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“Custom and creativity: the chicken and egg of folk performance histories” – a talk by Peter Harrop

Review of the online talk by Peter Harrop on Saturday 5th February 2022, attended by over 60 people from the UK, Netherlands, Sweden and the USA.

Review by Jeff Lawson, editor of the Longsword magazine ‘Rattle Up, My Boys’ and member of a number of sword dance teams.

“Professor Harrop’s talk is based upon his introduction to The Routledge Companion to English Folk Performance and Mummers’ Plays Revisited. For the purposes of the talk, the ‘folk performance’ forms considered are: morris, sword and mumming plays. He thinks that the general view is that customs are things which have been around forever and only in the modern era have we got creative with them; the purpose of the talk is to look at that view and consider if things may be more complicated.

To achieve this aim he is looking at three premiers and a variety show. The first of the premiers’ is the earliest morris performance in 1477; sword dance is first reported in England in 1541 at Snettisham, Norfolk, followed in 1638 with a report of a dance at Lathom, Lancashire; sometime between 1746-69 the first Mummers play was printed in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and finally in 1779 a ‘variety’ performance, incorporating morris, sword and a play, was staged at Revesby Abbey, the home of Sir Joseph Banks. (As the questions and answers at the end of the talk demonstrated all of the premiers are open to discussion, but the detail does not affect the argument being put forward.) 

Folk Perf Histories image 1
Artwork Paul Loudon (c) Peter Harrop

“It is suggested that in the popular conception self-contained works, such as performance in a guild procession, on the stage or at a church ale, are bundled together in many peoples thoughts not because of what they were originally but because of what folklorists and collectors made of them. Peter argues that as Antiquarianism transforms into anthropological Folklore Studies ideas and interests of the time, such as paganism, become themselves an origin myth, folklore about folklore; missing what is important, the transformation of popular performance into customary performances. 

“A part of the reason that two premiers are used for sword dance is to confront our assumptions as to where sword comes from, Norfolk and near Liverpool rather than Yorkshire and the northeast; although not spelt out by Peter the regional bias is another misconception encouraged by Sharp. Whilst the Snettisham performance took place on Plough Monday, which is what the folklorists have led us to expect, Lathom, which was reported by William Blundell, took place on Ash Wednesday; in 1712 William Blundell’s grandson Nicholas “made” a sword dance which they danced on 9 July like the Lathom performance an ‘unexpected’ time, although Peter fails to mention that Nicholas Blundell’s sword dancers also performed on 12th Night much more in keeping with expectations.

“A chapbook was printed in Newcastle entitled Alexander and the King of Egypt. A Mock Play, as it is acted by the Mummers every Christmas, Peter asks was this a description or a piece of marketing. He then goes on to discuss the 1770 performance of The Siege of Troy in a booth at Bristol Fair; which has things we would be familiar with as part of a mummers play in a different context. For each of the premiers three contextually different photographs are shown to point out our visual preconceptions of what is morris, sword and mumming can form our beliefs as to what each should be and what is ‘right’.

“The complex collage of performance styles at Revesby is used as a peg by Peter to ask what is the difference between folk performance and any other kind of performance and does this help us understand if there is anything special about folk performance. He thinks that the answer is yes, that until recently most ‘art’ performance was fixed in place whilst folk is all about pageants, parades and processions, it is a moveable feast. All performances come and go, they happen, stop, are revived but with folk, this is also linked to place both geographically and in the calendar which fixes the experience in the memory of the audience. He also sees a Romantic element, knowing you are part of a reiteration whether as audience or performer has a special quality.

Folk Perf Histories image 2
Image John McGovern: (c) Owle Schreame

“The widespread view is that the difference between folk and other performances is self-evident, the conclusion that Professor Harrop draws is that it isn’t. The performance can be the same in all performance arts, it’s the context that makes a difference. 

“An interesting and informative talk, it would tempt me to buy The Routledge Companion to English Folk Performance and Mummers’ Plays Revisited if it were not for the price tag of £155.62 (even the Kindle edition is £26.79).                                                                 

Review by Jeff Lawson, editor of the Longsword magazine ‘Rattle Up, My Boys’ and member of Brompton Scorpers Sword Dancers, Goathland Plough Stots, Horwich Prize Medal Morris Men, Medlock Rapper, North British Sword Dancers, Sallyport Sword Dancers, Southport Swords.

About Peter Harrop

Peter Harrop is Professor Emeritus in Drama at the University of Chester and has published in a range of folklore, theatre and performance studies journals.

During the 1970s Peter Harrop danced and acted with Monkseaton Morrismen and Folk Dance Club which sparked a lifelong interest in customary performance.

He went on to study drama and folklore, gaining a PhD from the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at Leeds University.

Routledge Companion to English Folk Perfermance book coverRecent publications by Peter Harrop include:

  • Mummers’ Plays Revisited (Routledge, Advances in Theatre and Performance, 2020)
  • The Routledge Companion to English Folk Performance (with Steve Roud, 2021)
  • Staging, Playing, Pyrotechnics and Magic: Performance Conventions in Early English Theatre. An edition of research articles by the theatre historian Philip Butterworth (Routledge, Variorum Collected Studies, 2022)

Resources about folk plays and mummers

Here are some general mummers resources you might be interested in:

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