Friday, February 28, 2020

We strap our arms round the scarlet red

ANNIE. I'll tell you for what a soldier's good:

       To march behind his roaring drum,
       Shout to us all: 'Here I come
       I've killed as many as I could --
       I'm stamping into your fat town
       From the war and to the war
       And every girl can be my whore
       Just watch me lay them squealing down.
       And that's what he does and so do we.
       Because we know he'll soon be dead
       We strap our arms round the scarlet red
       Then send him weeping over the sea.
       Oh he will go and a long long way.
       Before he goes we'll make him pay
       Between the night and the next cold day --
       By God there's a whole lot more I could say --

What good's a bloody soldier 'cept to be dropped into a slit in the ground like a letter in a box. How many did you bring with you -- is it four?

BARGEE. Aye. Four.

ANNIE. That's four beds in this house?

MRS. HITCHCOCK. I should hope it's in this house. It's the best house in town.

ANNIE (in a sudden outburst). Then you'd do well to see they stay four nights because I'll not go with more nor one in one night, no, not for you nor for all of Egypt!

She lets out a howl and rushes out of the door behind the bar, clattering a tin tray full of tankards on to the floor.

(Act I Scene II)


Most of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance takes place in a coal-mining town some time in the second half of the nineteenth century (The costumes in the first production were from around 1860 to 1880.) The soldiers wear red tunics and blue breeches. Hence the "scarlet red", "blood-red roses", "blood-red flowers o' beauty" etc.

John Arden was born in Barnsley in 1930. His hometown surely lies behind the town in the play, but the latter feels more mythic: compact, remote, surrounded by snowy moorland, still reliant on barges for coal transport. Barnsley isn't very near the moors, and the railway arrived there in 1850. Its canal, now disused, was constructed in the 1790s. (Britain's worst mining disaster took place in Barnsley in 1866; at least 361 men and boys died in a series of explosions.)


ANNIE. But you'll not leave me behind?

      He has started dressing, very confusedly, putting his tunic on first.

ANNIE. Swear it.

      He has his trousers ready to step into. He lets them fall while he takes her for a moment in his arms:

SPARKY. Sworn.

      HURST nips in and seizes the trousers

      (Releasing ANNIE)  Now then, sharp. Hey, where's me trousers?

HURST. Here!
SPARKY. What's the goddamn -- give 'em back, you dirty --
HURST (triumphantly). Come and get 'em, Sparky! Heh, you'll be the grand deserter, won't you, running bare-arsed over the moor in six-foot drifts of snow!
SPARKY. Give me them!

       He grabs one end of the trousers and a farcical tug-o'-war begins.

HURST (in high malice). A man and a soldier! Jump, natter, twitch, like a clockwork puppet for three parts of the night, but the last night of all, you run! You little closhy coward.

        ATTERCLIFFE has woken and tries to intervene.

ATTERCLIFFE. What the hell's the row -- easy, easy, hold it!
SPARKY. He's got my bloody trousers!

        He gives a great tug on the trousers and pulls them away, HURST falling down.

HURST. I'm going to do you, Sparky.

        His hand falls on SPARKY'S belt, with bayonet scabbard attached, which is lying on the floor. He gets up, drawing the bayonet.

ANNIE. No, no, stop him!
ATTERCLIFFE. Drop that bayonet!

         ANNIE mixes in, seizing HURST'S wrist and biting it. The bayonet drops to the floor. ATTERCLIFFE snatches it and HURST jumps upon him. Together they fall against SPARKY and all three crash to the floor. SPARKY gives a terrifying, choking cry.

(Act II Scene III)


Sparky's accidental death, which later contributes to the failure of Musgrave's mission, has been considered a weakness of John Arden's play, but I think that's completely wrong. Musgrave's idea that he can somehow put terrible things right by deploying the military virtues themselves, i.e. by being disciplined and sticking to what's material, is always liable to be knocked off course. The chances of that happening are multiplied by the erratic energies of Musgrave's traumatized band of troopers (and himself). And drink. Hurst's threat is really murderous.  But the bayonet was in poor well-meaning Attercliffe's hands. As apparently in the death of the little girl, Attercliffe can't seem to keep his hands free of blood. Join the army and though you may be a good man you cannot be a harmless one, the play seems to say. Sparky's death follows hard upon his poignant plan to escape with Annie; individual escape, too, is a bolthole blocked off by the play's logic.

The modern reader's or producer's doubts lies elsewhere, I think. We easily accept that Arden's play isn't naturalistic, and we easily accept that Musgrave's mission (bringing both salvation and violence) is madly incoherent, but still, (for me at least) there remains a nagging question about its credibility. Perhaps it's to do with soldiers themselves assuming the mantle of trying to cure a society in which they are the sickness personified.

