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Folklore and Fairytales Every country has specific tales that have acted like a backbone to its people for centuries-Folklore is the fertile soil of morals, heroism and fantasy. Come share stories and magical tales, from wherever you hail...

 
 
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Old 12-22-12   #1
ffetcher
 
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Default Folk and Mummers' Plays

Since I spent the solstice night performing a mummers' play, and as the 'doctor' I had the most time to interact with the audience, I figured I'd write up a little of what I answered in case it's of interest to ESFers.

If anyone's interested in particular occurrences, the main clearnig hose for this stuff is at:

http://www.folkplay.info/

But in short, what is a mummers' play? Well, if you look at the link, you'll see that there are a number of distinct types, but the one most people associate with the term is the style we did last night. Father Christmas announces the event and calls in the hero, usually King George but locally often John. The hero challenges all-comers to a fight, for reasons that are usually completely unclear. He kills at least one enemy, who normally turns out to be Father Christmas's son, and is cured by the doctor. The Johnny Jack, or some other character, comes in with a collecting box. The group finish with a carol which usually lasts until the assembled audience have all been cajoled into donating. (In a quirk of UK law, one can only claim to be collecting for charity if in possession of a licence, whereas it's okay to claim the money is for the performers and then give it to charity anyway).

I'm doing five different scripts this year, in - actually I've lost count - performances, but the solstice one (or the Friday or Saturday closest) is special, in that the group of us take a local play (East Boldre) back to the villages where it was recorded, ending up at a pub run by a lady who actually saw it performed in 1934. The play's done by other groups but hadn't been performed in the villages for many years, until two of us, in a pub at Broadstairs folk festival, decided that we'd form a group explicitly with the purpose of persuading the locals that forming their own group would be a good idea. Sadly, that hasn't happened, but we're a bit of a fixture in our own right. We get together at about five, have three run-throughs, and head off to the first pub at seven, do five performances and usually (hic) geth giffen a dwink at eash one.

So, I kept getting asked, with it being death and resurrection, and at the solstice, it's pagan? Errm, well, I admit that I have been known to say that if I think it will part the punter from more of their hard-earned cash, but sadly, nope. You can, of course, use it as a magical ritual, but...

It started out as semi-professional entertainment for the 'big houses'. The style I've described actually started out as a pastiche of the 'quack doctor' and the death and resurrection is really based on exaggerated claims for the doctor's potion. The hero-combat came a bit later, but it's a pretty obvious plot-device. When it started out there was no set time, quite possibly the lord of the manor's birthday or the church ale. But when it started being done by local groups, doing it in the run-up to Christmas meant extra cash in a period when most day-labourers were out of work. In 1909, one leader I've researched, who was an agricultural gang leader - not badly paid - made more in ten evenings running up to Christmas than his normal monthly wage in the summer.

Which brings me to how many combats there are. There were just five of us, presumably all the people East Boldre could muster back then, or the minimum so that the pot per person was maximised. The actual minimum is four if you double Father Christmas and Johnny Jack. The play I did last week had six, which is good insurance because you can drop down to five if someone is ill. Boxing day has eight - I was hoping to watch but they've had someone drop out so I'm frantically learning a different doctor's part. New Year's day has up to fourteen - no-one needs the money, so anyone who wants can take part for the fun of it. "Thy fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth sons, father, are dead..." (actually, they're all piled up on a large tarpaulin, which, given that it's a mixed cast, would probably be illegal in public in any other context).

We perform in tatter-coats: jackets covered in rags. What the idea behind that? Well, the old guys needed to make some kind of show, so they turned their work jackets inside out and sewed offcuts of ribbon and lace on. At Sidmouth, one year, we used shirts from the thrift shop and glued wallpaper strips to them. Very sweetly, as I was trying to get the right money for seven shirts, the assistant said that if I couldn't afford them she'd take whatever I had. Yes, I do look that disreputable.

And we black our faces. Not everyone does. The pillow-cases are washing as I speak. That must be an insult to our black brethren? Only, I think, if you work for CRE or sell Socialist Worker magazine. It's a disguise. It's actually not a very good one, but it's a convention that allows the richer members of a small community to give money to the poorer ones without embarrassing anyone. When I was approached by a (white) woman selling Socialist Worker who actualy did use the term 'black brethren' her (black) colleague came over and told her to wind her neck in, then asked where we were performing in an hours' time, at which point he and a large black contingent came to watch. When a BBC children's programme refused to show footage of a black-faced children's group, Naughty on the Today programme was seriously suckered by the chairman of the Sands-End community group. "It's demeaning" he said, and Naughty fell for it. "It's demeaning because it suggests that black people can't tell the difference between an old tradition and an insult. And it's also demeaning because it suggests that if we can't tell the difference, we need a white TV producer to sort it out for us.

blessings
ffetcher
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