” is his concluding comment on Musgrave. It seems to me that the hint is worth taking seriously; indeed, I believe that the Cromwellian dimension is fundamental to the interpretation of Arden’s Serjeant. Thus, Musgrave’s strictness and rigidity, his preoccupation with discipline and duty, and last but not least, his religious fanaticism, are all of a piece with the image of the Cromwellian soldier. The Serjeant, who reads his pocket Bible in the pub, chewing his supper of dry bread and cheese after having declined the offer of a drink—and annoyed the landlady into the bargain—is an unmistakable Puritan. The point is made again, in terms which are equally immediate, when Musgrave wakes up the house with his nightmares: like so many seventeenth-century Puritans, he is convinced that the end of the world is imminent. And what might be taken for personal hesitation and uncertainty at a critical juncture in the market-place, just before the appearance of Annie, is more properly a reflection of the Puritan soldier’s habit of waiting for the guidance of God, the suspended dramatic illustration of the words with which Musgrave has concluded his prayer in the churchyard: “... I know it is Your Logic, and You will provide-”
To Arden, the combination of a Puritan and an ancient dramatic tradition such as that of the Mummers’ Play has profound significance. In a letter published in Encore in 1959, Arden refers to the fact that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre could appeal to virtually the entire range of social classes as a result of “the still extraordinarily powerful popular tradition which informed that Theatre as a whole.” After a brief sketch of this tradition, with references to medieval Moralities and Buffooneries as well as Mummers’ Plays, he continues: “The true tradition is still with us, but it is buried deep down under several hundred years of puritanical falsification....” Arden’s ideal is theatre as the central concern of the community; yet during much of his career as a playwright, he has been attempting to convey this ideal through the conventional modern theatre, geared towards providing what he would regard as no more than entertainment for a mere section of the community. His solution has been to adopt, theatrically and dramatically, the style of the old popular tradition, and to demonstrate, on the stage, how this tradition is being quenched by a new order which turns the theatre into a place for speech-making and sermonizing. Again and again this confrontation is enacted in Arden’s drama, one of the most elaborate examples being the forcible removal of the drunken Butterthwaite from the respectable art gallery, formerly the notorious Copacabana Club, in The Workhouse Donkey. In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, when the Gatling gun with its capacity of three-hundred-and-fifty rounds a minute is trained on to the spectators in the auditorium—who are doubling, significantly, as the crowd in Arden’s market-place—the true role of this modern theatre is revealed: it is, by Arden’s standards, essentially a tool of oppression.
The fate of the Fool in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance illustrates the joint consequences of all that for which the Serjeant and the local magistrates stand. Sparky may belong to a group of deserters who have chosen to turn their original role on its head by spreading the gospel of pacifism, but he still dies for the sake of the Army—not, as would befit the Fool in the Mummers’ Play, for the sake of the community. And the Army, the cause of this sterile and meaningless death, is the very embodiment of Musgrave’s ideas. The Queen’s Book, he explains, “which eighteen years I’ve lived, it’s turned inside out for me,” but this reversal alters little: the Serjeant’s strategy for his peace mission is in true military style, the intended climax being the crudely primitive and only too familiar measure of largescale retaliation. Arden is saying that the Army, by definition, breeds nothing but violence and death. The same point is made in contrasting, deliberately farcical terms in the scene where the Bargee drills the drunken colliers. What starts as a comic send-up of the stern Serjeant and his men ends as a condensed and almost over-explicit illustration of what Arden regards as the inevitable consequences of the presence of an army: the Bargee’s mock soldiers pick a quarrel among themselves and start fighting each other.
The Army is the basis of the power of the local magistrates. Musgrave and his men may be rebellious deserters, but nevertheless it is Army men who finally return the community to law and order. In terms of the life of the community, the wheel is brought full circle, as one of the colliers emphasizes in his summary: “The community’s been saved. Peace and prosperity rules. We’re all friends and neighbours for the rest of today. We’re all sorted out. We’re back where we were.” But clearly this is not peace and prosperity of the kind that the Mummers’ Play would promote: it is peace and prosperity dependent on rule through the barrel of a gun. As the officer in charge of the dragoons points out significantly, his troopers are at the Mayor’s disposal; and Arden has stressed that if he were able to produce the play in a large theatre employing an enormous cast of supernumeraries, “the stage would be full of dragoons and the dance would take place in front of them. Then the impression given would be that even the most sympathetic of the colliers, who nearly sides with Musgrave, has no alternative but to take part in the dance, and that law and order have been re-established by force.”
The qualities of the control that is re-established are epitomized by the Bargee, whose sole motive for taking action is personal advantage. Being totally unscrupulous, the Bargee sides with whoever is in power, and the fact that he plays the role of the Devil in the Mummers’ Play adds a poignantly ironic dimension to his activities. “[G]ive me some room to swing me tiller... “he shouts significantly as his barge is being loaded and the Devil himself prepares to bring the recruiting party to the strikebound community; but the figure who eventually sticks a rifle into Musgrave’s back and boasts to the dragoons and the magistrates that, “I caught him, I caught him, I used me strategy!” clearly is not in charge to the extent that he wants us to believe. He emerges, however, as a most illuminating reflection of the figures who do come out on top, namely those members of the community who can truly greet the dragoons as saviours.
