D.H.Lawrence and the Guysers
Article type: Features
It is a little-known fact that a folk play featured in the plot of the first published work of the English novelist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930). This was a short story entitledAn Enjoyable Christmas: A Prelude (1907). Although Lawrence went on to write numerous other novels, short stories and poems, as far as I can ascertain, Guysers only appeared once more in his writing - in his novel The Rainbow (1915). Given that Lawrence is well-known for portraying real people, places and events in his fiction, this article examines how well Lawrence's allusions match the real Guysers of his home district, and also tries to establish what Lawrence's own involvement may have been in the tradition.
The first of Lawrence's stories - An Enjoyable Christmas: A Prelude (known as A Preludefor short) - was submitted to a competition run by the Nottinghamshire Guardian newspaper in 1907. Because it was one of three entries he made, and the rules only allowed one, it was entered for him by his close friend Jessie Chambers. However, the subterfuge worked too well and it won first place. Consequently, it was published in the paper under Jessie Chambers' name ("Jessie Chambers", 1907). Although she gave him the prize money, he could never openly acknowledge the story as his own, and it was not reprinted again until well after his death. The full text of the story, along with more information regarding the competition is given elsewhere in this issue of Traditional Drama Forum (The Guysers' play appears in Part 2 of this version).
About 2,000 words long, the story concerns a farming family in the Nottinghamshire coalfield (actually being based on Jessie Chambers' parents and her elder brother Alan, and their farm Haggs Farm, near Underwood - "E.T.", 1935). The story starts in the run up to Christmas with the farmer and his wife discussing the family's bad fortune in recent years. This contrasts with the Wycherley's of Ramsley Mill (based on the real Felley Mill), who are prospering in the cattle trade. The contrast is highlighted when the estranged Nellie Wycherley drives by with her well-to-do friend Blanche, and asks the farmer for some sprigs of holly berries for Christmas decorations. It also transpires that the Wycherley's want the local Guysers to visit them, but that the Guysers are unable to oblige. This prompts the eldest son Fred, who maintains a soft spot for Nellie, to suggest that the three sons go Guysering themselves, to observe the family incognito and deliver some holly. Through lack of rehearsal, the performance is not a success, and the girls mock them mercilessly until Fred, followed by the others, storms off in disgust. After the family maid discovers the holly the boys have surreptitiously left in the scullery, Nellie confesses to Blanche that she too has a soft spot for Fred, and the two resolve to go carol singing to the farm. When they arrive, Fred is outside sulking in the barn, and he hides behind a water butt as they serenade the family within. Afterwards, when the farmhouse door is opened, Fred catches Nellie in his arms, and everything ends happily.
There are abbreviated echoes here of the episode in Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native(1878), when Eustacia Vye infiltrates the Egdon mummers in order to observe incognito the object of her affection Clym Yeobright and his family home.
The novel The Rainbow (D.H.Lawrence, 1915) also concerns families living in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfield. It is not appropriate to summarise the plot here. However, the Guysers are mentioned twice as a device to indicate the passing of the seasons. (Guysers perform in the run-up to Christmas.) The first mention is in Chapter 5 - The Wedding at the Marsh:
"The wake departed, and the guysers came. There was loud applause, and shouting and excitement as the old mystery play of St George, in which every man present had acted as a boy, proceeded, with banging and thumping of club and dripping pan.
'By Jove, I got a crack once, when I was playin' Beelzebub.' said Tom Brangwen, his eyes full of water with laughing. 'It knocked all th' sense out of me as you'd crack an egg. But I tell you, when I come to, I played Old Johnny Roger with St George, I did that.'
He was shaking with laughter. Another knock came at the door. There was a hush."
(D.H.Lawrence, 1971, pp.140)
Other references appear in Chapter 10 - The Widening Circle:
"Gradually there gathered the feeling of expectation. Christmas was coming. In the shed, at nights, a secret candle was burning, a sound of veiled voices was heard. The boys were learning the old mystery play of St. George and Beelzebub. Twice a week, by lamplight, there was choir practice in the church, for the learning of old carols Brangwen wanted to hear. The girls went to these practices. Everywhere was a sense of mystery and rousedness. Everybody was preparing for something.
