English Folk Drama in the Eighteenth Century: A Defense of the Revesby Sword Play


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Our knowledge of English folk drama is confined almost exclusively to the texts and reports assembled by antiquarians and folklorists from the 1820's to the present, and it is on this material that we have based our general notions about the action, words, performance, and context of the folk drama, as well as the currently orthodox distinction between Hero Combat, Sword Dance, and Wooing Plays.1 It has nonetheless been characteristic of folk drama scholarship that rather than study the plays as we have them in their contemporary context, there has been a consistent urge to trace them back to some earlier, original, or integral form of which the surviving varieties of plays are merely the debris-a form with some status other than mere popular social custom. An earlier antiquarian approach sought to derive the folk plays from the medieval mysteries and miracle plays, while still influential is the post- Frazerian folklore approach which sees the plays as residual forms of pre- and sub-Christian fertility ritual.2 Such approaches typically adopt a comparative method, drawing conclusions from the parallels observed in the direct juxtaposition of English folk plays and a source representing the kind of origin advocated e. g., a medieval play or modem primitive cult practices-and have inevitably been attracted to the so-called "Sword Play" from Revesby in Lincolnshire, remarkable for a rich variety of features which lend themselves to the demonstration of one theory of folk play origins or another-i.e., from the direct quotation of medieval plays to a multiplicity of primitive motifs such as death-and-revival and the "sacred marriage."

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