In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, then, Arden presents a story—or a fable, to use a Brechtian term sometimes also employed by Arden—which derives its basic structure from the clash between the type of Mummers’ Play known as the Wooing Ceremony and the ideas promoted by a Cromwellian Recruiting Sergeant. By setting the action in Victorian times, Arden achieves a perspective which heightens the effect of his fable, bringing it closer to the modern spectator and yet leaving it at a certain distance where its overall significance is more easily discerned. Any attempts by the spectator to identify with the character of Musgrave are plainly doomed to end in frustration and confusion: this Serjeant needs to be seen in the context of the fable as a whole. As Arden has stated in an article published only a couple of years after Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance:
A play that is a sermon and no more will be in danger of preaching only to the converted. But if the sermon is expressed in terms of a poetic statement (either of the bad life that is, or the good life that could be, or of both contrasted) and given to the audience to hold, as it might be a ripe apple, so that they could look at it all round and decide for themselves by touch and feel whether it is sound or not—then one may have some hope of effecting a change in somebody’s heart.
The bad life that is, contrasted with the good life that could be, all expressed in terms of a poetic statement... the description neatly encapsulates the action and form of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. Here an ostensibly simple clash of opposites is endowed with archetypal dimensions as a result of the application of the pattern of the Mummers’ Play, and the poetic impact of this conflict is heightened by Arden’s extensive use of ballad-style songs and verse. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance offers very good examples of the playwright’s technique of employing songs and verse as a means of reaching through to his spectators and involving them emotionally in a conflict which subsequently unfolds also at a more intellectual level. In strikingly immediate terms, moreover, the songs and verse transmit that pulse of death and rebirth which beats with such vigour not only in early drama but in a whole range of twentieth-century writings besides Arden’s play.
The verse in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance helps to crystallize the significance of the primary colours, black and white, red and green, which pervade the play like a visual echo of its basic rhythm. More importantly, the songs and verse bring out and enhance the stylization of the characters which is so central to the overall design of the play, setting the female characters sharply against the males. As the themes of the songs and verse revolve around woman as the provider of life and love, while man is seen as her transient partner, the cycle of life and death is in effect condensed in the verse used in the play. This cycle is epitomized by the life of the soldier, which is a recurring subject of the ballads and the verse in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and which, invariably, is depicted as a brief spell of vigour and aggressive virility in the looming shadow of death. By contrast, the unique and mysterious powers of the women are mirrored in poetic utterances which are remarkably perceptive and even prophetic, while the limitations of the magistrates are underlined by the fact that songs and verse are quite beyond their reach: the dour men in charge of this community can express themselves only in prose.
In the case of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the combination of two sections from the medieval Cycle Plays provides a distinctive form for the tragedy and adds a significant moral dimension to the story of the Scottish usurper. In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, the Mummers’ Play fulfils the equivalent functions, but it also plays a third role which is at least as important as the other two. The Mummers’ Play is, by definition, an expression of the life of the community. Arden’s employment of this ancient pattern enables him not only to pinpoint what he sees as the causes of its distortion, but, more immediately, to bring into focus the inherent potential of the community. “[B]egin again” is the recurring call at the end of the scene in the marketplace, and any spectator who has followed the plot of Arden’s play will be able to perceive the negative implications of this new beginning. When the underlying patterns are taken into account, however, the call also acquires a more challenging note. Arden is not an irresponsible romantic making a plea for a return to the distant past when the ritual of the Mummers’ Play had a central communal function; but he is making a plea for the community, and more especially for the ordinary people who have the capacity to maintain it as a living organism. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is thus not merely a story of life and love and their oppression. With its combination of historical scope, dramatic effectiveness, and poetic impact, this fable is ultimately designed to impart to the spectator some of that awareness which is the first prerequisite for change.
Source: Helena Forsas-Scott, “Life and Love and Serjeant Musgrave: An Approach to Arden’s Play,” in Modern Drama, March, Vol. 26, 1983, no. 1, pp. 1–11.
In the following essay, Lagarde discusses similarities between Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and various plays by Shakespeare, notably Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet.
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, no doubt, may be considered first and foremost as a twentieth century reworking of The Recruiting Officer, inspired or influenced by Brecht’s vision of Farquhar’s comedy, the 1955 Berlin repertoire production of Pauken und Trompeten, with a few touches from Brecht’s own Mutter Courage. Yet, whatever the international influences at play in the world of theatre nowadays, an English dramatist cannot forget he was nurtured on a national tradition which began in the Renaissance and John Arden, who acknowledged his debt to Ben Jonson in The Waters of Babylon, cannot be an exception. Indeed the reader of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance more than once gathers the impression that Shakespeare was pent up in Arden’s mind, ready to gush forth, from the moment of the inception to that of the definitive draft.
