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English Folk Drama in the Eighteenth Century: A Defense of the Revesby Sword Play Thomas Pettitt Our knowledge of English folk drama is confined almost exclusively to the texts and reports assembled by antiquarians and folklorists from the 1820’s to the present, and it is on this material that we have based our general notions about the action, words, performance, and context of the folk drama, as well as the currently orthodox distinction between Hero Combat, Sword Dance, and Wooing Plays.1 It has nonetheless been characteristic of folk drama scholarship that rather than study the plays as we have them in their contemporary context, there has been a consistent urge to trace them back to some earlier, original, or integral form of which the surviving varieties of plays are merely the debris—a form with some status other than mere popular social custom. An earlier antiquarian ap­ proach sought to derive the folk plays from the medieval mysteries and miracle plays, while still influential is the postFrazerian folklore approach which sees the plays as residual forms of pre- and sub-Christian fertility ritual.2 Such approaches typically adopt a comparative method, drawing conclusions from the parallels observed in the direct juxtaposition of English folk plays and a source representing the kind of origin advocated— e.g., a medieval play or modem primitive cult practices— and have inevitably been attracted to the so-called “Sword Play” from Revesby in Lincolnshire, remarkable for a rich variety of features which lend themselves to the demonstration of one theory of folk play origins or another—i.e., from the direct quotation of medieval plays to a multiplicity of primitive motifs such as death-and-revival and the “sacred marriage.” But even a more cautious historical approach to the develop­ ment of English folk drama could not avoid devoting substantial attention to the Revesby Play, for it is the earliest complete 3 4 Comparative Drama text available to us of an English folk play known to have been performed, its manuscript explicitly headed October 20, 1779.3 Indeed the Revesby Play would seem to warrant a place in any approach to English folk drama, because of its unique length and complexity and its inclusion of elements from all three standard types of folk play—Hero Combat, Sword Dance and Wooing Play—as well as other features of seasonal custom such as a dragon and hobby horse, while its performers are referred to as morris dancers. This apparently assured place in the history of the English folk drama has, however, been vigorously challenged on a number of counts by Michael Preston and others, who question the ultimate basis of its value for such study, the play’s tradi­ tional status. Its length and complexity, unique in the English folk play corpus, may provoke doubts rather than justify enthu­ siasm, for its conglomeration of traditional forms may be the result of non-traditional intervention. Preston likewise finds that in some parts of the Revesby Play which correspond to passages in other folk play texts, the Revesby handling of the material is “literary.” The play’s performance on October 20, a date nowhere else related to folk drama activity, similarly suggests a problematic relationship to tradition. Altogether, the play looks like a composite, put together artificially for some particular purpose, “made out of both traditional material and literary sources to make a longer and more entertaining performance,” and then perhaps taught by the author to local traditional groups.4 In a later, computer-based analysis, in which the Revesby Play was checked against a corpus of 156 complete folk play texts and 38 fragments, Preston has demonstrated that only a small percentage of lines in the Revesby Play bear a resemblance to folk plays as a whole, and its relationship to tradition is not dissimilar to that of the St. George Play in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native.5 While the mere exis­ tence of the Revesby Play proves that there were folk plays in the later decades of the eighteenth century which included some of the speeches familiar in later texts, neither the form nor the content of the play as recorded could...


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