By Ross Parish
Frank has asked me to write a piece with my views on a traditional performance that he has had a pivotal role in for many years and give some background to the custom. I am a local folklorist who is currently working on completing a book on the county’s customs and traditions of which any correspondence is most welcome.
Some people may have looked oddly at Frank when he said he was spending the evening in makeup and a dress, but no Frank is not the last of the 80s ‘New Romantics’, but keeping up a folk comedy tradition which is essentially English and quintessentially Nottinghamshire – the Dame, Dame Jane in fact. Why you may ask?
Frank was playing in a Plough Monday Play and I was pleased to be invited to a special rendition at Flintham, near Newark, set up as a WWI commemoration focusing on the discovery of a copy of a script and photo from around that time. But what is a Plough Play you may ask? It was a performance undertaken on the first Monday after Twelfth Night by farm workers marking the agricultural year’s start, bringing their plough to illustrate the fact. Of course the farm workers have long gone (and a modern plough would be cumbersome ) so in most cases the custom has become the winter activity of that other national icon – the Morris dancer, as are the Foresters, the team Frank has been a proud member of.
The evening begun with a rather comical experience of being ‘backstage’ surrounded by two ‘drag acts’, a ‘Fool,’ a ‘Farmer’s Man’, a ‘Sergeant,’ a Doctor and a ‘Demon’ all in various forms of undress. This very odd group processed down to the local pub, where there was a considerable amount of anticipation, people peered through the windows trying to make sense of the strange assemblage. In walked the Fool who set the scene with a trumpet blast, with bemused looks all around and wry smiles. Then the farmer’s man enters and like many a farmer today bemoans his state in life with a dig with ‘Flintham’s not a place for me!’. Next in is the Recruiting Sergeant. As a character he is fossilised in dress and approach to the early 1900s, just as the tradition went on a hiatus. Such a character as this would have distilled fear in those communities amongst whom the play was originally performed and was one ripe for ridicule.
Nothing really has changed and the audience found the pompous character still a comical one. He then convinces the Farmer’s Man to enlist and in comes ‘Lady Bright and Gay,’ – the first of the drag acts. ‘Her’ arrival brought the first real roars, being dressed in a flowery dress, hair piece with flashing bits and balloons in the right places, she did the usual attempt to humiliate the male members of the bar as ‘she’ bemoaned the loss of her love and ends off going off with the Fool. Perhaps it’s his height, but there is something less convincingly feminine about Frank’s performance but no less comical. Clutching her baby, – a rather strange looking doll, – and dressed in a short skirt, blue eyeliner and bright pink lipstick and beard he played Dame Jane.
Playing it for at least 30 so years, Frank knows how to get the jokes especially the reference to ‘her’ being once ‘young’ and now ‘an old widow’. ‘She’ claims the Fool’s the father, – which anyone who has read church records would know this was a familiar issue in village society years ago.
This interplay over the baby has many laughs and fortunately no call to Social Services. Spurned by the Fool, Dame Jane is confronted by Beelzebub, to boos and hisses, played unbeknownst to the audience by Frank’s son, Joe.
Dame Jane is then floored by blow from Beelzebub’s club, in a curious take on father-son relationship! A doctor is needed and after demanding more money, a joke still funny but fortunately less topical thanks to the NHS, he enters. With his starched scarf looking like wings, he enters with groans of the crowd crying out ‘the flying doctor’. He was of course a very valuable village member and clearly the line ‘what makes you a doctor’? – was one which was geared towards the person who played it – probably the least intelligent. Lines wise, it is the best part and one which raises the most laughs with his bag being used as a good source of comedy props. After various procedures, he reveals Dame Jane is alive and ‘merely in a trance.’ All the characters then stand and sing in unison sending around the ‘cap’ for a collection to some considerable applause.
Buoyed by their success the team went on to perform before an invited audience at the ‘Old School’, now used as Flintham’s village hall. Rapturous applause was given to this second rendition and some background to the custom was given. In the audience was a surviving member of the cast who performed as a school boy in the 1930’s, in Flintham’s version of the play. Given a chance to comment on the Foresters performance, he noted that although parts of the play differed, the overall shape was the same and he could still remember his lines. He related that whilst rehearsing the play he remembered the teacher asking him to do the lines a bit higher; he then began to shout them to which the teacher said ‘No higher’ and pitched their voice up.
But why do it?
Originally, it created, – and still does, – a way of remembering the year and brings the community together in a form of knock about humour. Secondly, it was a way of raising money, primarily for the entertainers, but also to maintain a candle light over the plough in the church (a common pre-Reformation activity which may have survived beyond then in some communities) and more recently charity.
Plough Monday plays, indeed the celebration of the day, was and remains an eastern England tradition, with Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire being and remaining their stronghold. Why is unclear, but it may be simply because this was and still is the more rural of communities. Some authorities may suggest that there is a more ancient origin, a survival of a pagan tradition in a remote locale.
Indeed, the pagan pre-Christian idea is one which is hard to fully discard. The play does have clear themes suggesting a primitive marking of the turning year – the conflict between good and evil (light and dark) and resurrection (the beginning of the lighter period after the Winter solstice). Perhaps we shall never really know.
What is very clear that over those many years of the Foresters performing the play, – since 1977 by a number of its members, – is that a great deal of symbiosis and comradely has developed, with the members the cast feeling naturally at ease…especially as they claim, as they never do a rehearsal!! What is also clear, that despite a script which is largely archaic in language it still pulls the laughs and long may it continue. It is a custom Nottinghamshire should be justly proud of.