"The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play: A Social History" by Eddie Cass
Article type: Book Reviews
, FLS Publications, London, ISBN 0-903515-22-9
xic + 257pp Illus. £13.95 Sterling + p&p.
To begin with the conclusion: anyone interested in traditional drama should buy and read this book. You will enjoy it as a read and find it useful as a reference work. You will be stimulated by some of the ideas. Why did it have this effect on this reviewer?
One day every year in about mid-December, a group of mummers meet in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to perform a standard hero-combat play around the pubs and streets. Last year as St George lay dead for the umpteenth time, a group of Christmas shoppers passed on their way back to the car and, despite their burdens, they paused to watch. One elderly lady in the group seemed particularly interested and lingered even after the performance was over to offer a donation. "That was a Pace-Egg Play, wasn’t it? I used to do that when I was a kid in Rochdale." We had, apparently made her day, and I must say that from my point of view, the cold pavement, she made mine.
But now I wish I had paid more attention, made a note of her name and asked if I could meet her again. For thanks to Eddie Cass, the Pace-Egg Play and its background is likely to become a prime example for some of the ideas I discuss with WEA classes looking at "traditional customs" and I wonder now if that lady had been a street or a school performer.
In his introduction, the author sets the Pace Egg Play in a socio-geographical and historical context and in so doing explains why mumming is part of Easter celebrations in Lancashire. He gives an overview of past research, explaining the background to some of the theory that had become received wisdom until relatively recently and setting the scene for later assertions about the play’s function. He goes on to examine current theories of the origins of the various forms of folk drama, paying special attention (circa p.21) to the relationship between 18th century "theatrical" (sensu latissimo) texts and those of mummers plays, discussing, for instance, the similarity of the Doctor’s speech in the two forms. The similarity is convincing and the suggestion is that the mummers text is derived from widely performed theatrical offerings. However, one must wonder whether the theatrical version might not itself have been based on a version already current among the folk. The importance of fairs in disseminating the theatrical versions is stressed (p.24) and surely the hiring fair must also have been an important mechanism in the spread of the plays in rural contexts such as among the ploughboys of eastern England.
While paying tribute to earlier workers, he explains how the long-established idea that folk plays are an echo of some ancient pagan ritual arose and persisted into the 1960s and 1970s, but he is able to cast aside that vision of a golden age of ritual which so many others still cling to:
"Contemporary folk drama scholars and most folklorists are now sure that mumming plays did not have their origins in pagan ritual, but there is still no agreed, comprehensive theory to explain the rise and spread of the play..." "...In the past the search for origins has led to the neglect of the study of how plays were performed and perpetuated. What function the play had among a particular group of urban or rural artisans and the role it played in maintaining social relationships within definable social groups has also been ignored. To redress the balance is part of [the] purpose [of this book]" (p. 26).
It is this reviewer’s opinion that the author achieves that purpose.
As I read parts of the chapter "Performance and Performers", my thought was "well, that’s a statement of the obvious", for there is initially a deal of discussion about interaction and relationships between performers and audience and how different audiences react to mummers and how mummers adapt their performances to the space available. However, my reaction was that of one involved in the performance of plays and one who makes a point of watching others perform when opportunity arises. Presumably not everyone who will use this book will have that experience and so I concede the point: such things may indeed help the student of theatre and performance, or even social historians, where they may simply irritate mummers. However, once into the detail relating specifically to Pace Egg performers it gets exciting again, and my curiosity was especially aroused by discussion of women’s teams and the place of women in the tradition (pp.47-48) where the author states "The position of women in Lancashire Pace Egg teams remains substantially clear: it is not part of the tradition" and yet referring to a known and indeed pictured team of women Pace Eggers "The team had become part of the local cultural memory". I was left wondering whether, having dismissed the pagan ritual preconception, the author had succumbed to a men-only bias to his argument despite what appeared to be contrary evidence. And where did the lady in Stamford fit into all this, I wondered.
Possibly in one of the children’s street performances in Rochdale in the first half of the twentieth century which are compared to those based on scholarly texts promoted by schools leading to interesting insight into the pernicious influence of the latter on the former. A whole chapter, complimented by one of the appendices, is devoted to the influence of chapbooks; an influence already made clear, but which benefits from detailed examination.
Two chapters provide an overview of the activities, effects, and influences of revival teams since the 1960s, and the influences of individuals within that revival. Two detailed case studies of revival teams show how different the approach can be and how much individual cast members influence performances. They also demonstrate how teams have developed individual styles since the uniformity of the early revival. Particularly interesting is the author’s conclusion that the revival plays are just as "traditional" as those recorded years ago by collectors.
You may not agree entirely with Eddie Cass’s conclusions, though to this reviewer they are common-sense observations based on the evidence available. For anyone trying to explain the purpose of traditional drama in their own area to students, as I sometimes have to, it is truly useful to be able to be able to draw comparison with another area and so draw similar (or different!) conclusions.
Notes, appendices, a bibliography and index, which on their own would attract most people interested in mumming, support the whole text. The first appendix is a geographical index of plays in Lancashire consisting of Cawte, Helm and Peacock’s 1967 listing, updated to incorporate detail gleaned since the earlier publication and twenty-one completely new entries. The second appendix gives several texts in full, including the earliest Lancashire text based on oral tradition, a number of chapbook texts which were probably influential in the form and distribution of the play in Lancashire, and two local texts given in full to illustrate case studies.
I have but one criticism of this section: although available audio recordings are cited under geographical locations in the first appendix, it would have been useful to also bring this information together as a supplement to the bibliography.
E.C.Cawte, A.Helm & N.Peacock (1967) "English Ritual Drama: a geographical index"
London, Folk-Lore Society, 1967
[See Musical Traditions for an alternative review.]