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Mapping the uncharted territory of folk drama

By Peter Millington


Students of mumming and guising plays – the seasonal verse dramas performed for over 200 years throughout much of England, Scotland, and northern Ireland – have suffered from having too much information to work with. The first part of this poster presentation outlines and illustrates the situation. There are thousands of places where the plays are known to have been performed, and hundreds of texts have been collected. Furthermore, the plays show some tantalising similarities while simultaneously exhibiting the wide range of variation one would expect from orally transmitted dialogue. Until recently, scholars openly admitted to not knowing where to start with such a flood of material, to the extent that some dismissed the texts altogether as unimportant and irrelevant, focussing instead on the "actions". Fortunately, the introduction of computers has managed to break the impasse and is aiding the intellectual process. Part two shows a case study for one of the tools on the Master Mummers website - the Folk Play Scripts Explorer – which is based on a large database of digitised texts and a typology for individual lines. This allows researchers to search for lines, explore textual variants, and map their geographical distribution. This is yielding some interesting surprises. Seemingly trivial variations often turn out to have discrete distribution patterns, while it transpires that certain "ubiquitous" lines have restricted geographical ranges. Thus, the Scripts Explorer is providing novel insights into how the plays evolved and spread

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