By John Arden
Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was written in 1959 and was inspired by the real life shooting of five civilians by British soldiers in Cyprus. The story is set in 1880 and takes place in a small Northern mining town in the grip of an icy winter. A group of four soldiers, led by the haunted Jack Musgrave, arrives in the town, which is in the middle of a miners’ strike. Unknown to the townspeople they are deserters but everyone see the soldiers as potential strike breakers. The civic leaders try to persuade Musgrave to recruit the ‘agitators’ so as to defuse the dangers of the strike while the strike leader Walsh warns Musgrave, ‘These streets is our streets.’
All the characters seemed damaged. The four soldiers are carrying deep psychological scars inflicted by the terrible things they have seen and done in the name of their country. Locals are damaged, some by the lives they lead and some by the fact they have lost friends and lovers to the army in the past. Through it all Musgrave holds a clear plan of what he intends to do. He borders insanity yet commands respect. He wants to exact revenge on those who start wars, who expect soldiers to go off and cope with the realities of killing and dying. ‘I’m in this to change all soldiers’ duties.’ His plan, however, has a time limit as a force of Dragoons is hot on the heels of the deserters.
The end of the play is a shocking Brechtian tour de force. It leaves audiences reeling and carrying certain images from the play long after it is over. This is a play about war and the costs of war. It is a play that, though it was initially dismissed by critics, went on to win the London Evening Standard Best Play award. Arden once said, “You don’t write to try to stop things. You write to show people there are things that need to be stopped….I still don’t feel all that distanced from Musgrave as, depressingly, it seems to have a lot of relevance today. I would have preferred not to have written a play that is quite so meaningful so many years later. I really would have liked the international situation to have changed a bit.” The truth is, with Iraq still dealing with an army of occupation, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance has never been more relevant.
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