Introduction to British and Irish Folk Plays
by Peter Millington

Imagine you are sitting in your living room of an evening in the run up to Christmas. There is a knock on the door, and when you answer it you find five or more boys with blackened faces and in fancy dress - perhaps wearing cardboard armour and carrying sticks for swords. "Do you want the Guysers?" one asks. "OK", and you lead the way back to the living room.

Their leader steps forward and starts;

    "I open the door, I enter in,
    I beg your pardon to begin,
    Whether we rise, stand, sit or fall,
    We'll do our duty to please you all..."

The Underwood Guysers, Nottinghamshire 1994
The Underwood Guysers, Nottinghamshire, England. 1994 revival by pensioners who acted the traditional play as children in the 1940s

What follows is a short play, perhaps five or ten minutes long, most of which is in rhyme. Next in is that courageous knight Saint George, bragging about his famous deeds. This is too much for "Slasher", a valiant soldier, who reckons St. George couldn't knock the skin off of rice pudding. A sword fight ensues. "Watch the light shade!"

Slasher is killed, but don't worry. A much-travelled Doctor is on hand, and he boasts "If this man's got nineteen devils his skull, I'll cast twenty of them out." A drop of nick nack applied to his tick tack soon brings Slasher back to life.

Finally, Belzibub and Devil Doubt step forward to ask, in verse, for money. Well, you've had some fun. They've put on a good show. Why not? The hat goes round as they finish with a carol, and then they move on to the next house.


What your mind has just seen and heard is a folk play. The lines vary from place to place or even from performance to performance. However, to see a short two-page script, follow the link to the play from Underwood, Nottinghamshire

English folk play texts are mostly in rhyme, and they may include songs or even dances. The key character is the comical quack doctor, who is brought in to revive the loser of the sword fight between a hero and an adversary. The heroes vary regionally and include Saint George, Robin Hood and in Scotland, Galoshin. The adversaries include Slasher (a soldier), Hector and the Turkish Knight. Additionally, there are a variable number of extra characters whose main purpose is to ask the audience for money, food and drink at the end of the performance. The most memorable of these characters is Beelzebub.

The plays are often called Mummers' Plays after one of the common names by which the actors are known. However, Mummers is only one of the collective names used. Others are: Guisers, Christmas Rhymers, Plough Jags, Plough Bullocks, Tipteerers, etc - even Morris Dancers, although the actors may never have performed a dance. Contrariwise, there were plenty of Mummers who did not perform plays. It appears that this was always the case in Medieval times, but non-play Mummers have continued to exist in England, Newfoundland and Philadelphia right up to the present day. Nonetheless, Mummers Play is still a frequently used term, and it causes no end of confusion.


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© Copyright 2000-2001 by Peter Millington (peter.millington1@virgin.net), Last updated: 21/03/2008
National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, U.K.