Customs revived: Nottinghamshire plough Monday plays

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Folk plays are an interesting area for folklorists. They appear to instil within them traditions and actions from a dark distance part that has been a good source for academics to discover their meanings and origin.

Once it appeared in the early-mid 20th century that they would be a thing of the past as everywhere it appeared they were dying out. However, nothing could be further from the truth at the start of the 21st century as they appear to be in rude health, with at least six renditions across Nottinghamshire over the week of Plough Monday in 2012 by five different groups.

Playing around

I spent the second week of the new year experiencing three different Plough Monday plays in the area and I have detailed my thoughts on them as well as rough copies of the plays as according to traditionally recorded scripts(The scripts are copied from the excellent Mastermummers website in which far more information can be found)

All three plays are versions of what are called Recruiting sergeant play and follow a common theme. Generally a character called Tom Fool is the first in and introduces the play sometimes as in the case of the Calverton play to the sound of a fiddle or a drum. Then the scene moves to a discussion between the recruiting sergeant, a farmer’s man and a ‘female’ character (dressed in drag and called Lady bright and gay). In this scene the farmer leaves his sweet heart to join the army and so spurned the ‘female’ character marries the fool and often a dance ensues. In the next scene in comes another ‘female’ character (again in drag and this time called Dame Jane) who then argues with the Fool that he has a baby with her out of wedlock. They too and fro until Beelzebub turns up and has an altercation with Dame Jane to which she falls down to the ground dead. A doctor is called (usually the fool who is happy to see the character dead…less alimony, offers more money for the doctor to go away) who through various quackery brings the character back to life. A song basically wishing everyone good health and wealth is sung as a plea to then extract money from the audience. Traditionally this money was ‘begged’ after all being plough men they weren’t very busy in the winter, but now days goes to charity or beer money!

The Calverton Plough Play

The final play I watched was in the rather busy environs of the Admiral Rodney in Calverton. The Calverton Play enacted by the CRAPPPs since 1978 is the oldest of the revival plays with only a 20 year or so gap. It was excellently performed and the 13 piece team clearly enjoyed their roles. Their script followed the Cropwell play script with again some adlibs and for those that got involved in watching were thoroughly entertained. Sadly I was unable to follow the team as they went of their three night 19 venue tour but clearly they took their responsibility with great enjoyment and with it so does the often confused onlookers.

The script in 2012

I have transcripted the script of the Calverton Play as heard in the Admiral Rodney. It gives an idea of the nature of all the plays, although variations exist between them and later posts will have more details on these.

Tom Fool: In comes I, Bold Tom Good evening ladies, gentlemen all. We have just come to taste your beer and ale. That the tell me is so ripe and so mellow. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Plough Monday has just past which makes Tom Fool so bold as to call. But don’t take all I have to say, there’s plenty of more lads and lassies on the way. Some can dance, some can sing. So by your leave they shall come in Okum, Pokum, France and Spain, the Recruiting Sergeant just the same

Recruiting Sergeant: In comes I the Recruiting Sergeant. I have arrived here now. I have orders from the King. Enlist all jolly men that follow horses, cart, waggon or plough, Tinkers, tailors, peddlers, nailers. All the more to my advance. The more I hear the fiddle play. The better I can dance.

TOM FOOL and RECRUITING SERGEANT DANCE

Tom Fool: What, can you dance? I can either dance, sing or say. If you can either dance, sing or say. I shall swiftly march away.

Farmer’s man: Knock knock, in come I, that lost my mate, dripping tears are down my face. Try again. Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: Aside: Come on we do this every bloody year! I say pity my condition and you give me a bit more sympathy that that… Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: That’s sympathy. For I declare for a false young girl and I am in despair.

Lady: Behold the lady bright and gay. Good fortune and sweet charms.

Farmer’s man: Surely I have been tricked and broke PUSHES LADY TO THE GROUND THEN GETS UP

Lady: How scornfully I have been thrown from true love’s arms. He says as I won’t to him wed with him. He’ll let me understand. He will list all for a soldier. And go off t some foreign land.

Recruiting Sergeant: Come all you lads that have a mind for listening. List and do not be afraid. You shall have all kinds of liquors. Likewise kiss this fair pretty maid. If you’re not afraid and go with me you’ll go for we shall make a gallant show. Are you free hearted

Farmer’s Man: I am free hearted?

Others: Of he’s free hearted..

Recruiting Sergeant: Are you willing?

Farmer’s man: I am willing!

Recruiting Sergeant: In your hat I place a ribbon and in your hand a shilling.

Lady: No don’t take that shilling!

Farmer’s Man: Thank your sergeant for your offer before I stay longer…ASIDE where’s he gone! Oi! You’ve got my ribbon! If I stay longer I may fair worse, and dash you’re old wig (to Lady) ASIDE: Oh no my god it’s Paul Howard. If I stay long for this brown and saucy lady-boy

Lady: ASIDE Four years at Radar!

