Academic journal article Western Folklore

"The Play's the Thing": The Impact of Roger Abrahams' Folk Drama Scholarship

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"The Play's the Thing": The Impact of Roger Abrahams' Folk Drama Scholarship

Article excerpt

"The play's the thing, Wherein to catch the conscience of the King," wrote Shakespeare. Just as Hamlet cast a dramatic net to trap the guilty conscience of Claudius and snared more than he could have anticipated, Roger Abrahams during a decade of intense focus on folk drama hauled in more than plays. Retracing his progress from 1964 to 1973 we see that he initiates this body of work with a consideration of the Cowboy and related characters in British West Indian "Buzzard Plays" of the Christmas season, continues through analyses of the living tradition of the "Mummies" and other seasonal dramas performed on the islands of Nevis and St. Kitts of the Caribbean, brings these insights together in an overview on folk drama in 1972, and culminates this period with his 1973 "Christmas Mummings on Nevis." In this series of six articles, he challenged the assumption that had controlled scholarship for over a century-the belief that folk plays devolved from an ur-ritual based in an agrarian cyclical year. In addition, through cross-cultural comparisons of living dramatic traditions, Abrahams directed scholarly attention from critical readings of "scripts" to the dynamics of folk plays in both immediate performance settings and larger social contexts. Along the way, he contributed significantly to the formulation of a performance-centered approach to folklore, illuminated interrelationships among the representational genres of festival, added sociolinguistic theory to the folklorist's tool kit, and even called for the redefinition of the central term "folk."

"The Cowboy in the British West Indies" appeared in 1964, the year in which Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative from the Streets of Philadelphia (1964b) was published, Abrahams' seminal-and notorious1-study of urban African-America viewed through the lens of oral tradition. "The Cowboy" offers a glimpse at his ongoing formulation of the African-American performance aesthetic as embodied in "the man of words," introduced in Deep Down and brought to maturity twenty years later in The Man of Words in the West Indies: Performance and Emergence of Creole Culture. For example, regarding the boasting speech of the Cowboy character in Nevisian Christmas mumming (traditional peripatetic plays), he offers this observation: "The tone of these speeches resembles many of the toasts2 found among the American Negro. This is probably due to the effect of the cowboy 'boast' on both groups rather than to any other relationship" (1964:175). The resemblance between the toast and the boast is an important observation, although Abrahams would reconsider his position concerning the source of this relationship very soon. Such re-thinking emerges in The Man of Words, "There is an attitude concerning speaking and speech, to words and word usage in conversation, discussion, debate, and performance throughout Afro-America. This approach to talk emerges most clearly in a common pattern of performance" (Abrahams 1983:1).

The ways in which creolization-adopting and adapting-assumes increasing importance in the New World diaspora during the 20th century is a major theme of "Cowboy." As an example, the adopting and adapting of British seasonal performance traditions emerges in the festive enactments of the Christmas season such as the "serenading" which was derived from the English "wassailing" tradition of Christmas seasonal house visits by bands of singers and in improvised performances by "buzzard" troupes. Abrahams notes that the latter seem to be derived from the British mumming tradition of seasonal house visits by roaming ensembles of players performing brief, typically comic, folk dramas. The "St. George Play," a hero combat drama with a plot built on combat, death and revival, which since the inception of British folk drama studies had been used as the yardstick for the folk play3 was not preserved on Nevis. Abrahams reports, however, the existence of "similar plays" (Abrahams 1983:169) rooted in Biblical narratives (David and Goliath) and English literature ("Giant Despair" with its plot derived from John Bunyan's allegory, Pilgrim's Progress). …

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