Written in 1959 and premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on October 22 of that year. In Arden’s introductory note to the text, he describes it as “a realistic, but not a naturalistic” play.
The work follows three privates in the British Army and their sergeant, all of whom are deserters from a foreign imperialist war. Serjeant Musgrave and his men, Hurst, Sparky and Attercliffe, come to a northern English coal mining town in 1879. The community is in the grip of a coal strike and cut off by winter snow. The one means of reaching the town is by canal barge. They arrive in the company of the Bargee, a foul-mouthed, disrespectful individual who teases and abuses everyone, especially those in authority. In the local inn the soldiers meet Mrs. Hitchcock, who runs the inn, and the barmaid Annie. The soldiers are greeted by the mayor, parson and constable, who ask them to recruit men in hopes of alleviating some of the town’s unemployment as a way to rid the town of their economic dead weight. Musgrave pretends that this is indeed his goal, and asks Mrs. Hitchcock about Billy Hicks, a dead fellow soldier from the mining town. It is revealed that Billy was the father of Annie’s illegitimate child, but the baby died, and Annie’s sanity has suffered from the loss of both Billy and her child.