This summer, Rag Morris Mummers have been delighted to be invited to perform at two outdoor events; Priddy Folk Festival on 9th July and Westonbirt Arboretum Festival of the Tree on 29th August.
After a couple of made-up plays, we were keen to try our hands at a play with a more traditional origin. The celebration of trees led us to investigate the old plays with Robin Hood as a central character; which would have been performed in villages in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire between 20 and 40 miles from Westonbirt. So, that performance will be almost on home turf.
We’ve taken a few different versions of the scripts, which diversified as they were carried across the land and changed through time; and combined them into some kind of incoherent whole taking lines and phrases from here and there to make a new-old play. Combine this with green hats and tights, and we believe we’ve got the makings of another modern classic.
The sheer range of characters who appear in different historical mummers’ plays is an indication of the flexibility of the “Quack Doctor” play format; which at the bare minimum, usually features 2 characters who end up in mortal combat, and the Doctor arriving to revive the one who falls over the hardest.
Having already written a play (Prince Albert and the Lionheart) that used an existing poem as the basis of a mummers-style drama, it’s interesting to think that this is exactly what the people who put the original Robin Hood play script together did a hundred or more years ago. In this case it was the ballad of Robin Hood and the Tanner, which can be found in a collection dating back as far as 1663, but of course may be even older than that, and is possibly one of the earliest Robin Hood stories to have been told.
The ballad features the characters of Robin Hood, Little John and a Bold Tanner named Arthur-a-Bland (no relation to the remake of the Dudley Moore classic), but doesn’t include Maid Marion, or even any more of the Merry Men. The play also features the usual cast of misfits and rogues who turn up at the end, with no relation to the plot.
The original play script also liberally mucks about with the lines of the ballad, rewriting them, corrupting them, and assigning them to different characters. It may be the case that it was never properly written down and was misremembered from one year to the next – that’s how these plays tended to evolve. We’ve put some of the lines from the ballad back into the play to make it into even more of a hybrid. In the original story it’s Robin Hood and Arthur-a-Bland who try and tan each other’s hides; but in the mummers’ plays it tends to be Arthur-a-Bland and Little John; and it’s fairly interchangeable which one of those two needs to be fixed by the Doctor. You’ll just have to find out who does what to whom in the Rag Morris version by watching the play.
With thanks to Master Mummers, who have an invaluable collection of old folk play scripts, and to Tony Hearn, for finding a couple more.