Bringing the War Home

Issue section: 
(279)

Review of 'Sergeant Musgrave's Dance' by John Arden, Touring

There has recently been an explosion of new and revived productions of anti-war plays. One of the most exciting is John Arden's play Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, which was first performed in 1959 and was inspired by the killing of five people by British soldiers waging a colonial war in Cyprus.

It was initially slammed by critics, but the play really took off during the Vietnam War. As John Arden recently explained, 'It became relevant during the Vietnam War. I saw a highly effective American production in 1967 that surrounded the stage with blown-up photos of the fighting in Vietnam. It became relevant again in 1972 when 13 people were killed in Derry by British soldiers. And what's going on in Iraq makes it even more relevant. Iraq may not be an old-fashioned colonial war, but it's turning into one. We've got an army of occupation.'

Arden's play is about the horror of war and the resistance such horror breeds. In a state of shock at their part in a terrible colonial massacre, a group of soldiers have deserted. They plan to literally bring the war home. They arrive at a small mining town sealed by heavy snow. As Sergeant Musgrave says, 'We have come to this town to work this guilt back to its root.' However, the town itself is in its own state of war - between the miners and the mine owners. The perceptive sergeant claims that this war and the colonial war from which he has deserted share the same roots. Both the local leaders and the miners see the soldiers as potential strikebreakers. The mayor, pastor and constable try to get the soldiers 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.'

Against this backdrop we see the full impact of war beyond the battlefield unfold. There are the miners themselves who seek to escape the misery and death of the coalfield by joining the army. There are those left behind like Annie, a local girl grieving the death of her lover and baby, who bitterly offers herself to soldiers 'because we know soon they will be dead'; and the three soldiers themselves shocked and struggling to deal with their experiences of war. Hurst is 'wild wood mad and raging' and wants to inflict this rage on the people of the town, while Sparky just wants to bear witness to the murder of his friend and is the one most willing to seek out some separate private escape. Aftercliffe is a pacifist who has spent his life 'killing for the queen' and is determined at all costs to see an end to killing. Their different oppositions are for much of the action subordinated to the lead of 'Black Jack Musgrave', the sergeant who has a plan 'to carry out the deserters' duty', and exact revenge on those who run the town and who have caused the war.

Throughout much of the play Sergeant Musgrave is the most articulate about the horror of war and who is responsible for it. He is the only one who seems at all clear how it can be ended - 'I'm in this to change all soldiers' duties.' He even suggests the deserters have common cause with the striking miners, who he refers to as 'brothers in truth'. However, the final part of the play, set at a recruiting fair in the town, exposes the folly of trying to 'beat war by its own rules'. Raising the dead body of their comrade instead of a British flag, Sergeant Musgrave proposes to the strike leader that they turn their guns on the local leaders, 'those higher up... who never seem to get hurt'. But the miners are in no mood for this: 'Well I take no duties from lobsters. This town lives by collieries. That's coal owners and its pitmen - aye and they battle, and the pitmen'll win. But no wi' no soldier-boys to order our fight for us.'

This is a play about the way war can blow back on the very people who have waged it. Furthermore it provokes the audience to think about how to resist war. Arden recently said 'You write to show people there are things that need to be stopped,' and has recently thrown himself into the movement against war and occupation in Iraq.