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Types of Play

Scholars seem to have an irresitable urge to classify things, and this certainly applies to folk play scholars, who have come up with various classifications for different purposes or to reflect different features of the plays.

The main established classification divides the plays into three groups according to certain motifs being present. These are: (1) Hero/Combat Plays, featuring a combat, a casualty and a cure; (2) Plough or Wooing Plays, featuring one or more ladies, a casualty and a cure, and (3) Sword Dance Plays, featuring a sword dance, a casualty and cure. This analysis arose and evolved during the first half of the 20th century, until it was formally defined by Cawte, Alex and Peacock in their book English Ritual Drama (1967) pp.37-38.

Since then, Robin Hood Plays, which dramatise the ballad Robin Hood and the Tanner, have been accepted as a distinct sub-type of the Hero/Combat plays (Preston, 1976). It has also been recognised that there are two distinct types of Plough Play - Multiple Wooing Plays, where a series of suitors woo the Lady, and Recruiting Sergeant Plays, where a recruit rejects the Lady to join the army (Millington, 1995).

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this classification, but it does present us with two problems. Firstly, the Hero/Combat type covers the vast majority of British and Irish folk plays and is too large to be of much use. There is no real attempt to define the sub-types that appear to be present, apart from the aforementioned Robin Hood variant.

Secondly, Cawte et al's classification did not come with an acceptable general name to encompass all the types. The terms used - "English Ritual Drama", "Men's Dramatic Ritual", "Men's Dramatic Ceremonial", etc - reflect their view, at the time, that these plays derived from some pre-Christian fertility ritual. This was a subjective view, and one that is no longer accepted by folk play scholars. Their terms seem contrived and were never popular.

In my PhD thesis (Millington, 2002), I proposed "Quack Doctor Plays" as an academic term for these plays. It is succinct and objective. The Doctor is the one ubiquitous character in these plays that both defines the genre and serves to distinguish it from other very different folk plays, such as "The Derby Tup" and "The Old Horse". The academic response to this proposal has been varied. It seems that people agree that the "Doctor" is objectively the distinguishing character for this type of play, but some individuals quibble about whether or not the Doctor is a quack doctor. I have not yet seen any argument that pursuades me change the name.

Meanwhile, the terms "mummers' play" and "mumming play" remain firmly entrenched in general use, despite folk play scholars discouraging them, including Cawte et al. The problem is that these terms come from just one of many names used for the actors, and they distort the picture. In fact all categorisations based on local actors' names are best avoided. See the distribution map of actors' names in the Folk Play Atlas for a comprehensive list and more information on the issues they raise. When pushed, I use composite terms such as "Mummers' and Guisers' plays" or "Mummers' and Rhymers' plays" or whatever regional name is relevant to the context.

The classification used here comes from my PhD research (summarised in Millington, 2003). This is based on textual features, although these sometimes also equate to particular characters. It is compatible with the old scheme and its more recent refinements, except for the Sword Dance Plays. In purely textual terms, the Sword Dance Plays mostly become a subclass of the Hero/Combat type, although the much studied Revesby play is reclassified with the Multiple Wooing Plays, and the enigmatic Papa Stour Sword Dance, which has a calling on song but lacks either dialogue or a Doctor, is placed on its own.

It must be said that my proposed subdivisions of Hero/Combat play have not been generally adopted by academics, and indeed I have my own reservations because this is still a work in progress and some subtypes are less clear cut than others. However, it is a starting point, and at the time of writing (2018) no one has yet come up with an alternative scheme. Refinements and better class headings can be expected as further texts included in the analysis.

I would welcome comments and suggestions regarding the new classification scheme.

Key to the Classification

In the Classified List, plays have been grouped in chronological order under the following headings:

Quack Doctor Plays

This major class covers most English folk plays. As the name implies, the key character in these plays is a quack doctor, who is brought on to cure someone who has been killed or wounded in a violent encounter. This may be a sword fight, or a simple assault, or "execution" by a ring of swords around the neck. Whatever the method, its purpose is to provide a body for the Doctor. The diagnosis and cure are usually achieved with a degree of comedy and may form the main scene of the play.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat Plays

Hero/Combat plays are the most common form of English folk play. They normally start with an introductory prologue, which is followed by challenges and a sword fight between the hero and an antagonist. One of them (not always the villain) is "slain" and the Doctor is brought in to perform a cure. To end the play, one or more supernumerary characters may enter to ask the audience for a reward. The whole affair often finishes with a carol or seasonal song.

King/Prince/Saint George is the most frequent hero of the play, but others may be found in particular sub-types of the play. Antagonists vary with sub-type, and in some cases there may be more than one combat.

