Folk drama

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Folk drama

Folk drama: Originally, theatrical performances by ordinary people, or folk. Folk drama encompasses a wide variety of forms, such as plays, renditions of religious stories, and traditional ceremonies and activities (e.g., sword dances) associated with seasonal festivals. Folk drama originated in the fertility rites of ancient communities as a way to pay tribute to agricultural gods. Performances honoring Dionysus — the Greek god of fertility, vegetation, and, more specifically, wine — may have been forerunners of Greek tragedy. Some English folk dramas grounded in medieval traditions and dating from the Renaissance — for example, The Plough Monday Play — are still performed today.

In the twentieth century, the term folk drama was defined more broadly to include works written by playwrights and performed by professional actors, so long as the works express the beliefs, culture, language, and traditions of the folk. Accordingly, the plays of J. M. Synge; Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory; William Butler Yeats; and other writers of the Celtic Revival are considered to be folk drama.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Forms of folk drama from around the world include mummers’ plays (England), which feature fantastic situations, masked actors, pantomimes, and sword fights; Yangge (China); Ta’ziyeh (Iran); Apidan (Nigeria); and Karagoz (Turkey). Victorian children’s author Juliana Horatia Ewing’s story The Peace Egg (1871) features the performance of a Christmas folk drama; Ewing later assembled a script from five versions of the folk drama and published it as A Christmas Mumming Play (1884). The plot of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native (1878) incorporates a folk drama, a mummers’ play known as The Play of St. George. In a 1901 interview with critic William Archer, published in Pall Mall Magazine (1901) and Real Conversations (1904), Hardy described a local performance of the play, which continued until about 1880 in some areas, as follows:

Oh, our mummers hereabouts gave a regular performance — The Play of St George it was called. It contained quite a number of traditional characters: the Valiant Soldier, the Turkish Knight, St George himself, the Saracen, Father Christmas, the Fair Sabra, and so on… .

[I]t ended in a series of mortal combats in which all the characters but St George were killed. And then the curious thing was that they were invariably brought to life again. A personage was introduced for the purpose—the Doctor of Physic, wearing a cloak and a broad-brimmed beaver.

Hardy later published a version of the play in 1928.

Twentieth-century playwright Paul Green’s history plays reflect the regional experiences, values, and culture of ordinary people who settled in the United States. The Common Glory, Green’s “symphonic drama” of the Revolutionary War “with music, commentary, English folksong, and dance,” was performed by the Jamestown Corporation in Williamsburg, Virginia, from 1947 to 1976; The Lost Colony (1937), a symphonic drama about the mysterious fate of the Roanoke Island colony in North Carolina, is still mounted every summer by the local historical association. Folk dramas based on “Old World” religious drama still being performed today as part of Hispanic Christmas celebrations along the Rio Grande in Texas include Pastorela (also called Los pastores), an often-comedic account of the shepherds’ journey to see the Christ child, and Las Posadas, a serious account, performed over nine nights, of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging prior to Jesus’s birth. The Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, held on New Year’s Day since 1901, is organized by local clubs; draws about 15,000 performers annually; and features spectacular costumes, dance routines, and portable scenery.