Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is john arden’s second play to be put on at the Royal Court. It is in every way a development out of, and a distinct advance over Live Like Pigs. In the earlier play, Arden made a stubborn plea on behalf of a Gipsy family which refused to be housed, fed, organised, put on the electoral roll, inspected by the Welfare Officers, and generally buggered about in a new housing estate. The play made its case for a kind of rough anarchism at the level of feeling rather than through persuasive argument. The very existence of this family—disturbing the smug middle-class complacency of the estate by fighting and screaming, making love at the open window, pursuing the old vendettas of love and hatred in public—proffered a challenge to the self-satisfied neighbours of the Gipsy family. At the end, the respectable are so outraged that they take sticks and stones, and, supported by the local officials, storm the house. The Gipsies’ crude but direct feel for life unleashed the most primitive responses in the neighbourhood: and the play seemed to do roughly the same thing to the audience.
In Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Arden works in the same way, assaulting the audience directly, getting under the skin of their prejudices and complacencies, insisting that they go through and feel his material, refusing them any escape from the play through intellectual rationalising. The play is more tightly built than Live Like Pigs though still, perhaps too loose. It denies at every turn straight-forward realistic presentation or apprehension. It makes use of metaphor and images and poetry instead, in its comment upon war. And in spite of Doomsday For Dyson, The Offshore Island, and the “bomb” references in The Hostage, Paul Slickey and Look Back in Anger, this is the first full creative piece on the theme of peace and war which really makes any sense at all.
The play is set in a mining town in the North of England eighty years ago. Four soldiers—Serjeant Musgrave and three privates—arrive as deserters from the army. They have come with a single minded mission—to persuade the townspeople of the terrors and brutalities of a colonial war. And they bear with them, in a Maxim gun case, the skeleton of their comrade, needlessly slaughtered during a punitive raid on a colonial town, to display as final proof. The dead soldier was, in fact, a native of the town, and the lover of Annie, a serving girl in the local pub. The soldiers are dedicated men—held together by the driving mania of their Serjeant, who has a deep religious vision about his Cause, which he pursues and is pursued by, almost to a point of fixed insanity.
The soldiers arrive during the middle of a lock-out at the mines, and the local mine-owner and the parson welcome the appearance of the troops. The Serjeant, biding his time for a dramatic revelation of his purpose, pretends that he is on a recruiting mission, and the Mayor immediately plans a deal with the troops to take off, in the service of the Queen, a crop of local agitators.
The central development of the play takes place in the Second Act, which is set in the local public house where the troops are quartered. Here the tensions implicit in the soldiers’ mission begin to break through. Musgrave insists with his men that the Cause be kept pure. The younger men fall in with the miners, but the watchful Serjeant—appearing to join in the merriment—in fact holds them steady, and breaks up the drinking session before the men are drunk. There is a moment when Musgrave grasps the miners’ leader by the arm, telling him that they are brothers, offering him a pint of beer; yet, by his manner, Musgrave chills the proceedings, so that the miners’ suspicions that they are being tricked into the army surge forward again. In the third scene, the three privates bed down in the stables; each is approached in turn by the serving girl, Annie, who in her direct way offers to sleep with each of them. High in the background, in the loft of the pub, perched on his pillows and then tossing in disturbed sleep, lies Serjeant Musgrave, warning his men without words that the Cause of peace and the Cause of love are, ultimately, irreconcilable. One of the privates is too old; another is willing, but restrained by the puritanism of Musgrave, whose code he feels, but cannot understand. The third—the youngest of the three—cannot contain his passion and, fighting it all the time, makes love to Annie and resolves to leave his Mission and go away. The second private awakes, discovers him, and in the scuffle, runs him through with a bayonet; Musgrave, high in his room, starts awake, and his piercing scream cuts through play and audience.
In the final act, Musgrave takes the platform at a public meeting, and, watched by the Mayor, the parson and the miners, appeals to their conscience by describing in detail how soldiers are trained, how the rifle is fired, and finally reveals the skeleton. The miners are moved; the Cause is sane and human; perhaps the Serjeant is a comrade? Perhaps they they should enlist in his Cause? Then Annie enters. “Where is the fourth soldier?” she cries. He is dead—run through with the bayonet of the peace-bringers. The miners turn away; their Cause, they say, is here, in the pits, between Capital and Labour. Musgrave’s Cause is humanity—but in fighting for it, humanity has been betrayed. Annie weeping on the stage, the miners unmoved, the dead soldier salted away in the outhouse, make their point.
Then Musgrave advances on the audience. His body twists and contorts, as he tries, physically and with raging voice, to drive home the lessons of the brutality