The turning-point in the plot, when the soldiers lose all hope of gaining the support of the colliers, comes, everyone will agree, after Annie has revealed the hole in Sparky’s tunic which confounds Musgrave and indicts the Army:
(holding up the tunic). Hey, here’s the little hole where they let in the bayonet. Eee, aie, easily in. His blood’s on my tongue, so hear what it says. A bayonet is a raven’s beak. This tunic’s a collier’s jacket. The scarecrow’s a birdcage. (SMD, III. 1.101)
Now this sounds like a clear recollection of Antony’s speech and tactics to move the Roman plebians. The situation is the same; Brutus has explained that Caesar’s ambition constituted a threat to the citizens’ liberties and that death was the only solution; so Musgrave has tried to convince the colliers that British ambition, greed and callousness were the causes of the rebellion in the distant protectorate and consequently that the Mayor, the Parson and the Constable are guilty of Billy’s death as well as of the natives’ sufferings at the hands of Her Majesty’s soldiers; on both occasions the orator at first carries the conviction of his listeners (though a modern audience demands nuances and Arden’s earnest collier, Walsh, provides the necessary dissenting voice). As Antony leaves the pulpit and ‘descends’ into the midst of his fellow-Romans, so Annie has ceremoniously ‘come down the ladder’, taken possession of the centre of the platform and mixed with her fellow-citizens the better to move
“WHILE MACBETH IS A PREY TO HIS FEARS AND HALLUCINATIONS, THE TWO GROOMS OF THE CHAMBER SNORE AWAY THE TIME, EXACTLY AS ATTERCLIFFE AND HURST SNORE DURING THE GREATEST PART OF MUSGRAVE’S NERVE-RACKING NIGHTMARES....”
them; as Antony plucks the mantle off Caesar’s corpse, so Annie has Mrs Hitchcock throw her the ‘bundle’ and reveals the rent tunic of the Army’s other victim to incense the lookers-on. Actually the words His blood’s on my tongue spring from the same rhetorical trick of introducing the blood and wounds as orators and the speaker as a mere mouthpiece for a dead friend; though Antony’s cultivated mind may resort to more elaborate language and prompt the revolt that the forlorn barmaid cannot even wish for, consciously or unconsciously:
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me [...]
[...] and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar, that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny
(Julius Caesar, III.2.227–8, 229–31),
there exists a great similarity in the technique of the two characters as well as in the end result. Not only does Arden remember and reproduce the circumstances and details of how a crowd switch their support, but he makes the back-drop of the mining town resemble that of Caesar’s Rome: the rumours of wars and rebellions, the presence of the army at the gates. After the arrival of the dragoons and the restoration of law and order, Walsh bitterly remarks that being saved means that We’re back where we were (SMD, III. 1.105); one might say as much of Rome after the check on tyranny devised by Brutus and Cassius, for the shadow of dictatorship has not fled the city. One might also argue that the liberator of the mining town, the officer, the young man (SMD, III. 1.1.04), is the very apt counterpart of Octavius, whom Shakespeare conceived of as a young man, in opposition to Antony. Furthermore, the Bargee, a modern avatar of the Lord of Misrule, who changes sides as easily as a weather-cock and whose mind constantly dwells on drinks and destruction, stands as a good epitome of the crowds that Shakespeare paints in Julius Caesar and elsewhere. The title-hero, however, is the character that gains most from a contamination by the Roman play; his profession and his illicit return to the mother-country may, at first sight, suggest a resemblance with Julius Caesar, his death being the only means of exorcizing fear; on second thought, though, it is with Brutus that Musgrave has greater affinities, for both evince idealism, self-control and relentlessness of purpose and both for the first half of the play subjugate other characters, forcing them to endorse their vision of things. Moreover, during their abortive attempt to murder the men in office, the conspirators and liberators, Musgrave and Hurst, quarrel, not unlike Brutus and Cassius after Caesar’s death, because they disagree on their deeper motives.