Because Hero/Combat sub-types share the same plot, parts are often interchangeable and hybrids form easily, especially in areas where two versions meet. Some multiple combats may have arisen from two versions being added together. This sometimes makes it difficult to decide which class an individual play should be assigned to. Where this is the case, such plays have been listed under the general "Hero/Combat" heading.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Northern English Plays

The definition of the Northern English group is complicated by the involvement of two published chapbook texts - Alexander and the King of Egypt and The Peace Egg - which were an important influence in and around the big cities. Some of the lines from the Alexander chapbook were re-used in The Peace Egg, but both seem to incorporate material from older oral texts. The oral text features Slasher and King George who enters with lines such as:

I am King George that valiant knight
Who lost his blood for England's right

However, in some places, the hero changes to King William or Bull Guy, in which case he takes over Slasher's lines and his antagonist is non-specific. Both the chapbooks have the distinctive King of Egypt and his champion Sambo (Alexander) / Hector (Peace Egg), in addition to their hero Prince/Saint George. In my computerised analysis the Alexander chapbook and its derivatives emerged as a separate sub-group, given below. The Peace Egg and its derivatives did not, although I feel they would do so with a larger set of texts. It has a further special character - the Prince of Paradine. The full cast of The Peace Egg is Fool, Saint George, Slasher, Doctor, Prince of Paradine, King of Egypt, Hector, Beelzebub and Devil-Doubt.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Northern English > Alexander Chapbook Plays

The full cast of the Alexander chapbook is Alexander, King of Egypt, Prince George, Doctor and Sambo. Later editions also add Beelzebub to the end.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > North British Plays

The structure of this group is complex. The plays are mostly Scottish, although some (including all the Sword Dance Plays) are also found in northernmost England - hence the term North British. The Sword Dance sub-group is the most distinct because of the presence of the linked sword dance, and the rounds of speeches said by each dancer at key points in the play. However, some of these speeches also occasionally appear in the plays of the North British group that do not have sword dances.

Together, the remaining three subclasses are called Galoshins plays, after the name of the actors. This name derives in turn from the distinctive character Galation, although in a few cases his speeches are assigned to Slasher. These sub-classes are not clearly defined - hence the letter designations - and they would benefit from re-analysis with a larger group of texts

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > North British > Sword Dance Plays

Sword Dance plays are found in Yorkshire and north east England. They take the form of a linked sword dance with drama thrown in. Here the characters are played by the dancers, whose lines are normally spoken in single verses one character after the other. At the end of the dance the Fool is "executed" in the time-honoured fashion of putting the star of locked swords round his neck and drawing them away simultaneously. Then, after a series of alibis from the dancers, someone is brought on - usually a quack doctor - to cure the victim.

Apart from the inclusion of the sword dancers, these plays are very similar to the Hero/Combat plays. In textual terms, there are close similarities with the scripts of some of the Scottish Galatians plays. Consequently, the Sword Dance plays have been made a sub-class of the North British group, rather than remain the main class they were previously.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > North British > Galoshins A Plays

The plays in this sub-group exhibit an overt Scottishness that is not displayed in the other sub-classes. This is in the form of overt Scottish sentiments and dialect. The King of Macedon and Galation is also prominent in this sub-class.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > North British > Galoshins B Plays

This sub-group has a combination of the calling-on and denial speeches from the Sword Dance plays, and the character Galation. Additionally, we have Doctor Brown, and the following three characteristic couplets, which are also shared with the C Group.

The game, sir, the game sir, is not within your power
I'll slay you and slash you in less than half an hour

Yes, here come I, Doctor Brown
The best old doctor in the town

Once I was dead and now I'm alive
Blessed be the doctor that made me revive

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > North British > Galoshins C Plays

These are the most rudimentary of the Galoshins plays. They share the characteristic couplets of the B group, but do not have any of the calling-on and denial speeches of the Sword Dance plays.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Cotswold Plays    [Jack Finny Plays]

This group of plays, which occurs in the English Cotswold Hills, is characterised by the presence of the Doctor's cheeky assistant Jack Finney (spelt various ways - Vinny, Pinny, etc.), and a comical scene where a giant tooth is drawn from the patient. The main antagonists vary. There is a tendency for them to be King George the valiant knight and Slasher, but sometimes the Royal Prussian King appears, and occasionally The Turkish Knight (along with Father Christmas) from the Southern English group. Beelzebub commonly appears as a collector.

