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

By Green, Thomas A. | Western Folklore, Summer/Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

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


Green, Thomas A., Western Folklore


"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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.