True, Brutus is haunted by the ghost of Caesar before and during the battle at Philippi, whereas Musgrave never flinches after his defeat. If the serjeant feels the panges of remorse, it is before he embarks upon the final stage of his mission, at the time of Sparky’s murder in the stable, and scene 3 of act II seems to owe more to Macbeth than to any other play. First, Mrs Hitchcock visits Musgrave when the latter is oppressed by nightmares and not only re-lives the ordeal of the repression but lives the revenge to come—since the number of victims, twenty-five, fits either situation equally well. Mrs Hitchcock brings him a grog, just as Lady Macbeth has been expected to prepare a drink for her husband on the fatal night. Like Macbeth, Musgrave should have been ‘against the deed’ in both the foreign and the mining town, since in both places he was welcomed as the man bearing the weapons to protect others, not to kill his hosts. While Macbeth is a prey to his fears and hallucinations, the two grooms of the chamber snore away the time, exactly as Attercliffe and Hurst snore during the greatest part of Musgrave’s nerve-racking nightmares; for like Macbeth the serjeant hath murdered sleep, the innocent sleep. Keeping Macbeth’s hallucinations in mind, the public better understands Musgrave’s part in the scene, Musgrave who follows the book (the Bible and the Queen’s Book) as irresistibly as the Scottish felon follows the dagger of the mind. The infernal concatenation of murders, which is masterfully illustrated in Macbeth, is also one of the lessons of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, in this scene especially. The final hecatomb in Shakespeare’s tragedy is ushered in by the apparition of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in her nightgown; Mrs Hitchcock, in her nightgown also, heralds the many deaths, the first of which, that of Sparky, is concomitant with her visit; no matter if it is the woman who is wide awake and the man a near somnambulist here, the resemblance forces itself upon the minds of the audience, all the more easily as Arden stresses, thanks to the two distinct acting areas, downstage and upstage, the incongruity of the bar-owner’s proffered comfort for the serjeant’s metaphysical anxiety, the two characters living then on as surely different planes as Lady Macbeth and her husband in the last act of the tragedy—Musgrave (now shouting in his sleep) (SMD, II.3.70) being reminiscent of the night-shriek in Dunsinane.
In the same scene (II.3) there remains one echo of Macbeth, a very distinct verbal echo, which seems to fit the dramatic situation far less satisfactorily; Attercliffe, after rejecting the advances of Annie, looks at his hands and quotes Musgrave:
Our Black Jack’d [...] say there’s blood on these two hands. (He looks at his hands with distaste.) You can wipe “em as often as you want on a bit o” yellow hair, but it still comes blood the next time so why bother, he’d say (SMD, II.3.67),
which must remind everyone of Lady Macbeth’s obsession with the damned spot on her hand (Macbeth, V. 1.34), rather than of Macbeth’s horror earlier in the play (Macbeth, II. 1.59–63), for the possibility no longer exists of ‘clearing’ the guilty one of his ‘deed’ with a little water; Attercliffe’s reflection comes at a moment when a woman’s love can no longer assuage his sorrow, which can compare with the Shakespearian heroine’s predicament in act V. Now the scene in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance also evokes Romeo and Juliet, in reverse as it were; Hurst has repelled Annie, because instead of anticipating the pleasures of the night he fears the cold of the morning (SMD, II.3.64–5): As far as my mind goes, it’s morning already. Every one alone—that’s all; one at once thinks of Juliet’s passionate longing for the night and of her plea in favour of Romeo’s prolonging their happiness together in defiance of the morning’s threats. Once the resemblance has been taken for granted, the scene between Sparky and Annie appears in a new light and recalls that of the Verona lovers who also fight against a hostile environment and resort to ruse and concealment. Indeed in the eyes of Juliet’s Nurse, the heroine’s sentiments seem to waver, to favour Tybalt, then Romeo and, why not, Paris by turns; Annie may give the same impression to the casual observer, Mrs Hitchcock for instance and all those that take her for a whoor-to-the-soldiers, when she comes to settle her affections on Sparky for good, though she has passed from one box to the other, from one soldier to the next. When Annie comes down the ladder to be reunited with the skeleton of her former lover, one is almost tempted to associate it with the ladder which the Nurse procures and
by the which your love [i.e. Romeo]
Must climb a bird’s nest soon when it is dark
(Romeo and Juliet, 11.5.73–4),
the descent towards death having replaced the ascent towards life, though it is equally prompted by love, and the winter morning has replaced the summer night.
If all these similitudes and analogies are accepted, Annie’s ‘song-ballad’ to describe Musgrave’s parentage:
The North Wind in a pair of millstones
Was your father and your mother
They got you in a cold grinding (SMD, 1.3.32)
expresses the same ‘stricture and abstinence’ and savours of the same wit as Lucio’s tales of Angelo’s begetting:
They say, this Angelo was not made by man and woman, after the downright way of creation [...]. Some report a sea-maid spawned him... some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes... But it is certain, that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice. (Measure for Measure, III.2.101–3, 105–8)
Again, when Annie portrays Hurst wandering down by the canal, all alone and wretched and, to tease him, sings with fierce emphasis:
All round his hat he wore the green willow—!
one instinctively thinks of Desdemona’s song of the willow and its evocation of a forsaken lover. Later, the Bargee’s ballad, Hark hark the drums do bark (SMD, III. 1.83), suggests Ariel’s song when the spirit leads Ferdinand along the yellow sands:
The burthen . . . Hark!
‘Burthen dispersedly.’ Bow-wow!
