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Serjeant Musgrave's Dance

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A: John Arden Pf: 1959, London Pb: 1960 G: Pol. drama in 3 acts S: Northern English mining town, 1879 C: 13m, 2fSerjeant Musgrave arrives with three soldiers, Sparky, Attercliffe, and Hurst, in a northern mining town, apparently recruiting for the army. The town is in unrest, with striking miners rebelling against the forces of law and order: the Parson, the Constable, and the Mayor, who is also the mineowner. The miners are concerned that the soldiers have come to break the strike, while the Establishment figures welcome the recruiters, hoping that they will ‘get rid o' the troublemakers’. The soldiers lodge at an inn, and Sparky reveals that they have taken part in an atrocity in the colonies. The recruiting meeting will be an opportunity for them to tell the English citizens what is being done in their name. In the night, Sparky is killed in a brawl over Annie, a local girl who offers warmth and compassion to the soldiers. At the ‘recruiting’ meeting, Musgrave dances and chants as the skeleton of a youth formerly from the town is hauled aloft. Manning a Gatling gun, Musgrave then threatens to kill 25 of the townspeople as a reprisal for the atrocity. The dragoons arrive and restore order violently, killing Hurst, and everyone joins in a celebratory dance. At the end, only Musgrave and Attercliffe remain in prison awaiting execution.

A: John Arden Pf: 1959, London Pb: 1960 G: Pol. drama in 3 acts S: Northern English mining town, 1879 C: 13m, 2f

Now regarded as one of the finest plays of British post-war theatre, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was initially unsuccessful. Influenced by Brecht and by medieval and Elizabethan theatre, Arden, ‘pleading for the revival of Poetic Drama’, dispensed with individual psychology in favour of a historical setting, colourful action, and songs, and created an artificial dialogue characterized by short sentences, archaic-sounding constructions, and potent monosyllables. The effect is that of a dramatized ballad, reinforced by the use of repetition, pseudo-biblical images, dialect turns of phrase, and primary colours (one reason Arden gave for setting the play in the 19th century was to be able to introduce redcoats). The play advocates the ‘very hard doctrine’ of ‘complete pacifism’: based on an actual atrocity by British soldiers while Arden was on National Service in Cyprus, Musgrave sets out to right a wrong. However, he is a dangerous idealist, whose ‘logic’ that five times as many English civilians must be killed to avenge the atrocity, is patently misguided. As Attercliffe says, ‘You can't cure the pox by further whoring.’ The only mild hope is that the seed they have planted might ‘start an orchard’.

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John Arden (b. 1930)