The time came near, the girls were decorating the church, with cold fingers binding holly and fir and yew about the pillars, till a new spirit was in the church, the stone broke out into dark, rich leaf, the arches put forth their buds, and cold flowers rose to blossom in the dim, mystic atmosphere. Ursula must weave mistletoe over the door, and over the screen, and hang a silver dove from a sprig of yew, till dusk came down, and the church was like a grove.
In the cow-shed the boys were blacking their faces for a dress-rehearsal; the turkey hung dead, with opened, speckled wings, in the dairy. The time was come to make pies in readiness."
(D.H.Lawrence, 1971, pp.279)
Given that there are different amounts of detail, the two stories are broadly consistent in their portrayal of the Guysers:
- The actors are called "Guysers" and their activity is termed "Guysering".
- They perform in the run-up to Christmas.
- The custom entails visiting and performing in farmhouses. In A Prelude, they announce their arrival by knocking and shouting "Dun yer want guysers?" and wait to be invited before entering.
- The performance took place indoors - in the kitchen in A Prelude.
- All the actors enter the room before starting the performance.
- The performers are male - young men in A Prelude, boys in The Rainbow.
- The size of the cast is not given in The Rainbow, but in A Prelude there are three actors.
- In both cases, the only characters mentioned are Saint George and Beelzebub.
- Only one line of text is quoted - "Here comes Beelzebub", in A Prelude.
- The only action mentioned is fighting - "much horseplay, stabbing, falling on the floor", in A Prelude.
- At the conclusion of the play, the actors were rewarded with money, the amount depending on the perceived proficiency of the acting - Threepence (a penny each) for a poor performance, although two shillings and sixpence is offered in A Prelude.
- Rehearsals take place in secret in a shed by candlelight. There is even a dress rehearsal.
- In both cases, faces are blacked up, the purpose of which is disguise. This is applied in a cow-shed in The Rainbow. In A Prelude, they make up in front of the farmhouse mirror, and also use red paint and false moustaches.
- Costume is simply referred to as "dressing up" in A Prelude, with Saint George dressing as an Arab. The main purpose of the costume is to disguise the actor, rather than to represent the character being played.
- Props in both stories included dripping pans - coupled with a club in The Rainbow. A sword is mentioned in A Prelude.
The Authenticity of Lawrence's Guysers
There is a large body of evidence to show that Lawrence used real people, places and events in his fiction, although he swapped round or invented names (see, e.g. A.Lawrence, 1931 & 1923, and "E.T.", 1935). This did not fool the locals, who immediately recognised the places and people he depicted, and just as immediately took offence. This, along with bad feelings stirred up by the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial of the 1960s, caused an antipathy in his home town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire that continues to have ramifications today. No meaningful memorials were established in Lawrence's honour until last quarter of the 20th century. Even now, the local landowner will not grant access to Haggs Farm (to the chagrinof the Haggs Farm Preservation Society), and Robin Hood's Well and its adjacent gamekeeper's hut - the infamous John's Well of Lady Chatterley's Lover - has been allowed to become an overgrown ruin in High Park Woods.
[As a personal aside, I would like to point out here that Eastwood is also my own home town. My paternal grandmother - Blanche Bircumshaw, as she was known then - knew D.H.Lawrence, and I sometimes wonder if "Blanche" in A Prelude was based on her. Of course, I have no evidence to support this idea, other than her name.]
The point if this discourse is that it is likely that Lawrence based his Guysers on real life. It is therefore worth exploring how authentic Lawrence's portrayals are. Fortuitously, much information has been gathered about the folk play tradition around Eastwood (P.Millington, 2000-2001). While this was mostly collected after the period when Lawrence was writing, there is no reason to suspect that the tradition was much different in his day.
Guysering in Eastwood and its Environs
Curiously, there is almost no evidence of Eastwood residents performing Guysers plays. The bulk of the information comes from the villages north of Eastwood - Brinsley, Underwood, Bagthorpe, Jacksdale, Selston, etc - as well as other locations to the west and south east. This is not to say that the plays were not performed in Eastwood. Certainly, more modern Guysers from the outlying villages sometimes took their play to Eastwood, and this could also have been the case in Lawrence's time. It is also known that before the Great War, the Underwood Guysers purchased the words to their play from Britain's stationers in Eastwood (P.T.Millington Collection, 1971, A.Dakin). His script and other scripts from Underwood indicate that this must have been a version of The Peace Egg chapbook, such as was published in the northern cities of Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere.