Ariel. The watch-dogs bark:
Ariel. Hark, hark, I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
(The Tempest, 1.2.382–9)
Although Arden’s prose does not echo Shakespeare’s verse so obviously as it does nursery rhymes at times (’Baa, baa, black sheep’, II. 1.56 and II.3.69, or ‘London’s burning, London’s burning!’, II.3.70), it would no doubt be quite easy to discover other Shakespearian traces. What must be asserted is that no one can read or see Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance without calling to mind the great model that Shakespeare has remained, even after the 1956 bang of Look Back in Anger. Dissociated from his Renaissance counterparts or ancestors, the Bargee loses much of his fascination; the very title of Arden’s plays suggests a typically Elizabethan and Jacobean convention, for to Musgrave’s dance there responds the Bargee’s dance, which closes the ‘un-historical parable’ proper—III.2 is hardly more than an epilogue—and in which the spectators on the stage join the professional merrymaker as the assassins joined hands at the end of a revenge tragedy or as courtiers and professional dancers joined in masques and antimasques. Quite naturally, borrowing, which ranges from unconscious reminiscence to patent imitation, may turn to parody, witness the officer’s proclamation:
The winter’s broken up. Let normal life begin again (SMD, III. 1.105),
promising the dawn of a new golden age when everything points to unchanged and unchangeable misery for all but the representatives of the powers that be. Irony does not detract from indebtedness or from adhesion to a tradition; irony and parody are only methods of adaptation.
Source: Fernand Lagarde, “Shakespearian Reminiscences in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance,” in Cahiers Elisabethains, Vol. 17, 1980, pp. 77–81.
Thomas P. Adler
In the following essay, Adler suggests that Musgrave’s first dance partakes of ritual elements in “a grotesque parody of the Christian’slaying of winter”—the Crucifixion—and a perversion of its essential meaning.”
In a recent article, Mary B. O’Connell suggests that John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is “a contemporary folk ritual” whose “characterization and plot development” are modeled on the medieval Mummers Play of Plough Monday, which traditionally was “a mime slaying of winter.” The purpose here is not to dispute Miss O’Connell’s suggestion, since the Plough Monday play might well be the inspiration behind some elements in Arden’s drama, especially the second dance near the end during which “Each man takes his drink, swigs a large gulp, then links wrists with the previous one, until all are dancing around the centrepiece in a chorus, singing.” I suggest, however, that the first dance in the play, undertaken near the beginning of Act III by Musgrave alone, partakes of ritual elements of a more specifically religious nature. Here Musgrave, “waving his rifle, his face contorted with demonic fury,” dances around “an articulated skeleton dressed in a soldier’s tunic and trousers,” hanging from “the cross-bar” in the town square, in what is obviously a grotesque parody of the Christian “slaying of winter”—the Crucifixion—and a perversion of its essential meaning.
Arden’s debt to medieval drama is well-known: his modern mystery play, The Business of Good Government, written for performance during Christmastime, is, as John Russell Taylor says, “of a radiant grace and simplicity which make clear some of the lessons Arden has learned from a study of the medieval stage. . .”; and Robert John Jordan has rightly singled out certain aspects of the characterization and conflict in Musgrave’s Dance as “almost morality-play in style.” Although there was never any literal dance around the cross in the Crucifixion plays in the medieval mystery cycles, Christ’s death was seen as the climactic event in the sacred history of mankind from the Creation to the Last Judgment in that it reconciled man with God and was thus the culmination of God’s salvific dance of grace on earth.
Arden’s stage directions specify a number of visual images and gestures which would suggest to the audience a re-enactment of the Crucifixion—albeit in a parodic way—in the hoisting of the skeleton and Musgrave’s demonic dance around it. The description of the stage set for Act III, Scene One, states that “In the centre of the stage is a practicable feature—the centre-piece of the market place. It is a sort of Victorian clock-tower-cum-lamppost-cum-market-cross, and stands on a raised plinth. There is a ladder leaning against it.” (The last two photographs of the English production which are published at the back of the Grove Press edition of the play show very well how the crosslike formation of this centre-piece dominates the setting.) Two other stage directions dictating gesture and movement by the actors would also play on the audience’s awareness of Christian symbology and call to mind Christ’s crucifixion: when Attercliffe, the pacifist follower of Musgrave, jumps in front of Hurst’s gatling gun to prevent him from opening fire on the crowd, he “stands on the step of the plinth. . . with his arms spread out” in a Christlike pose; and when the skeleton of Billy Hicks is removed from the cross-bar, his former mistress Annie “sits with it on her knees,” cradling it in her arms in a visual image reminiscent of the Pieta.
