"This is a Mummers’ play I wrote": Part 1 - Introduction and Previous Work

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Whether on paper or on the Internet, there is plenty of documentary evidence to suggest that the urge to rewrite folk plays is irresistible. Some of these modern plays are simply adaptations of traditional texts, but most are totally new compositions written in the traditional style, whatever that means. And this last remark is really is the subject of this paper. Modern folk play compositions raise a host of questions. Why do people write them, and how? What makes the plays seem authentic? Is it more than having a rhymed script? More than wearing costumes swathed in ribbons and streamers? Just what is it? These are interesting questions in their own right, but the answers may also have implications for folk play history. If the influences and factors that operate today also held sway in the past, then by studying the modern compositions we may gain a valuable insight into how the different traditional play variants emerged and evolved.

Previous Work

The introduction of modern historical personages into the plays has been noted by various authors, including J.H.Ewing (1884), R.J.E.Tiddy (1923) and Alex Helm (1965). These characters are indicative of at least partial rewriting or supplementary composition during the history of the plays. The only previous in-depth study of newly-composed folk plays I can find was conducted by Ian Russell on the Brut King play of Jacksdale, Nottinghamshire in the 1970s (I.Russell, 1981a).

The Jacksdale Brut King Play

Jacksdale was the home of a traditional hero-combat play, performed at Christmas and featuring the character Bullguys (spellings vary). The actors were known as Bullguisers, possibly a conflation of the character name with the name Guisers commonly used in the region and elsewhere.

In the mid 1970s, a new teenage group of Bullguisers decided to perform the play. Keith Flint, the tradition bearer from the previous generation provided them with the script, but it did not gel. Instead therefore, he decided to update the play, the result being a brand new script incorporating current celebrities, fashions, jingles and topical events.

The Jacksdale Bullguisers, 1977
Fig.1 - Jacksdale Bullguisers
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Russell interviewed Keith Flint to determine his methods and motivation. Flint said his aim was to update the script to make it funnier and more entertaining. Its topicality is reflected in the cast illustrated in Figure 1. Brut King - one of the protagonists - was based on the boxer Mohammed Ali, who at the time featured in a television advert for Fabergé's Brut cologne for men. His opponent - Kung Fluey - was inspired by the then popular kung fu genre of films and television programmes. The Referee, of course, mediated the fight. Slack Alice was borrowed from the repertoire of the effeminate comedian Larry Grayson.

While the characters were new, and indeed most of the script, Flint felt it was important to keep some traditional features. Therefore he retained the classic hero-combat plot where one disputant is felled by the other, and the doctor (in this case played by Slack Alice) revives him. Enter In or Opener still started the play with the traditional verse, and the play ended with a Christmas carol

With the new script in place, the play was performed in the traditional context, with numerous performances taking place over three Christmas seasons, mainly in pubs in and around Jacksdale. They had a good reception, but the actors were made aware of audience expectations for the traditional characters Bullguys and Betsy Bellsybub, who were missing from the play. At the end of three years, the novelty had worn off, both with the actors and the audience, so in the end they reverted to the tried and tested traditional text.

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