Monday, April 16, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Pulling Down the Roof" (on John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance)

pulling down the roof
by Douglas Messerli

John Arden Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (in John Arden Plays: 1 [London: Methuen Publishing, 1994])

With the death of British playwright John Arden on March 28, 2012, I decided to read his most well-received play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. Productions of this work have been rare in the US, so I'd never had the opportunity to see the play, and this was my first reading—although I read several reviews of the play when it first appeared at the Royal Court Theatre in October 1959.

      The Brechtian-like work, complete with songs (music by Dudley Moore), is a cry for passivism in a time when British and American society were moving full-blown into more and more international conflicts. The incidents which sparked Arden's play occurred in 1958 when British soldiers killed five innocent people in Cypress. By placing his play in a period of pre-Kipling redcoat soldiery, however, Arden shifted the theme of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance into a timeless statement of anti-war sentiment.

      The four soldiers—murderers, robbers, and deserters—descend upon a small Northern English town with vague motives. The locals, none too happy for their appearance, are in the midst of a mine strike, and are fearful that the soldiers have been placed in their town to keep order should their negotiations break down into riot. The local authorities (The Parson, The Constable, and The Mayor) see their arrival as a chance to get rid of the mining agitators, if only Musgrave and his men are able to get them to volunteer into the army.

      For his part, Musgrave keeps his motives much to himself. Although the three other men with him know that he is vaguely planning to spring his anti-war sentiments upon the populace, they cannot foretell his method. Sparky, Hurst, and Attercliffe are simpler men who enjoy drinking, sex with the local whore, and, although they share Musgrave's sentiments about their military past, a couple are not at all as ashamed by their murderous duties.

     The first half of the play is taken up with the local's suspicions and the military men's attempt to allay them. But Musgrave is not at all easy with his own intentions at creating anarchy. A highly religious man, he believes still in duty—even if that sense of duty has shifted to disobedience. Most importantly, he is man of conscience, horrified by the death of a young friend from the very town which they are visiting, a soldier whose skeleton is among their processions.

     In this atmosphere of suspicion and opportunism, things do not at all go right. The soldiers waver in their obedience to the man they have nicknamed "God." And their own desires, particularly their admiration for a local "soldiers whore," Annie, get in the way of Musgrave's mission. Although Hurst and Attercliffe spurn Annie's sexual attentions, the younger Private Sparky lusts after her, and is even willing, so it appears, to desert the deserters, asking Annie to hide him until they might run off together. The other two, overhearing his intentions, try to prevent him, accidently killing him on the point of his own bayonet.

      Trying to cover the "accident" up, Musgrave hurriedly calls for a town celebration, with bunting, flowers, speeches and all, hoping to waylay any further doubts by the townfolk. After the usual flowery banality of the Mayor and Parson, Musgrave begins his "dance," unveiling the weaponry available to murder innocent folk, setting it out, one by one, so that he might, indeed, kill his very audience. To everyone's surprise, he slowly unravels the tale of the soldier's duties, which involved, after the murder of the local boy, pulling innocent people from their houses into the streets and slaughtering them. The town gentry, Mayor, Parson, and Constable, are horrified by the shift of his speech, while the local miners are confused. While they want little to do with the soldiers and are perhaps ready to go to battle for their jobs, they cannot conceive of the anarchy against government Musgrave is proposing.

      Hanging the local boy Billy's skeleton from a plinth, Musgrave tries, with weapons at the ready, to find volunteers for his anti-army. Annie, however, reveals the murder of one of their own, as Musgrave's lofty intentions begin to crumble, Hurst shouting at him: "You've pulled your own roof down!" Suddenly loyal dragoons, called for in case of a riot, appear, arresting the deserters.

      The last scene reveals the imprisoned men, scolded by the innkeeper Mrs. Hitchcock for their lack of understanding. The men's only hope is that when they are hung, a seed from their actions may begin an orchard, that something might grow out of their ineffective but well-meaning words.

      In many respects, Arden's play is a brilliant statement locked away in its own level-minded cynicism. The values it declares are perhaps admirable—a complete shake-up of the militarist British world—but its hero, Serjeant Musgrave, still a product of that world, is not strong enough in intelligence and will to transform it. Arden may argue for a revolt against the class system, but such a revolt can never occur, he reveals, through the principles on which that system was based—God, duty, honor. Musgrave presents himself only as another kind of God, not a true alternative to the system which destroyed his own faith.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2012

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