If the central message of Christ’s crucifixion is one of love and reconciliation—the inauguration of a new dispensation of forgiveness—, then Musgrave’s fanatical plan for revenge—a throwback to the old dispensation of “an eye for an eye” vengeance—is antithetical to the meaning of the cross. Musgrave is correct in his original assumption that his gospel of no more war coincides with the Word of God, particularly as expressed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount; as Musgrave says, “without God” such a proclamation of peace is but “a bad belch and a hiccup.” He desires to “Let the word dance,” but, ignoring the lesson of the Crucifixion, errs in his conviction that “God’s dance on this earth” must be a thing of fear and trembling; “The Word alone is terrible: the Dance must be worse.” Arden dramatically underscores Musgrave’s failure to perceive that God’s dance is one of mercy rather than of strict, retributive justice. When Musgrave prays, “keep my mind clear so I can weigh Judgement against the Mercy and Judgement against the Blood, and make this Dance as terrible as You have put it into my brain,” the Bargee undercuts the Serjeant’s petition as he “parodies his attitude behind his back” and at the end “gives a sanctimonious smirk and breathes ‘Amen’.”
Seen against the backdrop of Christ’s life-bringing death on the Cross, Musgrave’s “crucifixion” of the skeleton of the dead Hicks is life-denying, thus perverting a symbol of mercy and love into an embodiment and justification of vengeance. As Annie, the force of life and love in the play, perceives, this is the “old true-love gone twisted,” malformed and transformed into something akin to hate. This is supported by the recurrent symbol of the “twisted little dead” baby which she conceived just before Hicks went off to war: “when it wor born, it came a kind of bad shape, pale, sick: it wor dead and in the ground in no more nor two month. About the time they called him [Billy] dead, y’see.” The baby buried in the ground and Billy’s skeleton hanging from the cross-bar are the two most pervasive momento mori emblems in a play filled with the aura of death—with the cold of winter rather than the warmth of spring.
For the movement from death to life, from winter to spring, which is an important motif in both the Mummers Play of Plough Monday and the Christian observance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection each Eastertime, is really quite muted in Musgrave’s Dance. Hicks’ “crucifixion” has not led to a new era of peace; as the innkeeper Mrs. Hitchcock says, the townspeople’s dance at the end is “not a dance of joy.” And Attercliffe knows why this is so: “you can not end it [war] by its own rules: no bloody good.” Musgrave tried to unmask the absurdity of war by extending the reign of bloodshed and terror. Now Musgrave’s own folly is unmasked, for no shedding of blood in the name of peace is good.
But Mrs. Hitchcock does suggest the tentative hope that what Musgrave attempted to achieve through the wrong means will someday be accomplished through the right means: “Let’s hope it, any road, Eh.” The ballad that Attercliffe sings to conclude the play makes the contrast between “a blood-red rose-flower”—a symbol for the soldiers throughout the play—and “the apple [which] holds a seed will grow / In live and lengthy joy / To raise a flourishing tree of fruit / For ever and a day.” The apple, significantly enough, becomes the major symbol of life and hope in the play. Popularizations of the Biblical story of the Fall in Genesis 3 identify the fruit of the forbidden tree as the apple; and according to Apocryphal legends, which influenced much medieval literature, seeds from that same fruit sprung up into the tree from which Christ’s cross is hewn. Thus, as the Catholic liturgy for Passiontide emphasizes, man’s salvation is accomplished upon the tree of the cross so that life might be restored through the very same instrument that brought death. So, too, Attercliffe and Musgrave, hanging “higher nor most apple-trees grow,” might someday “start an orchard.” Their deaths, dancing from a noose in expiation for using bloody means to end war, may be one step closer than Hicks’ “crucifixion” to inaugurating God’s dance of love and peace on earth.
Source: Thomas P. Adler, “Religious Ritual in Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 16, 1973, pp. 163–66.
In the following essay, Thome describes Musgrave as an “Old Testament avenger” in a morality play indebted to the Elizabethan romantic and dramatic tradition.
Next to Harold Pinter, John Arden is perhaps the most respected contemporary English playwright. And this despite the fact he has made a break with realism which carries his work back in method to
“SEEN AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF CHRIST’S LIFE-BRINGING DEATH ON THE CROSS, MUSGRAVE’S ‘CRUCIFIXION’ OF THE SKELETON OF THE DEAD HICKS IS LIFE-DENYING, THUS PERVERTING A SYMBOL OF MERCY AND LOVE INTO AN EMBODIMENT AND JUSTIFICATION OF VENGEANCE.”
the Renaissance. His best known play, written in 1959 and signalling his break with kitchen sink realism, is Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. But Arden’s acceptance has not been instantaneous, nor have his plays lasted long at the box office on their first run.
Musgrave, for example, lasted 28 performances, largely because its initial audiences could fathom neither its medium nor its message. The liberal spectators saw in the play a tract about pacifism which seemed to show that pacifism does not work. The conservatives saw a statement that human weakness and evil confound the liberal idealism of the naive.
One of the problems with the play is that Arden does not take sides; he merely presents the humanity of a series of contradictory points of view on the same issue. Unfortunately, he loses the thread briefly toward the end of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, and like his main character scribbles on the orderly tablet of his plot and theme.
