Traditional Drama in Newfoundland:
Text, Context, and Performance

Building on longstanding joint research in the field of traditional drama in Britain and North America, the Centre is collaborating with the Department of Folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland to create a computer-held resource on mummering and mummers’ plays in the province.

The traditional custom of Christmas mummering has survived in Newfoundland for longer than in most parts of the English-speaking world. While the house-visiting traditions at the Christmas season have been the subject of substantial research (e.g. Halpert and Story, 1969, 1990; Robertson, 1984; Sider, 1977), the much rarer custom of the mummers’ performance of traditional plays has been surprisingly neglected. The project aims to identify, transcribe, annotate, and make available the unique texts and performances of mummers’ plays recorded in the province in the period 1964-1969, and deposited in the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA). The archival tape-recordings include full, partial and fragmentary texts, together with details of context, costume, performance, and the role of these plays within the community. The recordings were very timely, because only a few elderly individuals still recalled the plays, sometimes from as long ago as the late nineteenth century.

The research will identify the full range of tape-recordings in MUNFLA in the period 1964-1969 which contain information on mummers’ plays, supplemented by all available manuscript information in the Archive. The objectives are:

(a) to transcribe all the relevant tape-recorded archival material in detail, utilising the verbatim method of transcription employed in Folktales of Newfoundland (Halpert and Widdowson, 1996);

(b) to edit the texts in preparation for making them available for academic and general use;

(c) to provide an accompanying commentary on aspects of costume, context, performance, and the role of the plays within the community. Such commentaries are conspicuously lacking in previous studies, largely because the detailed information recorded in the Newfoundland archive tapes is very rarely available elsewhere;

(d) to annotate the transcriptions and commentaries in the light of current scholarship in the subject area, drawing specifically on the ongoing work of the Traditional Drama Research Group, and on a wide range of data available in published works, in unpublished archival material in MUNFLA, and in the Halpert Folklore Collections at Memorial University;

(e) to make the texts, commentaries, annotation, and ancillary information available through a website.

Traditional mummers’ plays have been uniquely preserved in Newfoundland, only a few scattered examples of their transatlantic transference being known, e.g. the performance of a "Saint George" play in the West Indies (Abrahams, 1968, 1970; Cass, Preston, and Smith, 2002). The survival of traditional drama in the province not only in respect of the texts themselves, but also with regard to the wealth of information on costume, context, performance, and social function, invests them with particular importance in this field of research. Whereas most of the available material on traditional drama in Britain and Ireland focuses on texts and on secondary reports of performance, the recordings in MUNFLA are firsthand eyewitness accounts of the whole event, as recalled in the local vernacular by speakers who recall actual performances, some of these individuals having participated in the plays themselves. This detailed oral testimony in these archival sources is therefore not only of great significance to the traditional heritage of Newfoundland, but also to international scholarship in this field which focuses, inter alia, on the history, provenance, transmission, and distribution of these plays. Information on traditional drama in the province will be of particular interest to scholars who have become aware of the survival of these plays only recently, notably through papers presented at international conferences in the subject area. In practical terms, making this material available will add substantially to existing knowledge of these hitherto unresearched archival examples of traditional drama, and will shed light on their origin, dissemination, and distribution. In addition, the data will contribute to the ongoing debate on the relative importance of the printed versus the oral transmission of texts.

While existing research and literature on traditional drama is extensive, very little has been published on the Newfoundland plays. Halpert and Story (1969, 1990) list fourteen communities from which texts or fragments have been reported. They also present the texts of three plays, from St. John’s, Change Islands, and Salvage, all drawn from printed sources. The recordings in MUNFLA include firsthand oral accounts of the Change Islands and Salvage plays – in the latter case recorded from the same informant as the printed text – so a comparison of the oral and written evidence will be particularly illuminating. Published information on British and Irish texts (e.g. Tiddy, 1923, Cawte, Helm, and Peacock, 1969, Gailey, 1969, Glassie, 1975, Preston, Smith, and Smith, 1977, Preston, 1983, Hayward, 1992, Boyes, Preston, and Smith, 1999, Preston and Smith, 1999, Tillis, 1999, Parle, 2001) provides ample scope for comparison, for tracing origins, and suggesting trends in the patterns of transmission and distribution.