There is no clear reason why there is so little information from Eastwood itself. It could just be an accident of collection, although I would have thought that my appeals for information in the Eastwood & Kimberley Advertiser in the early 1970s would have turned something up, just as they did for the villages to the north. A possible explanation is that the plays could have died out earlier in Eastwood. The Guysers around Underwood enjoyed the patronage of the Oakes family of Felley Priory at least until the 1940s, and this may have encouraged the Guysers to continue longer thereabouts than elsewhere (P.T.Millington Collection, 1972, K.Smith). Another factor could be that Eastwood occupied a border position between differing traditions. To the north and west, Guysers performed their plays at Christmas, whereas to the south east (e.g. Kimberley and Swingate), similar plays were performed by Plough Bullocks on Plough Monday. Further east and south, Plough Monday was the main day, but the celebrations did not include plays.
Why "Guysers", not "Guisers"?
I now wish to examine the attributes of Lawrence's Guysers in detail:
As already mentioned, Christmas is the correct season for folk play performances in the villages north and west of Eastwood. "Guysers" or "Guisers" is the most common name for the actors, and their activity is consequently termed, "Guysering" or "Guising". There are a couple of variants to this name. Mrs.Dakin of Newthorpe called them "Molly Guysers" (P.T.Millington Collection, 1971, Mrs.Dakin), a term also used by an old family friend from neighbouring Hilltop. This is unusual for Nottinghamshire but has been recorded from several places in Staffordshire and Leicestershire. A more interesting variant is "Bullguysers", sometimes recorded as two words, from Selston and Jacksdale. This name seems to derived from the folk play character "Bullguy", whose name is variously spellt "Bull Guy", "Bold Guy", "Bullguys", and "Bull Guyse". Outside the county, in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, other variants include "Bulguyar", "Guier", "Bull Guide", "Bold Guide", "Gia", "Bulgard", and "Boldgier". It could be that the proximity of this character is why Lawrence used the spelling "Guysers" rather than "Guisers". This spelling would otherwise be more natural, becasue of its relationship to the word "disguise".
Like all Nottinghamshire folk play performers, local Guysers certainly visited private houses, although more modern groups have tended to concentrate on more lucrative venues such as pubs and clubs. Some groups travelled prodigious distances, covering several villages, sometimes with the aid of buses, but often on foot. They would often make a point of visiting farms and other big houses, because they often paid well and/or offered hospitality, although it is debatable how cost-effective they were.
It was traditional for them to enter houses without knocking and launch into the performance. Inevitably this gave rise a host of anecdotes about them bursting in on people in tin baths in front of the fire, or in other compromising situations. This approach would not work in larger households however, such as farms and "big houses" where the occupants might be more dispersed, and there would be concerns about muddy boots. Here, they would shout "Do you want the Guysers?", or something similar, and if wanted, the Guysers would be told where to perform - typically the kitchen - and the household would be gathered together to watch. Records are not usually specific about how the actors entered the performing area, but scripts suggest that they entered one at a time, rather than altogether at the start. However, this may have varied depending on circumstances.
As in Lawrence's stories, it was normal for Guysers to to male - usually teenage boys - although the occasional girl was allowed to participate. Female relations would often help with making costumes. A typical cast would have five parts - Someone to introduce the play (often called "Opener In" from his lines), a pair of disputants (Saint/King George and Slasher or Bullguy), a doctor (to revive the loser), and Beelzebub who's job was to conclude the play with a request for cash. However, actual numbers would vary depending on how many people were available to take part. There might be further characters added to the end, notably Devil Doubt, who reinforced the request for cash. Alternatively, there might be fewer Guysers, in which case someone might double-up the Opener's part as well as their own, or Beelzebub might also become one of the disputants. The characters most remembered by eye witnesses, and regarded as indispensable were the Doctor and Beelzebub.