As a result, the confused message of this modern morality play leaves not only the angry men of the cast but also the audience unsure of what has been accomplished by the action of the plot. Surprisingly, however, the play has actually worked on stage for subsequent audiences, especially after the B.B.C. television production of 1962. Its emotional impact seems heightened rather than lessened by the folk stylization, particularly the choric role played by the women and the enigmatic Bargee. And though the moral is blurred in the final scene, the audience’s emotional reaction remains strongly positive.
“THE BARGEE IS THEN A MOCKING FIGURE OF INTRIGUE REMINISCENT OF THE VICE FIGURE OF RENAISSANCE MORALITY PLAYS. SYMBOLIZING THE POTENTIAL EVIL OF MAN’S NATURE, HE THEREFORE EXTENDS THE MEANING OF THE PLAY BEYOND CONVENTIONAL WARFARE. . . .”
Arden’s depiction of the protest crusade of Musgrave, Sparky, Hurst, and Attercliffe seems more than commonly indebted to the Elizabethan dramatic tradition. The play appears to deliberately incorporate the Elizabethan romantic tradition in plot structure and incidental device, for example in the use of songs and comic dance and action, thereby producing a modern Elizabethan hybrid, a tragicomedy. The romantic plot structure and the folk stylization serve to relieve the sombre quality of the basic action and the Jehovian madness of the central character, Black Jack Musgrave. Like Osborne’s The Entertainer and several of Pinter’s plays, Musgrave owes a good deal as well to the British music hall tradition.
Arden portrays Serjeant Musgrave as an Old Testament avenger stirred out of his habitual guidelines for living (the Book of Regulations) by the inconsistencies of a colonial war.
Unable to reconcile the book and the fact, Musgrave substitutes books, the Book of the Lord for the Book of Regulations. With the power of a new set of regulations, the Word and hence the Power of the Lord, Musgrave convinces himself that military tactics and Old Testament reprisal should be used to force the people at home to see the evil of his “Colonial War.”
Of his three confederates, only Private Attercliffe sees the error of Musgrave’s ways, though Attercliffe, too, is limited by the torture of conscience.
To end it by its own rules: no bloody good. She’s right, you’re wrong. You can’t cure the pox by further whoring. Sparky died of those damned rules. And so did the other one.
Attercliffe’s discovery during the play is that all war, not just a particular colonial war, is evil. The individual life and the individual death, contrary to the philosophy of Musgrave’s perverted evangelism, are very much “material.”
Musgrave has adopted without question the role of a military Messiah, bringing the word of the Lord by the doctrine of “measure for measure” as a panacea for ending his war. Obsessed with the brutality and inhumanity of a colonial war, Musgrave sees himself as an instrument of God sent to punish sinners. But he is tragically unaware that he has become an extension of the very thing he has come to defeat. As Attercliffe hysterically cries to him in Act Two, scene one, “We’ve come to stop it, not to start it. . .”
Confusing his motives and methods, Musgrave attempts to use the methods of the army in crushing a colonial rebellion to bring his message to the people at home. To appease his own conscience, he is willing to create a bloodbath by turning a gatling gun on a square full of civilians. This device simply restates in symbolic dramatic terms Musgrave’s point that “their riots and our war are the same one corruption.” And it makes clear that Musgrave’s motive is to work the guilt for the slaughter of particular people back to the individual at home.
The tragic irony in the play, then, is that the Serjeant’s method for curing the ills of the world is just as confused and evil as anyone else’s despite the suggestion that his motivation was initially just. Though only Attercliffe sees all war as sin Sparky comes very, close in his halting suggestion of “paying through love,” a New Testament conversion of Musgrave’s measure for measure.
The women, of course, indict the tragic domestic results of war and poverty. Through his use of the folk songs and the choric function of Annie and Mrs. Hitchcock, Arden makes clear that the women condemn violence as a means of social protest or political change.
By means of carefully developed parallels between representatives of Management, Labour, Church, and State, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance becomes more than an anti-war document, for it depends on the coordinating function of the Bargee to establish its composite meaning. The Bargee is primarily a personification of crooked, distorted human nature! Crooked Old Joe Bludgeon tempts, is tempted, and finally leads the gothically grotesque dance around the centrepiece upon which Billy Hicks has been gruesomely resurrected. In his use of the Bargee as an “interlocutor” figure, Arden cleverly melds the classical and folk dramatic traditions. Old Joe Bludgeon simulates crowd reactions, recounts action off stage, adds a refrain dimension to the plot, and initiates action by playing on the weaknesses and desires of the Parson, the Mayor, Walsh, and the women.
The Bargee is then a mocking figure of intrigue reminiscent of the Vice figure of Renaissance morality plays. Symbolizing the potential evil of man’s nature, he therefore extends the meaning of the play beyond conventional warfare, beyond the battle of the pitmen and the Establishment, to the violence, the heart of darkness, which may afflict all men. As Arden points out in his introduction to the Evergreen edition of the play, “The Bargee is something of a grotesque, a hunchback. . . very rapid in his movements, with a natural urge towards intrigue and mischief.” That the Bargee represents the very thing Musgrave is battling against is made clear in Mrs. Hitchcock’s speech in Act Three, scene two, when she exclaims despairingly, “All I can see is Crooked Joe Bludgeon having his dance out in the middle of fifty Dragoons!”
