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Folk Drama Studies Today: The International Traditional Drama Conference 2002

Traditional Drama Forum - No.9

Article type: 
Book Reviews


Edited by Eddie Cass and Peter Millington

Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 2003, 264pp., A4, 0-9508152-3-3, Price £16 + £4 p&p

Advances in knowledge are largely incremental and accetionary. For instance, in a past life, I was one of perhaps half a dozen people world-wide who took an interest in Ordovician bivalved molluscs. I have the satisfaction knowing that my small contributions helped the subsequent half dozen specialists understand how cockles and mussels evolved. In turn of course, I took building blocks from the writings of the half dozen people in the previous generation who had taken an interest.

In this collection of papers I see how, in a different context, the same processes obtain. As a lurker in the shadows surrounding Traditional Drama Studies I can only thank goodness that there are rather more than half a dozen obsessive people world-wide who are prepared to provide the building blocks for the study of traditional drama; people who are prepared to spend hours sifting records, going through old newspapers, talking with interest to practitioners past and present in order to understand the origins and processes involved; people who will refine, analyse and categorise.

Here are sixteen papers – well, thirteen papers plus two tantalising abstracts and a synopsis that more than hints at what the paper itself must have offered – that tell us what transpired at the International Traditional Drama Conference held in Sheffield over a couple of days in 2002 [Note 1]. The delegates must have come away with heads reeling but fired-up with enthusiasm. Reviewing a collection of papers like this isn't quite like reviewing a book such as Eddie Cass's (2001) Lancashire Pace Egg Play, where whatever happens between the covers leads inevitably to Cass's conclusions. There is so much data and there are so many different ideas stuffed into these papers that it has taken me far longer than the couple of days the conference lasted to read and absorb them.

But look, there isn't a dud among them! And, I wish I had been there to hear Neil Martin on how guisers and mummers gain entry, "a rather slight and esoteric topic" (try mid-Ordovician bivalves from Northern Ireland, Neil); or to hear Emily Lyle on the "diachronic shift from boys only to the inclusion of girls" in the Galoshin custom (I wonder if the ideas therein have any relevance to May carolling in Leicestershire and Rutland); and Peter Robson's Dorset mummers songs sent me off to listen again to neighbouring Hampshire's Sam Bond (1993 & 1998) singing "Where does Father Christmas go to..?". I do hope these eventually emerge as published papers.

Two-thirds through the volume we find the "Discussion about Alex Helm and his Collection" with notable contributions from Helm's collaborators Christopher Cawte and Norman Peacock. Whenever this discussion happened at the conference, in some ways I felt that this account might have been better at the beginning of this volume, for the works of Helm, Cawte and Peacock underlie so much of what is contained in many of the other papers just as those of Tiddy and others provided a basis for theirs. While the conclusions reached in earlier times by Helm et al may now be modified by access to even more data and subsequent thought, the fundamental importance of their contribution cannot be denied and this discussion gives some insight into the labour involved.

What else is here? Duncan Broomhead on The Alderley Mummer's Play, Derek Schofield on the Uttoxeter guisers, Christopher Cawte on the oldest known sword dance play text, Paul Smith on Sir Walter Scott and the Papa Stour sword dance, Tom Pettitt on possible relationships between mumming and traditional games etc., Sarah Billington on aspects of midsummer plays, Peter Millington on quack doctor plays, Mike Preston on chapbooks, Eddie Cass on the James Madison Carpenter Collection, Terry Gunnell on aspects of Icelandic customs, George Mifsud-Chircop looking at Maltese carnival and New Year's Eve drama and finally John Widdowson with Newfoundland plays.

So, what other than admiration for all these authors, have I to show for wading through all this? Well, something from each, and lots which I can't immediately remember but which I know is in there when I need it. Obviously what one gets from such a volume as this is coloured by one's own particular interests. So for me, it is Broomhead's re-enforcement of the importance of families as both performers and patrons, and Schofield's demonstration that in the past some things were so familiar that they just never got reported. We all know these things, but how great to have more evidence! Anything, even statistics, which leads to a suggested new classification, as does Millington's paper, gets my vote and Preston's chapbook paper is a winner for the illustrations alone.

If I seem less enthusiastic about Iceland and Malta, it isn't so, I've just never thought about them in this context before and can only thank the authors here for opening my eyes a little.

I really can't fault any of these papers and I hope many are, in effect, interim reports on work in progress. If I have any criticisms at all of the volume itself, they are slight. I would have liked to have seen an abstract or synopsis at the head of each paper, as one would in, say, the Folk Music Journal. Eddie Cass's introduction does summarise each paper [Note 2], but for the future user, to have that summary attached to the paper itself would be invaluable. Then, since this is a report on a conference, I would have liked a list of those who attended: it may have just been the sixteen or so who contributed to the volume, of course, which is still better than the half-a-dozen Ordovician bivalve devotees, but although Ron Shuttleworth, Doc Rowe and A.Voice (p.189) were clearly there I'm left wondering who else was there.

Finally, the pre-publication blurb for the volume suggested that the print run would be restricted to provide for those at the conference and any who subscribed in advance of publication. This means that anyone reading this wholehearted recommendation of the volume probably stands little chance of obtaining a copy, which is an enormous pity. I hope the publisher will find a way to make more copies available: I am a great believer in the printed word above all else (Tunnicliff, 2002) but if ever there was a candidate for work to be made available on a CD-ROM in the absence of paper, then this is it. [Note 3]

Steve Tunnicliff


Sam Bond (1993) Where does Father Christmas go to?: Echos of Hampshire 2

Forest Tracks, 1978, FTC6026

Sam Bond (1998) Where does Father Christmas go to in the Summertime?"

in: "You Lazy Lot of Bone Shakers: Songs & Dance Tunes of Seasonal Events: The Voice of the People, Vol.16", 1978, Topic Records, TSCD666, Track 17

Eddie Cass (2001) The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play: A Social History

London, Folklore Society, 2001

Steve Tunnicliff (2002) [Review]: Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands 1660-1900: Aspects of social and cultural history - by Keith Chandler: Musical Traditions MTCD250, Musical Traditions Records, 7th Jun.2002

[This is a review of the CD-ROM version of the book "Ribbons Bells and Squeaking Fiddles"]


  1. An illustrated report on the conference appeared in Traditional Drama Forum, No.6.

  2. The publication announcement in Traditional Drama Forum, No.8 also gives a brief summary of the papers.

  3. Publisher's Note: Depending on demand, the Traditional Drama Research Group will consider reprinting the book or producing a CD-ROM version.