Lady: since my love has listed and entered volunteers. I neither mean to sigh for him or yet to shed one tear. CRIES. Aside to Tom Fool: come on!

Tom Fool: Do thou love me my pretty fair maid?

Lady: Oh Yes Tommy, to my sorrow

Tom Fool: And when shall be our wedding day

Lady: Tomorrow lad tomorrow

[All Four] And we’ll shake hands and we’ll make banns. And we’ll get wed tomorrow.

Threshing Blade: In come I old Threshing Blade. As all you people know. My old dad learnt me this trade some 90 years ago. I thrashed this part of the country and thrash that part too! And I will thrash you, Tommy lad, before I go

ASIDE: Cherry Tree drinker!

Sanky Benny: In come I. I can plough, sow, reap or go and I hope you masters will bestow all you can afford in my hopper-o. But not only that for I am Sanky Benny

ALL: Sanky .

Sanky Benny: And I have one and half yard of black and white tape that I will seeelllll you (to Tom Fool) for a penny

Tom Fool: Oh Sanky my old lad me old marrow. Now what have we got in the old line, anything soft and…hang on they’re sticking DRAWING UP SOME UNDERWEAR ON A STRING

ASIDE: That’s rude

Tom Fool: It’s only rude if someone’s in ‘em!These are hankies

Farmer’s man: In comes I, the Farmer’s Man,
Don’t you see my capping hand?
I go forth and plough the master’s land,
And turn it upside down.
How I straight I go from end to end.
I scarcely make a baulk or bend;
And to my horses I attend
As they go marching round the end.
Hov-ve, gee, wo! {cracks his whip.}

Dame Jane: In comes I, old Dame Jane, With a neck as long as a crane ; Dib-dab over the meadow. Once I was a blooming maid, Now I am a downright old widow. Long time I have sought thee, And now I have caught thee. Tommy, take the child.

Tom Fool: Jane!it’s none of mine. Who told you bring it here?

Dame Jane: Well the overseer of the parish told me to bring it to the biggest fool I could find, and I think you be him,for its eyes, nose, cheeks and chin, is as much like you as ever it can grin.

Tom Fool: Is it a boy or a girl?

Dame Jane: It is a girl.

Tom Fool: Ah ha well mine is all boys. Take it and swear it to the village pump, old rag-bag.

{Enter Beelzebub.}

Beelzebub: In comes I, Beelzebub, On my shoulder I carry my club,In my hand a wet leather frying pan ;Don’t you think I’m a funny old man? Is there any old woman that can stand afore me?

Dame Jane: I fear I can. My head is made of iron,My body made of steel,
My hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think nobody can make me feel.Crack one

Beelzebub: If your head is made of iron,Your body made of steel,
Your hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think I can make me feel, old girl! {knocks Dame Jane down.}

ASIDE: It’s like the cherry tree

Tom Fool: Oh, Beelzey! oh, Beelzey! what hast thou done? Thou hast kilt the old woman and limted [lamed] her son. Five pounds for a doctor, Ten to stop away, Fifteen to come in. {Enter Doctor.}

Doctor: I’m not coming in for less!

Tom Fool :You the doctor?

Doctor: Yes, me the doctor!

Tom Fool : How came you to be the doctor?

Doctor: By my travels.

Tom Fool: Where have you travelled?

Doctor: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; back again to doctor old England ;
fireside, bedside, by my old grandmother’s cupboard-side, where I have had many a pound of pork pie in my time. Makes me so stout and my face to shine

Tom Fool: Very impressive but what diseases can you cure?

Doctor: Ah ha I can cure the ipsy-pipsy, palsy, and the gout,
Aches within, aches without,
Draw a leg, set a tooth,
And almost raise the dead to life again.

Tom Fool: Oh You do seem a very clever young man,
Perhaps then you should try your skill.

Doctor: Eh Right then

Doctor: Thank you, kind sir, and so I will. But first I must a feel  of the young lady’s pulse Her pulse beats exceeding fast ;
nineteen times to the tick of my watch once.
She is in a very low way; she will not get a deal lower without there is a hole dug for her.

Tom Fool: It’s his only joke.

Doctor: Give some of my whiff whaff and a tap on the head with my tiff taff. And one of my pills. Would you like to take one madam. Big round white one She’s to take one in the morning, one in the evening and swallow the box at dinner time. This will do her the power of good, cleanse her bones and clean her blood. But wait she is not dead

ALL: Not dead

No merely in a trance

ALL: Merely in a trance

So raise her up and let her dance; If she can’t dance we can sing,
So raise her up and let’s begin.

