Correspondence : "The Ploughboy and the Plough Play" by Alun Howkins and Linda Merricks in Journal, 6.2(1991), 187-208, and Correspondence from Beth Shaw in Journal, 6.4(1993), 506-07

Peter Millington, Long Eaton

Folk Music Journal, 1995, Vol.7, No.1, pp.71-72

Home Page > Articles > The Ploughboy and the Plough Play

In her comments on 'The Ploughboy and the Plough Play', Beth Shaw objected to Alun Howkins and Linda Merricks using the term 'Recruiting Sergeant play' instead of the familiar 'wooing play'. As the source cited for their terminology1, I feel obliged to provide an explanation.

Most folk play scholars have used the terms 'wooing play', 'bridal play' or 'plough play' to cover a large group of folk plays found in the English East Midlands. The term is used as if it refers to a single type of play, but this is not the case. There are two versions. They share some common features - the Dame Jane scene and the quack doctor, for example - but there are distinct differences. This is especially so of the so-called 'wooing' scene, which I will discuss further.

The plays which have been the main focus of study are a handful of early nineteenth century texts from south western Lincolnshire plus the Revesby play.2 The wooing scene can truly be called the main action of these plays. Thus we see the Lady (Cicely at Revesby) being courted by a whole series of suitors - the Fool (Noble Anthony), the Husbandman or Farming Man, a Lawyer, the Father's Eldest Son, and an Ancient Man. In each case the suitor states his case, and is then rejected by the lady, who finally chooses the fool.

However, the vast majority of 'plough plays' from the East Midlands are of a different type. Here the fool is Bold Tom or Tom Fool, and rather than a multiple wooing scene, there is a three-way operatic scene between the Recruiting Sergeant, the Farmer's Man (or Ploughboy) and the Lady Bright and Gay. The Recruiting Sergeant calls for recruits, and the Farmer's Man abandons his sweetheart to join the army. On the rebound, the Lady accepts a perfunctory proposal of marriage from the fool.

Although some of the principal characters of these scenes are superficially similar, there are significant differences in the cast - The fools, for instance, have different names - and the relevant lines are almost totally dissimilar. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that far from the Lady rejecting her suitors, in the second version it is she who is rejected by the recruit.

If one accepts that these two versions are distinct, then revised terminology is needed. The first type can correctly be called a wooing play, but I prefer 'multiple wooing play' because this highlights the distinctive nature of the action. It also serves to distinguish it from the old terminology.

In the second version, the so-called 'wooing' is far too cursory to be seriously called the subject of the play and therefore should not be used as the basis of a term. The three-way scene between the Recruiting Sergeant, the Farmer's Man and the Lady Bright and Gay is the distinguishing feature. This offers several possibilities for terminology. I chose to coin 'Recruiting Sergeant play' for three reasons:

  1. Using the name of a universally present character provides an objective basis for terminology. In this version, where the action is capable of several interpretations, any term based on of the action would carry a lot of undesirable baggage and should therefore be avoided.

  2. Secondly, of the the character names that could be used, only the Recruiting Sergeant is sufficiently unambiguous and recognizable.

  3. The title 'The Recruiting Sergeant' is used in several manuscripts of this version, thus providing a precedent. These include the earliest example.3.

Beth Shaw has given us a refreshing new insight into the plays, but her comments are primarily relevant to the Multiple Wooing plays. The new terminology is in no way meant to diminish the significance of the contribution of the female characters to the plots of these plays, as she suggests. In fact I would rather hope that the term 'multiple wooing play' emphasises this aspect.

Dame Jane remains a character common to both versions, and there is scope for comparing how her role differs between the two. Perhaps one could use 'Dame Jane play' as a broader term under which to combine the versions, however I think that 'plough play' is probably too entrenched to be dislodged.

In summary, the term 'Recruiting Sergeant play' is not a simple replacement for 'wooing play'. It extends the terminology to distinguish the main bulk of plough plays from the few true Multiple Wooing Plays. My article in American Morris Newsletter gives further background to my terminology in the context of the possible origins of the plays.4


  1. Peter T.Millington The Problems of Analysing Folk Play Cast Lists using Numerical Methods
    Traditional Drama 1978, Conference, University of Sheffield, 21st October 1978, p.14

  2. C.R.Baskervill (1923) Mummers' Wooing Plays in England
    Modern Philology, 21 (1923), 225-72

  3. Baskervill, pp.259-62

  4. P.Millington (1989) Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers' Plays'
    American Morris Newsletter, 13.4 (1989), 9-16

© Copyright 1995 by Peter Millington (, Last updated: 08-Apr-2016