“Others of them, however, exhibited in the midst of much rough-and-tumble fighting and buffoonery, a slight thread of dramatic action. Their characters gradually came to be a conventional set, partly famous figures of popular tradition, such as St. George, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Green Dragon.
“Other offshoots of the folk-play were the ‘mummings’ and ‘disguisings,’ collective names for many forms of processions, shows, and other entertainments, such as, among the upper classes, that precursor of the Elizabethan Mask in which a group of persons in disguise, invited or uninvited, attended a formal dancing party. In the later part of the Middle Ages, also, there were the secular pageants, spectacular displays (rather different from those of the twentieth century) given on such occasions as when a king or other person of high rank made formal entry into a town. They consisted of an elaborate scenic background set up near the city gate or on the street, with figures from allegorical or traditional history who engaged in some pantomime or declamation, but with very little dramatic dialog, or none.
“But all these forms, though they were not altogether without later influence, were very minor affairs, and the real drama of the Middle Ages grew up, without design and by the mere nature of things, from the regular services of the Church.”
Four varieties of plays that we should note from the Pre-Elizabethan period are the Hock-Tuesday Play, The Sword Dance, The St. George and Mummers’ Plays, a development of the Sword Dance, and The Robin Hood Play.
Some historians say The Hock-Tuesday Play finds its basis in the defeat of the Danes by the English under Huna on 13 November 1002. Others believe it originates from a remote folk observance: taking a victim by force to serve as a sacrifice. “Hocktide – the Mondy and Tuesday after the second Sunday after Easter – has parallel customs in other parts of the country in which women ‘hocked’ the men (caught and bound them with ropes, or vice versa, or stranger or natives were whipped or ‘heaved.'” Together with Whitsuntide and the twelve days of Yuletide the week following Easter marked the only vacations of the husbandman’s year, during slack times in the cycle of the year when the villein ceased work on his lord’s demesne, and most likely on his own land as well.
The Hock-Tuesday Play centered around the struggle between the Danish and the English knights, who enter the scenes on horseback and armed with alder poles. Afterward, foot soldiers for both sides executed drills and then staged a fight scene. The English, as history proves, win the battle.
The Sword Dance celebrated the summer driving away winter and death. If chief personages are the fool, dressed in animal skins and “Bessy,” a man dressed in women’s clothing. Rhymed speeches introduce the characters. More elaborate forms of The Sword Dance developed in which the “Seven Champions of Christendom” are introduced. These were likely religious interpolations of earlier national heroes. In some versions, one of the sword dancers is surrounded and killed by the other dancers. In other versions, the dancers simply surround him. These early dances developed into the Saint George Plays, in which invariably the central incident is the death and restoration of one of the characters, a survival again, of the pagan celebration of the death and restoration of the year.
Encyclopedia Britannica says “Sword dance, folk dance by men, with swords or swordlike objects, displaying themes such as human and animal sacrifice for fertility, battle mime, and defense against evil spirits. There are several types. In linked-sword, or hilt-and-point, dances, each performer holds the hilt of his own sword and the point of that of the dancer behind him, the group forming intricate, usually circular, patterns. Combat dances for one or more performers emphasize battle mime and originally served as military training. Crossed-sword dances are performed over two swords or a sword and scabbard crossed on the ground. Finally, guerrilla dances in circular formation are often performed with swords.
A simply variation of the above motif is The Mummers’ Play. It includes a lots of dancing, as well as the image of a character killed and restored. The major difference between The Mummers’ Play and The Sword Dance is the introduction of subsidiary characters in the latter part of The Mummers’ Play. This involved the taking of a collection and the appearance of a Turkish champion, or Blustering Giant, or a Dragon that slays the Christian hero, but who is eventually poisoned by a pill presented him by the doctor who has been engaged to attend the injured Christian hero.
“Notwithstanding his important role in ballads and prose fiction, Robin Hood would have been best known in communities throughout fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain as the subject of a wide range of theatrical and quasi-theatrical entertainments. Most took the form of ceremonial games, dances, pageants, processions, and other mimetic events of popular culture of which we only get a fleeting glimpse in surviving civic and ecclesiastical records. Revels featuring the legendary outlaw appear to have surged in growth towards the close of the fifteenth century and remained popular from the royal court to the rural village green throughout the following century (Lancashire, p. xxvi). Indeed, it is not exaggerating to say that Robin Hood plays and games were the most popular form of secular dramatic entertainment in provincial England for most of the sixteenth century (for records of performance, see Lancashire, index under “Robin Hood”). This is generally unrecognized by both literary and theatrical historians, many of whom assume that the Tudor Reformation quickly put an end to such popular pastimes — it did not (White, p. 163). But there are other reasons for overlooking Robin Hood spectacles: few Robin Hood play scripts survive (folk plays were rarely written down and published) and only in the past few years have archivists and provincial historians (many working on the Records of Early English Drama project) begun to document in a systematic way records of theatrical entertainment in early modern England.
“Although the first record of a Robin Hood play is from Exeter in 1426-27 (Lancashire, p. 134), the earliest extant play text, a twenty-one line dramatic fragment from East Anglia known as Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, is dated half-a-century later. The text is written on one side of a single sheet of paper, now housed in Trinity College Library, Cambridge; the other side of the page, in a hand thought to be from the same period, contains accounts of money received by one John Sterndalle in 1475-76 (Dobson and Taylor, p. 203). Scholars connect the manuscript to Sir John Paston, who, in a letter of April 1473, complains that his horse-keeper W. Wood has “goon into Bernysdale” (i.e., left his service). Paston further remarks that “I have kepyd hym thys iij. yer to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham” (Gairdner, p. 185). It would appear, therefore, that this script is of a Robin Hood play sponsored by the household of this well-to-do Norwich gentleman and performed by his servants in the early 1470s.” [Knight, Stephen, and Thomas H. Ohlgren, Editors. Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham: Introduction. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, 1997. University of Rochester. Middle English Texts Series. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robyn-hod-and-the-shryff-off-notyngham-introduction]
During May Day celebrations, The Robin Hood Plays were performed. Robin Hood is the fictional character we recall as “robbing the rich and giving to the poor.” In France, however, he was a shepherd and Maid Marian was his mistress. Some experts believe Robin Hood is a more modern version of the God Wooden. In the play cycles, he is the “king” of May, who fights with Friar Tuck and other assorted characters. Dancers often accompany the “battle scenes.” The plays were performed upon the village green. These plays represent an increasing preference for a national hero during 16th Century England, a spirit of nationalism that grew during the Elizabethan period.
Parks, Edd Winfield, and Richmond Croom Beatty. The English Drama. W. W. Norton, 1963, pp. 5-6.
Preston, Michael J. The Robin Hood Folk Plays of South Central England. Comparative Drama. Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 1976), pp. 91-100.