Dance, theatre and World War I in Britain

This video from Canada says about itself:

The Mummer’s Song. A traditional Newfoundland Christmas pastime.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

A folk tradition WWI nearly blew to bits

Friday 19th December 2014

This Christmas PETER FROST takes to an improvised stage in his local village to perform in a mummer’s play and thus aid the revival of the popular art form

Queen Victoria died just after Christmas, in January of 1901. She was 81 and had ruled over her empire — on which the sun never set — for almost 64 years.

Present were her son King Edward VII and her eldest grandson, Emperor Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany. Another cousin, not present at her death, was Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias.

These three monarchs would spend the next dozen or so years holidaying in each other’s palaces while they quarrelled and played out a series of political intrigues that would end in war in Europe and in Soviet power in St Petersburg.

But in those last dozen or so years of peace the British countryside enjoyed a kind of rural idyll — a brief lull before the cataclysmic storm.

Each year would bring its cycle of seasonal celebrations. Ploughing, May Day maypole dancing, Musical Harvest Homes and at the year’s end the mystery and mumming plays of antiquity.

There were thousands of local customs stretching back into the mists of time.

Mostly of course there was poverty and hard times for the ordinary country folk. Often the quaint customs, the mumming plays or the morris dancing was just another chance to collect a few pence to eke out the meagre wages paid by rich but mean and greedy farmers.

In 1872 2,000 agricultural workers had flocked to join one of Britain’s first trades unions. Joseph Arch had formed his Agricultural Workers Union under a chestnut tree in Wellsbourne, Warwickshire.

The fight for higher wages had begun but it was to be a very long fight indeed.

A number of people realised that it was important to record some of the old customs, the old folk plays, the songs, the dances. Collectors would venture out into the villages and hamlets to record all kinds of folk traditions.

Cecil Sharpe would document the Morris dances and the songs and tunes that went with them. Composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and George Butterworth collected folk tunes that they would incorporate in their own later compositions. They would also compare notes at meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir.

Perhaps none of the collectors realised just how many of these seemingly timeless and everlasting traditional pieces would be swept away by the horror and slaughter starting on the fields of Flanders.

Take just one example. George Butterworth was a keen folk song collector and also danced in Cecil Sharpe’s demonstration Morris Side.

For me Butterworth’s compositions such as Banks of Green Willow, Two English Idylls and his settings of AE Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad are among the finest examples of English pastoral music. They all use folk melodies that the composer collected himself.

This music video is called George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow.

Butterworth marched off to war but before he left for France he destroyed much of his work. He didn’t think it good enough and anyway he knew he would have much more time after the war to write much better works.

George Butterworth died in 1916 in the mud of the Somme. He was just 31.

Reginald John Elliott Tiddy was another leading light of the folk dance movement and a close associate of Cecil Sharp. Tiddy’s particular fascination were the folk plays performed in many English villages around Christmas time.

Tiddy taught English literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and each mid-winter he would venture out collecting Morris dances and folk or mumming plays.

At Christmas in 1913 Tiddy journeyed to the villages on the Northamptonshire-Warwickshire border near where I live today. He collected the texts from local groups of mummers performing around the villages in an attempt to collect beer money.

He returned to the area over the next few Christmases and saw the plays performed each winter up until 1915. By then it was difficult for any village to get enough men to act out the play — most fit young men had marched away to war.

Many of the plays — remembered by the mummers but rarely written down — died along with the young soldiers who had performed them back home.

In 1915 Tiddy himself joined up. He was sent to fight in northern France and was cut down, aged just 36, by a German shell on August 10 1916.

His book The Mummers’ Play, published posthumously in 1923, is still the definitive work on the subject. The book contains 33 complete plays.

The “war to end all wars” changed the English countryside and its customs forever. The maypoles came down — the war memorials with their long engraved lists of fallen heroes went up in their place.

Few mumming plays, with their simple themes of rebirth, survived. The simple pre-Christian messages of death and magical resurrection were a little too close to reality for those soldiers who did return.

King George slaying the Turkish Knight rang rather hollow after Gallipoli, although the Islamaphobes of Ukip would still enjoy it today.

Some of us try to keep the traditions alive. I’m hoping to perform in my local village mumming play.

Whichever midwinter superstition you and your loved ones celebrate enjoy it.

“In come I, old Father Frost, welcome or welcome not. I humbly beg old Father Frost will never be forgot.”

2 thoughts on “Dance, theatre and World War I in Britain

  1. Pingback: English Glastonbury classical music festival, early 20th century | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Christmas, midwinter and the Arctic | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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