All dance a country dance, and sing various solo songs; then all sing together -}

[All]

ALL: Good Master and good Mistress, As you sit round your fire, Remember us poor plough boys, That plough through mud and mire. The mire has been so very deep, We travel far and near, We thank you for a Christmas box,
And a pint of your best beer

Bleasby Plough Play

The Rattlejag Morris organised an excellent series of events associated with a Plough Sunday blessing at Morton church. Sadly I missed this part of the custom but arrived in time to see the celebrations at Bleasby where a number of sword dancers, clog dancers and even a rhythm band assembled in this pleasantly mellow Sunday afternoon. The play enacted by Rattlejag Morris was performed in the street outside the Waggon and Horses pub. It was based on the Farnsfield play with an introducer, who had been drafted in from the Sword dancers and had to read much of it from a script (however it did not detract from the spectacle). It is worth noting that the character wore a jersey based on that once preserved in Nottingham costume museum.

Tollerton Plough Play

Tollerton’s Plough Play was last performed in 1952 and it was not until 2002 that it was restored. The basic script for what is called the Tollerton Play is as follows, with characters, the fool, recruiting sergeant, farmer’s man, lady, Dame Jane, Belezebub, Doctor and nurse (who was the prompt)  It differs by having an introducer who quietens the crowd and was an obvious good idea in noisy pubs. However, here I felt was the best atmosphere and the closest perhaps to that which would have accompanied that when done in the dark distant past. Although the pub was packed, everyone was there to see the play! The script was resonant of local in-jokes including a comment on a fire which burnt one of the character’s barn leaving one chicken (a plastic chicken in the play) and the Lady’s attempt to grab any man ‘he’ could for maximum embarrassment.

Ploughing a familiar furrow – What are these plays about?

Obviously at one time all these plays would have had the same characters and script and it is possible that the script became separated from the actions in the Puritan when they may have forgotten the words but remembered the mime of it probably adding verses to it at a later date. Some antiquarians saw that the play with its scene of death and resurrection had clear pagan overtones and represented the triumph of spring over winter, although why the recruiting aspect is in it is unclear. More recently this view has been discarded due to lack of evidence. It is possible that the original ‘play’ was simply the death of Beelzebub and his resurrection as this does rather sit as a discrete scene within the scene of the fool and his mistress and recruitment. Perhaps these last two were later cemented onto it to add familiarity and bawdy humour perhaps post Commonwealth, the recruiting section aping the Civil War and the bawdiness as a relief from the puritan’s restriction of it. However this is mere supposition..in the end we may never really know…

Image and text copyright Pixyled publications

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5 responses »

  1. Hello – have only just come across your posting on Plough Plays. On behalf of the Calverton group, many thanks for your very kind words about our show – we really do appreciate the lovely review! Also, huge respect for transcribing what you heard! Documentary evidence of our brazen ad-libs finally! All the best, Simon Carter (aka. Beelzebub).

  2. The recruiting element is well documented as what took place during the Napoleonic Wars – recruited with the King’s shilling to go and fight against Bony ( Napoleon).

  3. Moira Ruff on October 5, 2013 at 5:50 pm said: [Edit]
    Boxing Day 26th December: Rattlejag Morris Boxing Day Tour. Rattlejag Morris have never failed to appear at a couple of north Nottinghamshire pubs on Boxing Day, whatever the weather, for the last 11 years of their existence. They continue a tradition started by the now defunct Broadstone Morris, a men’s Cotswold Morris side, both centred on Retford, Notts. In 2013 they will yet again be at the Blue Bell in Gringley-on-the-Hill at 12 noon and at the Blacksmith’s Arms in Everton at 1.00pm. Both historic hostelries serve good ale and food, the Blacksmith’s serving a Hog Roast on the day especially, and their will be traditional music sessions in both pubs after the dancing. Come along and bring all the family!

    And don’t forget they have also continued the Broadstone tradition of dancing out at dawn on 1st May on the ancient castle mound in a field next to Laxton, Notts – the last area working the Anglo-Saxon strip farming methods. Barbecued bacon butties and beer served after the dancing and you can also go on a Dawn Chorus nature ramble across the Laxton fields afterwards.
    Many morris sides across the country carry out these two traditions, both recorded in history – didn’t Cecil Sharp become interested in collecting morris dances on early 20thC Boxing Day? – but modern sides are creating new local customs around these dates in the spirit of the old also.
    Rattlejag often accompany Muskham Pinkies plough players when they perform in Newark and pubs in Nth Muskham and Bathley, usually on the Saturday before the Epiphany, 6th January.

    Rattlejag Morris are a mixed side and the only one performing dances from Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire – see their website at http://www.rattlejagmorris.org.uk for more information.
    Cheers
    Moira Ruff

    Reply ↓
    pixyledpublications on October 5, 2013 at 6:57 pm said: [Edit]
    Thanks Moira. Hope to see ringing the bells and sweeping the floor soon…it’ll soon be plough Monday.

    Reply ↓

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