Academic journal article Folklore

The Truro Cordwainers' Play: A "New" Eighteenth-Century Christmas Play. (Research Article: Focus on Traditional Drama)

Academic journal article Folklore

The Truro Cordwainers' Play: A "New" Eighteenth-Century Christmas Play. (Research Article: Focus on Traditional Drama)

Article excerpt


The Christmas play hitherto attributed to Mylor is here re-ascribed to Truro in the late 1780s, using biographical information concerning the actors and physical characteristics of the manuscript. It becomes the oldest Saint George play to feature Father Christmas and the Turkish Knight, and has textual parallels with Irish folk plays.


The subject of this paper is a manuscript folk play text that has hitherto been ascribed to Mylor, Cornwall (SW8235). A transcription was first published by Thurstan Peter (1916) who stated that it was "used" by performers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, the more I looked at the text, and compared it with early manuscripts from Lincolnshire [1], the more I felt that the "Mylor" text must have been written down earlier, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. My reasons for thinking this were initially nebulous, based on a combination of spelling practices and the inclusion of large passages of literary text.

Helpfully, the script gives the names of the actors who performed the play. In theory, therefore, it should be possible to tell from biographical information in official records when and where these people lived, and thereby determine a likely performance date. In the course of pursuing this line of research, the original manuscript was also located, which meant that the nature of the paper and handwriting could also be taken into account.

Previous Studies

The "Mylor" play is a long text of forty-one speeches, written semi-literately with dialect spellings. In essence, it is a standard Hero/Combat play, with Saint George and the Turkish Knight, although it is padded out with various large additions, two of which are from known literary and ballad sources. The script names five actors and, as the play has fifteen characters, they obviously doubled-up parts. In fact, the distribution was remarkably equal, with each actor playing exactly three different characters--even the actor with only ten lines in total.

The text is well known to traditional drama research, having appeared in print three times. The manuscript was first published by Thurstan Peter as a literal transcript in Notes and Queries in 1916. Regarding its provenance, he states:

   I have in my note-book ... a curious and interesting copy made by me
   from a MS. used by some Cornish performers in the latter half of the
   last century. The players of this Cornish version--which I
   subjoin--went from house to house and performed in the open,
   borrowing a mat "for the Turkish Knight to die on" if the ground
   were damp.

   The libretto is from a MS. in the possession of John D. Enys (1905),
   who got it from Mylor. The original is written by a very illiterate
   man; but I have followed it closely for fear of wrong conjecture.
   For the same reason I have kept the lines of the original (Peter
   1916, 330; original emphasis).

The Royal Institution of Cornwall now holds the relevant notebook. Peter's transcript appears in his Notebook no. 2 (Peter 1905), but the only accompanying notes comprise the second paragraph quoted.

It is from Peter's statements that the place and date of performance have been taken. However, Peter also referred to the play in his earlier book The Old Cornish Drama (Peter 1906). He highlighted the mixed historical subject matter of the play--mentioning "the incident of Henry V and the tennis balls" and the seizure of Quebec--and quoted one short passage. He gave the anecdote about borrowing mats, as follows:

   "A friend tells me that he well recollects as a child that the
   performers borrowed mats on which to die!" (Peter 1906, 47).

It seems likely that the friend was J. D. Enys, and therefore that this anecdote came from his personal memories of the 1840s or 1850s at Enys, Penryn (SW7936), which is adjacent to Mylor [2]. …

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