Regarding cast, Lawrence's play in A Prelude is unusual in two respects. Firstly, there are only three characters - Saint George, Beelzebub and one unnamed. This is a very small cast, but not unknown. The Guysers I witnessed in Brinsley in 1971 and 1972 had very reduced texts, and also only had three characters - Beelzebub, Saint George and the Doctor. Secondly, in neither of his stories does Lawrence make any mention of the Doctor. This is perhaps surprising, bearing in mind that the Doctor is central to the plot.
It is a pity that Lawrence only quotes one line of the script. While it is unreasonable to expect him to have quoted large chunks of text (although Charlotte Yonge, 1856 and Thomas Hardy, 1878 did so in their novels), a speech or two would not have been too intrusive, and would have given more of a feel of the performance. Surprisingly, something can be deduced about the script from this one line. English folk play characters typically introduce themselves using the formula "Here comes I..." or "In comes I...". in principal, these are interchangeable, but in practice, different regions of the country use one formula in preference to the other. In the villages near Eastwood, there were two versions of the play - (1) the chapbook Peace Egg version mentioned earlier, and (2) an indigenous play, probably older; the one that often includes Bullguy. Both versions have Beelzebub, but in the chapbooks his part starts "Here come I Beelzebub", whereas in the native version he starts "In comes I, Beelzebub". It therefore seems that Lawrence's one line probably derived from the chapbook.
If Lawrence gives almost no text, he says very little more about the action or plot of the play. There is clearly a fight, but crucially, he does not mention the business of the Doctor and his cure. This may be significant.
All the traditional plays had a clear finish. Firstly one or more characters explicitly asked for a reward, and secondly a Christmas Carol was sung while the audience got out their money for collection in hats and/or in Beelzebub's pan. In a large venue such as a pub, the money might be thrown to be picked up by the actors rather that placed in their receptacles. It was made pretty clear to the audience what was required.
This contrasts with the ending of the play in A Prelude. Here, the play just seems to come to an end, and everyone stands around wondering what to do, until eventually the girls toss a half crown on the floor. This amount is however, not excessive for a performance at a wealthy farmhouse at the beginning of the 20th century. Rewards varied according to the quality of the performance and the type of venue. A small working class home might only yield a few coppers, and progressively larger amounts would be received in line with the increasing opulence of larger households. By general agreement, pubs and clubs were the most rewarding, partly because individual donors needing to give enough to maintain face, and partly because alcohol tended to make people more generous. Informants of all periods have testified to the profitability of Guysering, each actor's share commonly equaling or exceeding a working man's weekly wage.
Guysers used to practice for up to a month prior to Christmas, maybe meeting weekly in someone's shed, utility room or outhouse for the purpose, just as Lawrence describes (e.g.P.T.Millington Collection 1972, B.L.Hodgkinson). I am doubtful that there were dressed rehearsals. Costumes may have been tried on, but facial blacking was messy, if not difficult to remove, and would not have been applied unnecessarily.
Blackening faces was universal, but costumes varied. The main purpose of both was disguise, and part of the fun for the audience was trying to guess the identity of the actors. Dressing for the part did happen, but many teams just dressed strangely, perhaps because of limited resources (see for example the photograph of the Brinsley Guysers at www.folkplay.info/Notts.htm). There is however, evidence that some Guysers earlier in the 20th century wore more elaborate non-representational costumes. May Machin described the Brinsley Guysers of the 1920s as wearing costumes that were covered with coloured paper, tacked onto normal clothes. They wore very tall plain 'dunces' hats, occasionally with a star shape on etc. In addition, Beelzebub carried a broom, and the Doctor wore a top hat and carried a bag. They also had blackened faces (P.T.Millington Collection 1971, M.Machin). Arthur Dakin reported similar costumes at Underwood before the Great War (P.T.Millington Collection, 1971, A.Dakin). The costumes of Lawrence's Guysers clearly fall into the simple dressing up category.