The Traditional Drama Research Group continues to spearhead research across the full range of the subject. The project will benefit substantially through regular contact and exchange of information with members of the Group. The field recordings and ancillary information on traditional drama in the period 1964-1969 deposited in MUNFLA have now been identified, and the archival data transcribed. The texts of all the tape-recorded plays and fragments are now being edited to provide a comprehensive overview of all the recorded material. Details of costume, context, performance, and social function will then be added in the form of a series of commentaries on each text. This will enable the comparative annotation of the texts, drawing on available information on the British and Irish plays. At the same time, the material will offer information on trends in the possible origins and distribution of the plays, and on their transference to Newfoundland.

This research project is supported by the J. R. Smallwood Foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.


Abrahams, R. D., " 'Pull Out Your Purse and Pay’: A St. George Mumming from the British West Indies", Folklore, 79 (Autumn, 1968), 176-201.
Abrahams, R. D., "British West Indian Folk Drama and the ‘Life Cycle’ Problem",
Folklore, 81 (Winter, 1970), 241-265.
Boyes, G., M. J. Preston, and P. Smith,
Chapbooks and Traditional Drama, Part II, Christmas Rhyme Books, Sheffield, The National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, 1999.
Cass, E., M. J. Preston, and P. Smith,
The English Mumming Play: An Introductory Bibliography, FLS Bibliographies No. 2, London, FLS Books, 2000.
Cawte, E. C., A. Helm, and N. Peacock,
English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index, London, The Folk-Lore Society, 1967.
Gailey, A.,
Irish Folk Drama, Cork, The Mercier Press, 1969.
Glassie, H.,
All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1975.
Halpert, H., and G. M. Story,
Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1969, 1990.
Halpert, H., and J. D. A. Widdowson,
Folktales of Newfoundland, New York, Garland Publishing, 1996.
Hayward, B., Galoshins:
The Scottish Folk Play, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1992.
Millington, P., "The Origins and Development of English Folk Plays", unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2002.
Parle, J.,
The Mummers of Wexford, Drinagh, Wexford, JJP Publications, 2001.
Preston, M. J.,
The KWIC Concordance of British Folk Play Texts, Boulder, Colorado, 1969-70.
Preston, M. J., M. G. Smith, and P. S. Smith,
Chapbooks and Traditional Drama, Part 1: Alexander and the King of Egypt Chapbooks, CECTAL Biographical and Special Series, No. 2, Sheffield, The Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language, 1977.
Preston, M. J., and P. Smith,
"A petygree of the Plouboys oR modes dancers songs": The Morris Dance at Revesby, Sheffield, The National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, 1999.
Robertson, M. R.,
The Newfoundland Mummers’ Christmas House-Visit, National Museum of Man, Mercury Series, Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Series, Paper No. 49, Ottawa, National Museum of Canada, 1984.
Sider, G. M.,
Mumming in Outport Newfoundland, Toronto, New Hogtown Press, 1977.
Tiddy, R. J. E.,
The Mummers’ Play, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923, rpt Chicheley, Buckinghamshire, Paul P. B. Minet, 1972.
Tillis, S.,
Rethinking Folk Drama, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.
Widdowson, J. D. A., "A Newfoundland Mummers’ Play": unpublished working paper presented at the international conference on traditional drama, Sheffield, 1979.
Widdowson, J. D. A., "Chasing Shadows: Retrieving the Text and Context of the Change Islands, Newfoundland, Mummers’ Play", unpublished draft working paper presented at the International Traditional Drama Conference at the University of Sheffield, June 20th, 2002.

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