The Bargee’s mockery of the main figures is designed to supply exposition, but his temptation of the Parson to use soldiers to control the colliers also suggests his similarity to the Vice tradition. He represents the self-seeking egotism of man which precipitates not only battles between coal-owners and pitmen, but colonial wars as well. The Bargee’s temptation of Walsh, to use the gatling gun in forcing the mine owners to capitulate, establishes a clear parallel between Walsh and Musgrave. Walsh, the union leader, has been stung into action by injustice, but he is just as willing as Musgrave to allow the end to justify any means used.
Equally single-minded, he also wishes to force the whole of society to accept the rules for a single group, in fact to foster anarchy. Ironically, both these reform leaders live to see crooked human nature defeat their idealism. Walsh’s capitulation and eventual joining of the beer dance therefore symbolize the triumph of egotistic self-interest.
The folk stylization of the play is integrated with the role of the Bargee to coordinate the action. The ballads themselves, of course, pick up major themes and sections of the action to counterpoint or restate them. This folk device, characteristic of traditional mummer’s plays, the British music hall, or musical comedy in general, adds colour and variety to the play, despite the stark setting and the stripped stage. And ritual elements introduced into the play also increase the strength of its message. At the end of Act One, scene three, Musgrave delivers his stylized “Let the world dance” speech. In the following act, the Bargee acts as a refrain to Musgrave’s address to the colliers. Earlier the incantatory delivery of the cemetery scene accentuates the red and black symbolism in the dialogue. Red is the color of the “blood-red rose flower” which is the central image of the play, and dominates the black and white of the winter coal town. As Arden explains, black is for death and the coal mines. Red is for murder and the red coat the collier puts on to escape his black.
The humour of the songs, as well as that of Sparky and the Bargee, extends the scope of the play and cushions its action. The songs and dialogue are so obviously reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads as to give the impression of what Ronald Bryden calls “the black North and red-coated imperialism.” The Bargee’s song at the beginning of Act Three, for example, is typical of the play’s satirical attacks upon the Establishment:
Hip hip hooroar
Hark hark the drums do bark
The Hungry Army’s coming to town
Lead ‘em in with a Holy Book
A golden chain and a scarlet gown.
And the chant-like delivery of the theme “A soldier’s duty is a soldier’s life” is heightened by punctuating drum rolls and the maniacal dance of Musgrave. The song he sings complements the theme of death and duty.
Though Arden is certainly criticizing the methods of British imperialism, the colour imagery of the play generates meaning beyond simple indictment of war in general or the British colonial Raj in particular. In fact the play envelopes all of its characters in its controlling irony and leaves none unscathed by its searching scrutiny of human nature.
At the level of political allegory, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance seems to play no favourites. Both Management and Labour become self-seeking and ludicrous in their struggle to advance an egocentric point of view. In the “angry” tradition of British drama, Arden moves from the principle of corrupt human nature to corrupt society. Motivated by the self-interest symbolized by the Bargee, workers and managers meet in conflict, so that “war” is presented as a basic fact of the human condition. Like Jimmy Porter and the other prototypal anger figures of the sixties, Serjeant Musgrave’s “hurt” has angered him into violence. Emotion by-passing reason, he lashes out at a system he cannot reconcile with the “materialities” of life as he experiences it.
The point has been made elsewhere that what began “with the power and sureness of a legend or ballad peters out in discussion.” The judgement that the final working out of the moral is clouded and confused in the “apple orchard scene” between Musgrave and Mrs. Hitchcock seems a just criticism of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. For the balletic quality of the play is lost here in a debate during which the audience cannot see the woods for the trees. The Christian Soldiers, confused and launched on a vendetta to clear mind and conscience, have ended lost in a trackless wood.
Though Eden’s taint seems in the background of the apple orchard song at the end of the play, Arden’s intention is unclear. Will the ritual gesture of self-sacrifice and the wildwood madness of Musgrave bear fruit? Will it be remembered? Probably not! For the implication of the play is that, when the “blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” all the world goes wild-wood mad.
That violence begets only more violence is underscored by the central irony of the play—Sparky’s accidental death. Again Attercliffe is the incidental cause and carries the taint of guilt despite his good intentions. Guilt by association, of course, is exactly what they have come to prove. Ironically, however, they prove it only on themselves. The villagers remain substantially untouched by their sacrificial gesture, forced into foolish acquiescence by economic circumstances and a solid ring of red coated dragoons.
Source: Barry Thome, “Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance: Form and Meaning,” in Queen’s Quarterly, Vol. 78, 1971, pp. 567–71.
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.
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.