Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance

by John Arden. This British play, from 1959, is stunningly relevant to our situation today. John Musgrave, a army serjeant, has deserted with three other soldiers, carrying with them a Gatling gun and a skeleton of a murdered comrade. He goes to the victim’s town, a small mining village in the middle of a dispute between the colliery workers and the owners in order to impress upon them the horrors of war, and the terrible arithmetic and Logic of murder. He calls all the town together and unveils the skeleton, dressed in uniform, in order to incite the workers to kill the mayor.

Here is one particularly haunting passage:

MUSGRAVE: I’m a religious man, and I see the causes of the Almighty in every human work… Now as I understand the workings of God, through greed and the world, this man didn’t die because he went alone to the opera, he was killed because he had to be — it being decided; that now the people in that city was worked right up to killing soldiers, then more and more soldiers should be sent for them to kill, and the soldiers in turn should kill the people in that city, more and more, always — that’s what I said to you: four men, one girl, then the twenty-five and the nine — and it’ll go on, there or elsewhere, and it can’t be stopped neither, except there’s someone finds out Logic and brings the wheel around.

It sounds all too familiar these days. In the end, this bald statement of the argument accepted by the townspeople but the conclusion is rejected:

HURST: We’ve earned our living by beating and killing folk like yourselves in the streets of their own city. Well, it’s drove us mad — and so we come back here to tell you what it’s like. The ones we want to deal with aren’t, for a change, you and your mates, but a bit higher up. The ones that never get hurt. (He points at the MAYOR, PARSON, and CONSTABLE). Him. Him. Him. You hurt them hard, and they’ll not hurt you again. And they’ll not send us to hurt you neither. But if you let ’em be, then us three’ll be killed — aye and worse, we’ll be forgotten — and the whole bloody lot’ll start all over again!

It’s not right — people balk at this kind of revolutionary talk, this half crazed bloodthirsty lunacy. But Arden’s point (to me) is that we have a false dialectic of revolution on one hand and passive acceptance on the other. In a good staging of the play the audience will leave convinced that something is fundamentally wrong with the way in which we wage war and something has to be done about it.

Arden lets the soldiers speak to the madness of that which they have witnessed, which is what makes their statements so powerful. It can be argued that the Vietnam War was in part judged a mistake because of the testimony of soldiers. In the case of Gulf War I, stories of Gulf War Syndrome and other effects on soldiers were largely buried (and thus there’s no good way to verify the seriousness of the problem). The current administration tried its damndest to bury the Abu Ghraib photos precisely for this reason. Once people become viscerally aware of the horrors of war, their appetite diminishes.

In terms of playwriting, Arden’s evocation of place and time is suggestive of Durrenmatt in The Visit. I think this use of “any old specific village,” where the place is generic yet familiar and not two-dimensional, is highly effective for this type of political theater. A good thing to keep in mind when the constraints of Realism come creeping up behind you.

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