THE SPROXTON WOOING PLAY
As collected by Dr Chris Cawte & Geoff Halford, members of Leicester Morris Men, in the 1960s, from Mr Albert Healey and Mr Albert Birch, elderly residents of Sproxton.
Mumming or mumming in England go back to the Middle Ages, when people went house to house wearing masks and disguises and the game was for hosts to identify their guests. The plays came about in the 18th century when these dramas latched onto the much older terms ‘mummers’ and practices (door to door visitation). They are folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also by various regional names such as pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, wrenboys, and galoshins). The plays, usually involving about half a dozen characters, illustrate the struggle between good and evil. The characters vary from play to play, although the hero is often St George, who fights with the power of evil traditionally represented by the Turkish Knight who was booed and hissed. There is a sword fight and usually one character is killed, only to be miraculously, albeit comically, cured by a quack doctor.
In the east midland counties of Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Rutland, these mumming or folk plays took a very distinctive form, known as the Wooing Play and were only performed by farm labourers. The earliest record of a Wooing Play is from Bassingham in 1823, contained in the Hunter Collection in the British Museum. The Bassingham version contains all the ingredients of those existing later in the century, including the play from Sproxton, where wooing replaces Hero-Combat as the central theme:
“The Wooer of a young “Female” is rejected in favour of a Clown and enlists in the army. The Clown is occasionally accused of being the father of a bastard child of an older “Female” which he denies. The action continues with a champion overcoming an opponent who is revived by a doctor. Much of the action is expressed in song. Characteristic performers include the Recruiting Sergeant, Ploughboy, Lady, Clown and Dame.”
From “The English Mummers Play” by Alex Helm
The Sproxton play is the only one with the music for the songs to survive in full. In the 1960s Leicester Morrismen encountered several survivors of this group:
Members of Leicester Morrismen performed the Sproxton Ploughboys’ Play at the East Midlands Area Gathering (of the E.F.DF.S.S.).
Recruiting Sergeant: Dave Hipwell; Farmer’s man: Geoff Halford; Tom Fool: Albert Healey; Beelzebub: Ian Day & the Doctor: Dr E C Cawte
There is no reference to a ‘bastard incident’, which is common to many Wooing Plays, perhaps, as remembered performances were by children, the passage may have been deliberately omitted. It is thought that there had earlier been a character called Dame Jane, an old woman carrying a baby which she says is the Fool’s.
Until the 1890s it had been acted by adult farm labourers and was only taken up by the children between 1905-8. It was performed on “Plough Boy Night” in early January, and, for some weeks prior to the performance, the lads practiced in a pigsty with straw on the floor. Albert Healey recalled, from 1907, going round the big houses in the Sproxton area, four or five in an evening, and where welcomed performing the play in the kitchen. They were accompanied by a man in his ordinary clothes who carried a box with a slit in the top which he passed round for the collection during the final song.
The play as described by Albert Healey involved very little ‘acting’ as we would understand it today. They entered led by Tom Fool who cleared the way and attracted the attention of their audience. The cast stood in a line and stood forward to declaim their lines at the appropriate moment. The emphasis was on the words, and the miracle cure!