"This is a Mummers’ play I wrote": Part 8 - Textual Analysis

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Textual Analysis

The research collection of 45 composed scripts plus one fragment was compared with the database of traditional texts than I prepared for my PhD research. This comprised about 180 traditional scripts, and is available online at www.folkplay.info (P.Millington, 1999-2002).

303 different traditional line types were identified that occur in the modern sample. Of these only 29 types occurred five or more times. To put this in context, the database of traditional plays contained over 5,500 different line types, of which about 1,000 occurred three or more times.

Most Popular Retained Lines

The traditional lines that are more frequently retained in modern compositions mostly relate to the Doctor and his calling on, or to the play's opening speeches. There is also a pair of formulaic lines that is often used to introduce new characters.

Doctor-related lines

These lines have been arranged in the order they would usually appear in a play.

[Someone] Oh no! Oh no! What hast thou done?
Is there a noble doctor to be found
To raise the dead to heal the wound?
or To raise this man that’s on the ground
Doctor In comes I a Doctor
[Someone] Are you a doctor?
What can you cure?
Doctor I can cure hipsy, pipsy, palsy and gout
Pains within and pains without
[Someone] Can you cure him?
Doctor I’ve got a little bottle by my side called elecampane
Here Jack take a sup of my nip nap
And let it run down thy tip tap
Arise <patient's name> and fight again

The two lines that have been given in bold face are the traditional lines that occur most frequently in modern compositions. Interestingly, they are also the most common lines in the traditional database itself.

Opening Speeches

The following lines are the commonly retained lines from three distinct opening speeches. These speeches may appear in modern compositions either singly or in combination. Traditional scripts also sometimes have multiple introductory speeches.

[Introducer] A room a room I do presume, and give us room to rhyme
For we've come to show activity, this merry <festival> time
[Opener] I open the door I enter in
I hope your favours I shall win
or I beg your pardon to begin
Whether I rise, sit, stand or fall
I’ll do my duty to please you all
[Father figure] In comes I <person’s name>, welcome or welcome not
I hope <person’s name> shall never be forgot

Formulaic speech

In many traditional plays, each character ends his part by introducing the next person to enter, using the following formula (the precise wording varies):

And if you don’t believe what I say
Step in <person’s name> and clear the way

This formula is also used in some modern compositions.

Character Substitution

When traditional lines are retained in modern compositions, new names are often substituted for the original character. Take, for example, the following traditional speech.

In come I old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas shall never be forgot

In the modern compositions, various names have been substituted for Father Christmas:

Saint Ogrek - Play of Saint Blag (S.J.Ross, 1996)
Captain Christmas - Christmas Chantycle (C.Roth, 2000). This is a nautical captain.
Gabrielle - Viadopolis Mummers' Play ("Simahoyo", no date)
Father Yearend - Zocalo - Babylon 5 [fragment] (W.Linden, 2000)

Usage of Traditional Lines in Composed Plays

Usage of Traditional Lines in Composed Plays

Fig.8 - Usage of Traditional Lines in Composed Plays

Figure 8 shows the frequency of the proportion of modern mumming plays that are composed of traditional lines. The majority of the texts have 15% or fewer traditional lines, and many of these lines are commonplace speeches such as "I am a doctor" that could have been composed spontaneously rather than inherited from a traditional script. The modern plays with the highest percentages of retained traditional lines are compiled plays or adapted mumming plays. This is much as one would expect.

Content Metrics

Content Metrics of Composed Mumming Plays

Fig.9 - Content Metrics

The frequency of occurrence of various features in modern mumming plays is given in Figure 9. They all have rhymed texts except for the Þrimskviða Mummers' Play, which is written in blank verse. The use of self-introductions using the formulae "In comes I" or "Here comes I" is also nearly universal. Other common traits include having a special character to introduce the play, and having a Doctor or an equivalent healer to perform a cure.

To quantify the use of archaic language, I looked for occurrences of the words "thou", "thee", "thy" and "thine". 43% of the modern plays had at least one or more of these words occurring at least once, but this dropped to 26% if two or more occurrences were required. This indicates that modern scripts generally use modern language. The few plays with higher occurrences of these words tended to be the plays that retained high percentages of traditional lines.

43% of the plays had the character Saint George or another character that used the lines normally associated with Saint George. This reflects the tendency for modern compositions to be of the Hero-Combat variety. 26% also had a Dragon. This is a higher proportion than is found with traditional plays, where the Dragon is unusual. Of course Saint George is usually paired with the Dragon because of his hagiographic legend. It seems likely therefore that modern playwrights feel that a Dragon should also be present if Saint George appears. This train of thought could explain how the dragon came to be introduced to the traditional plays - possibly by William Sandys in 1833 (S.Roud & C.Fees, 1984).

The textual formula "And if you don't believe...", which is often found in traditional plays to introduce the next character, does not appear to be common in modern compositions. Only 17% of the sample featured this formula.

© Copyright 2003, Peter Millington (petemillington@virginmedia.com), Last updated: 07-Apr-2016