Lawrence's Experience with Guysers
The upshot of the foregoing discussion is that Lawrence's depiction of the Guysers mostly tallies with actual practice in his home area. The next question is; what was Lawrence's own experience of the Guysers? I can conceive of three possibilities. Firstly, he could have performed in the Guysers as a boy. Secondly, he may not have performed, but could have witnessed one or more performances. Thirdly, he may have done neither but gained his knowledge of them from accounts and anecdotes related by friends and family.
In my opinion, the omissions in his stories show that D.H.Lawrence's knowledge of the Guysers was limited. I suggest that the lack of even one fully quoted speech reflects unfamiliarity with the dialogue. The fact that only two characters - the same two characters - are mentioned in both his stories, coupled with no mention at all of the Doctor, indicates a lack of familiarity with both the cast and the plot. The small size of his cast is also unrealistic for his era. The lacklustre ending of the play in A Prelude rather than a finishing carol suggests that Lawrence was unfamiliar with the standard method of concluding Guysers' plays. Finally, I suspect that Lawrence's use of the phrase, "...the ... play that everyone knows so well" may also indicate a lack of confidence on the subject. I have often seen writers using such phrases when their own knowledge is sketchy, in the hope that their readers will be able to fill in the gaps themselves.
I do not believe that D.H.Lawrence performed in Guysers' play himself; otherwise most of these things would not have been omitted. I would say it is debatable whether even witnessed a performance. He may have been aware of Guysers practicing in sheds in his neighbourhood. However, he lived in a religious and very class-conscious household, and it is highly unlikely that his mother would have welcomed in what was perceived as a working class activity. Indeed, such was her reputation that Guysers would probably have avoided the Lawrence home.
This leaves recollection by family and friends as the most likely source of Lawrence's information on Guysers, in the manner of Tom Brangwen in The Rainbow. On the other hand, he was experienced with drama. In her memoirs, Jessie Chambers says that Lawrence was prominent in playing charades during visits to Haggs Farm. It is possible that his description of costuming and making up drew on these activities. It would help explain why Saint George dresses up in an Arab burnous.
I believe I have shown that D.H.Lawrence's depiction of the Guysers in his stories A Preludeand The Rainbow is a fairly accurate representation of folk play practices of his home district in Nottinghamshire. However, key omissions suggest that Lawrence had little or no experience of actual Guysers' performances, either as an actor or as an audience member. it therefore seems most likely that he gained his knowledge of Guysers from the recollections of family and friends.
p [dot] millington [at] sheffield [dot] ac [dot] uk
"Jessie Chambers" (1907) An Enjoyable Christmas: A Prelude: "Sweet is pleasure after pain..."
Nottinghamshire Guardian, 7th Dec.1907, pp.17a-e
[Available online at: www.folkplay.info/Forum/TD_Forum_8_Prelude_1.htm]
Haggs Farm Preservation Society (1993) "Dun yer want Guysers"
Haggs Farm Preservation Society Newsletter, Jun.1993, No.12, pp.3-4
Thomas Hardy (1878) The Return of the Native, Book 2
London: Smith, Elder, & Co, 1878, Chapters 4-6
Ada Lawrence [auth.] & G.Stuart Gelder [ed.] (1931) Young Lorenzo. Early life of D.H.Lawrence
Florence, Orioli, 1931
Ada Lawrence [auth.] & G.Stuart Gelder [ed.] (1932) Early life of D.H. Lawrence : together with hitherto unpublished letters and articles : with sixteen illustrations
London : Martin Secker, 1932
D.H.Lawrence (1915) The Rainbow
London, Methuen, 1915
Reprinted (among others): Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1971, pp.140,279
For a list of repositories see: www.folkplay.info/Notts/Sources.htm.
P.T.Millington (1972) Out Goes I Saint George?
Eastwood & Kimberley Advertiser, 14th Jan.1972, Vol.75, No.4064, p.4f
Peter Millington (2000-2001) Bibliography of Nottinghamshire Folk Plays & Related Customs
Internet URL: www.folkplay.info/Notts.htm, Accessed 22/09/2003
"E.T." [Jessie Chambers] (1935) D.H.Lawrence: A Personal Record by E.T.
London, Jonathan Cape, 1935, p.113
[Charlotte Mary Yonge] (1856) The Christmas Mummers
London, J. and C.Mozley, 1856, pp.87-93