From the distance of sixty years, it seems -- odd, at least -- to see a play about the ills of colonialism that contains not even a mention of race or ethnicity. We might pick away at this a bit further, wondering if the play inadvertently prolongs the voicelessness and facelessness of colonial victims, or if there's something potentially patronizing about the assumption that a remedy for Britain's military swaggering can only be carried out by Britons themselves. Perhaps the colonized peoples themselves might have something to say about that? 

Other doubts may also contribute to the lack of recent performances of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. It deploys folkloric motifs to magical effect, and this gives the play a lot of its power. But motif and stereotype are two sides of the same coin. For example, in the figure of the bargee, crooked Joe Bludgeon, Arden made great symbolic capital of a physical disability; just what we teach our children not to do. And the two women in the play, though they're certainly at its moral centre (as Arden says), are quite intentionally refracted through ancient stereotypes of the prostitute, the betrayed maid, the motherly provider, and so on.

But with all these concessions, it remains a drama of great verve and eloquence, and an essay on complicity whose questions remain pressing and unresolved.


Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was first performed by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre on 22 October 1959.

It's a pacifist play, and the author wasn't messing about. Arden was active in the peace movement throughout his life. And his widow the Irish actress Margaretta D'Arcy, now 86, still is -- not to everyone's amusement, as demonstrated by the comments to the link below. Her most recent imprisonment was in 2014, protesting against the use of Shannon airport as a refuelling point for US warplanes. .
The couple, who settled in Galway, could be said to have sacrificed their promising professional careers to their political beliefs. The NPG biographical note, for example, says that since the early 1960s "Arden's Marxist views have distanced him from mainstream theatre".

It wasn't such front page news in the 1950s, but Britain had various niggling military operations on the go, notably the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Kenya Emergency, better known as the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960). But it was the Cyprus Emergency (1955-1959) that supplied the impetus here.

John Wyver quotes Michael Billington as saying that Arden's play was prompted by

a particularly horrifying incident in Cyprus […] A British soldier’s wife had been shot by terrorists in Famagusta in October 1958. In retaliation some of the military went wild and five innocent people, including a little girl, were shot in the resultant round-up. (State of the Nation, p. 116)
John Newsinger in British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland (2002), p. 110, gives a somewhat different account of what took place:

Frustration finally exploded in Famagusta on 3 October [1958] when an EOKA gunman shot two British service wives, killing Mrs Catherine Cutliffe. In less than two hours troops had rounded up a thousand Greek Cypriot men and taken them off for screening and interrogation. Over 250 required medical treatment, 16 were seriously injured and three were killed, one a 12-year-old boy. While they were being rounded up, a 12-year-old girl had collapsed and died of shock. One soldier wrote home that the boy had been strangled by a sergeant major in the Military Police and that the dead girl had been raped. He wrote of 'wholesale rape, looting and murder, including four more men killed in reprisal in Varosha. Everything had got 'particularly bloody and disgusting'. 
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, in Parliament (Nov 1958), reported only that two men had died during the operation, and while admitting that the Security Forces were "disgusted and angry", denied that they had acted inappropriately. Brian Drohan's recent account in Brutality in an Age of Human Rights: Activism and Counterinsurgency at the End of the British Empire (2018) (pp. 72-79) doesn't mention the rape allegations in the soldier's letter quoted by Newsinger; nor does he mention the death of a 12-year-old boy. But evidently there was plenty of looting and evidently the troops had, in fact, furiously beaten up many of the detainees, both during arrest and in custody. (Britain ducked any responsibility for the girl's death, on the inadequate grounds that they were rounding up men, not girls.)

Serjeant Musgrave's Dance wasn't a great success when first performed (it lost a lot of money), but it came into its own a few years later, during the era of the Vietnam war and then the troubles in Northern Ireland. In schools it was studied at A-Level (which is evidently how my copy arrived in Swindon). There were more performances in 2003, when Britain got involved in Iraq. .

John Arden in 1960

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Roger Mayne.]

The graveyard scene, from the 1961 Granada production for ITV. 

[Image source: . Arden's screenplay for the Granada production reworked the beginning and end of his play so that all the action takes place within the unnamed mining town. Patrick McGoohan starred as Serjeant Musgrave.]

Advert for Taddy Nut Brown Ale from the 1950s 

[Image source: .]

BARGEE. A quart o' taddy. Best!
MRS. HITCHCOCK (impassive). Can you pay for it?

(Act I Scene II)

A "taddy ale" was an ale from Tadcaster (near York), probably brewed by John Smiths or Sam Smiths, probably a brown ale but not necessarily.



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