Article type
Book Reviews
Article author
Peter Millington

by Eddie Cass and Steve Roud (edited by Doc Rowe and Malcolm Taylor)
London, English Folk Dance & Song Society, 2002, ISBN 0-85418-185, 120pp, £12.95 (plus p&p)

It is long time since the EFDSS published a book on folk plays. In many ways, this is meant to be a successor to Alex Helm’s Five Mumming Plays for Schools, which has been out of date and out of print for quite some time. As the sub-title states, this book is intended to be an introduction to English mummers’ plays - and they definitely mean English. Scottish and Irish plays are not covered, but then the publishers are the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

As an introduction for general consumption, this book is clearly not meant to be academic. Even so, it does give a good overview of current academic opinion, particularly on origins. The descriptions are comprehensive, readable, well-structured, and with a digestable level of detail. They cover more than just the types of play, the texts, the characters and the costumes. There are plenty of background facts on the people who traditionally performed the plays (nearly always men or boys), their venues, and the attitudes and motives of both the actors and the audience - not to mention their wives and mothers. This is supported by numerous original quotations from participants and witnesses of the plays.

Photographs feature prominently, starting with the impressive front cover, thanks to the involvement of Doc Rowe. They date from the 19th century up to the present day, and some are in colour. There is an average of one photograph every third page, with multiple images of some groups. Costumes of the ribbon and paper streamer type predominate. While these are of course particularly impressive, I would have liked to have seen more pictures of groups that dress in part to give a more balanced view of real practice.

A lot of dubious things have been said about folk plays over the years, so the authors have felt obliged to say what they are not in addition to describing what they actually are. It is a good portent that the foreword, by Phil Wilson, starts by describing a non-play Mummers’ house visiting custom, thus making it clear that not all Mummers performed plays. This nicely sets the scene for one of the more interesting sections in the book - the one on the origins of the plays.

Old ideas that the plays originated in some pre-Christian fertility ritual could only have been true if the plays had a very long and continuous recorded history. However, as the authors note, the earliest concrete evidence only dates from the second half of the 18th century. No earlier references have been found, despite diligent searching. This contrasts with other customs such as Morris dancing, Maypoles, etc, where plenty of much earlier references have been found. While the point of origin has yet to be identified, it is likely to be the in early 18th century or possibly the late 17th century. Therefore the pre-Christian theories are no longer regarded as valid.

The guide to performing the plays is specifically aimed at schools, although it will also be of benefit to adult enthusiasts. It starts with advice on finding information (which seems to overlap the later section on Sources of Information), and then goes into choosing a text, casting, costume, props, and performance. Folk plays are an excellent school activity (after all that is where I first came across them). The book may also increase students’ word power, since the odd erudite word creeps in here and there, and they may find it useful to keep a good dictionary on hand!

The Sources of Information Section summarises the types of resource where information may be found on the plays, and gives details of English institutions that hold extensive collections, complete with web addresses. For some totally inexplicable reason, the Traditional Drama Research Group, and this website, are mentioned last! A page of references would have been useful, although there are some full references in the body of the text. Serious readers really need to buy the companion bibliography, which is reviewed separately below.

The book gives nine full play texts, plus a Pace-Egging song, although they are not listed in the contents page. For the record they are:

  • Middle Rasen, Lincolnshire - Mumming play [a Recruiting Sergeant play]
  • Chiddingfold, Surrey - Tip-teering play
  • Coxwold, Yorkshire - Blue Stots/Plough Stots
  • The Sowerby Sword Play, Yorkshire
  • Sedgefield, Durham - Guysers
  • Bury Pace-Egging play - Lancashire
  • Chapbook text - The Peace Egg printed by Joseph Wrigley, Manchester
  • Tarvin Souling play - Cheshire
  • A Robin Hood play - Kempsford, Gloucestershire
  • Pace-Egging song, Lancashire

Peter Millington

[See Musical Traditions for an alternative review.]