Now regarded as one of the finest plays of British post-war theatre, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance was initially unsuccessful. Influenced by Brecht and by medieval and Elizabethan theatre, Arden, ‘pleading for the revival of Poetic Drama’, dispensed with individual psychology in favour of a historical setting, colourful action, and songs, and created an artificial dialogue characterized by short sentences, archaic-sounding constructions, and potent monosyllables. The effect is that of a dramatized ballad, reinforced by the use of repetition, pseudo-biblical images, dialect turns of phrase, and primary colours (one reason Arden gave for setting the play in the 19th century was to be able to introduce redcoats). The play advocates the ‘very hard doctrine’ of ‘complete pacifism’: based on an actual atrocity by British soldiers while Arden was on National Service in Cyprus, Musgrave sets out to right a wrong. However, he is a dangerous idealist, whose ‘logic’ that five times as many English civilians must be killed to avenge the atrocity, is patently misguided. As Attercliffe says, ‘You can't cure the pox by further whoring.’ The only mild hope is that the seed they have planted might ‘start an orchard’.
Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).
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John Arden (b. 1930)