Letters: A Black and White Issue?

Peter Millington

English Dance and Song, Autumn.2005, Vol.67, No.3, pp.31-32

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I was very interested to read your "Black and White" article in the last EDS. As you concentrated on folk dance, I would like to outline the equivalent practices of mummers and guisers. There are two basic reasons why folk play actors black up - disguise and characterization.

Blacking Up as Disguise

There are many examples of traditional groups where all of the actors blacken their faces. Their aim is simply to conceal their faces, and bears no relation to any of the characters being portrayed. In fact, the costumes also may not represent the characters.

While black is by far the most common colouring used, red is also used, and the disguise does not necessarily involve the whole face. Painting luxuriant moustaches and beards, or just general smudging can equally achieve the desired effect. There are no racial connotations in this form of blacking up. Colouring a white face black is a very effective method of concealment. No doubt whitening a black face is similarly effective.

There is no rational reason why actors should black up in this way. The source of this practice seems to be the related non-play customs. Most if not all the names used for the actors - Mummers, Guisers, Soulers, Pace-Eggers, Plough Bullocks, etc., - are also used for non-play activities. These typically involve some form of house-to-house collection, and employ similar disguises. Where the audience consists of neighbours and relatives, part of the fun is trying to guess who is behind the disguise. Another motivating factor, mentioned in your article, is that it allows people to get up to mischief with impunity. If the perpetrators cannot be identified they cannot be brought to book.

Portrayal of Characters

The other reason to black up is to portray the character being played, which usually only involves one or two actors in the group. There are three types of character who black up:

Firstly there are the devils - Beelzebub and Little Devil Doubt. These are often blacked up, following a long-standing general tradition of portraying devils as black. Chapbook woodcuts show these characters as black, and no doubt some groups followed this precedent. However, many mummers and guisers have recently been using red instead. This may reflect the mass marketing of red devil costumes by supermarkets for Halloween.

Secondly, there are characters who black up to show their foreignness. They may be explicitly black - notably "The Black Prince of Paradine", sometimes also described as the "Black Morrocco Dog". Interestingly, the famous Midgley Pace-Eggers, who do not use facial disguise, have this character. In the past this character wore a black costume while the others wore red. He still does, but recently a black actor has played the part, and this has been very effective, while appearing not to ruffle any feathers.

This King of Egypt is also sometimes portrayed as black, which is perhaps not unreasonable. However, it is less justifiable to have a black Turkish Knight, since, as we all know, real Turks are Caucasian in appearance. When this occurs, the intention is probably to emphasise the otherness of this character to cast him more readily as an adversary.

Lastly, we have to the north Lincolnshire Plough Jags. These large groups typically had one or two blacked-up characters known as "Niggers". They were normally non-speaking, but might play music. Maurice Barley noted the following couplet for the Music Man in north Lincolnshire:

In comes Nigger Jack from Tennessee
(M.W.Barley, JEFDSS, 1953, p.77)
As fine old chap as ever you see.

Photographs show that these north Lincs "Niggers" were based on music hall "Nigger Minstrels". Clearly there was a racial element to this portrayal, but I doubt they were racist, any more than the Black and White Minstrels.

© Copyright 2005 by Peter Millington (petemillington@virginmedia.com), Last updated: 09-Apr-2016