Incidentally, Jack Finny should not be confused with Johnny Funny, a different character found in some Irish and North British plays, whose main role is to collect the money.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Cotswold > Robin Hood Plays

As with the main Cotswold group, these plays feature Jack Finney, and share other ancillary characters. However, the difference is that the combat is replaced with a scene that is a dramatised version of the ballad Robin Hood and the Tanner.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Irish Plays    [The Christmas Rhyme]

The Irish group of plays is one of the easiest groups to define, because the lines are nearly all to be found in the Christmas Rhime [sic] chapbooks published in Belfast. Here Knight or Saint George fights the Turkey Champion, and after the cure by Doctor, there are appearances by Saint Patrick and Oliver Cromwell, as well as Beelzebub and Devil-Doubt.

In addition to the truly Irish plays, there are a few plays on mainland Britain that have significant portions of the Irish text - Hulme (Manchester), Tenby in Wales, and Stanford-in-the-Vale, Berkshire. There is some evidence that these lines being imported from Ireland (E.Cass et al, 2003).

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Southern English Plays
    [Father Christmas and the Turkish Knight]

This group is found throughout southern England, roughly below a line drawn from London to Bristol. There are three couplets that particularly typify this group:

Here comes I old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot

Here comes I a Turkish Knight
Come from the Turkish land to fight

Saint George I pray thee be not so bold
If thy blood be hot I'll soon make it cold

Because of the ubiquity of the first two couplets, this version could be entitled Father Christmas and the Turkish Knight, although King George is normally the Turkish Knight's opponent. Beelzebub is usually absent from these plays, but instead there are a number of local ancillary characters that conclude the plays, such as Little Johnnie Jack and Twing Twang.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Compiled Hybrid Plays

It sometimes happens that people meld two or more play texts together to form a new script. The result is usually a longer play, and the intention may specifically be to increase the length of the play for a particular event or to accommodate more actors. The intention may also be to "improve" the play by cherry-picking the best bits from the original scripts. Compiled scripts tend to be Hero/Combat plays.

In addition to the plays listed here, it is probable that The Peace Egg chapbook is a compiled text, since some of its lines are taken from the Alexander and the King of Egypt and Christmas Rhime chapbooks, as well as from earlier non-chapbook texts.

Quack Doctor > Hero/Combat > Composed Plays

Some people have an irresistible urge to rewrite or compose their own folk plays, usually of the Hero/Combat type. As stated earlier, these fall outside the scope of this database. However, two composed texts have been listed here because they are chapbooks, presumably produced by their publishers to tap into their existing market for mumming chapbooks.

The author of the Bampton play wrote most of his text to fill gaps in his memory of an authentic script.

Quack Doctor > Plough Plays

The second main type of play is the Plough Play, found in the English East Midlands. They are usually associated with Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) - hence the name. In fact there are two sub-types of Plough Play - the Multiple Wooing Plays and the Recruiting Sergeant Plays. They both have the Doctor, and scenes featuring Old Dame Jane, but otherwise have quite different plots.

Quack Doctor > Plough > Multiple Wooing Plays

A handful of Plough plays collected up to the 1820s and performed at Christmas, feature a multiple wooing scene - hence the term Multiple Wooing play. In the relevant scene, a number of suitors - a Lawyer, and rich Heir, a Farmer, an Ancient Man, etc. - try in turn to win the hand of a Lady. None of them succeed, and she decides to marry Noble Anthony (the fool) instead. The multiple Wooing plays are the those from Bassingham, Broughton and Revesby, Lincolnshire.

Quack Doctor > Plough > Recruiting Sergeant Plays

The most common Plough play is the Recruiting Sergeant play. Here Tom Fool introduces the play, but the introduction is followed by a three-way operatic scene between the Recruiting Sergeant, a Farmer's Man and the Lady Bright and Gay. Basically the Farmer's Man leaves his sweetheart to join the army, so the Lady decides to marry the Fool instead. In the scene that follows, Old Dame Jane argues with Beelzebub or Eezum Squeezum, which ends up with Dame Jane being knocked to the ground. The quack doctor is then brought in to perform an intricate comic diagnosis and cure. The performance ends up with a song. Sometimes, King George and other Hero/Combat characters are also inserted into these plays.

Non-Quack Doctor Plays

As already mentioned there other English folk plays that do not feature a Quack Doctor. Two particular types - "The Derby Tup" and "The Old Horse" - are described below. Otherwise, the only text here so far is the Papa Stour play, which used to be classed as a Sword Dance play. Although it is a play with a sword dance, there is no doctor, and its text is totally unlike any Quack Doctor play script.

Non-Quack Doctor > Derby Tup Plays

Derby Tup plays are found in a relatively small area in and around the city of Sheffield, into northern Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. This is basically a dramatised version of the song The Derby Ram, which describes a fabulously large ram - "tup" being another word for a ram. In addition to the song, there is a short dialogue interlude where a butcher is called in to "stick" the Tup. The actor representing the Tup is typically bent over holding a sheep's head on a stick, and covered with a sheet. Other characters include an old man and an old woman - "Me and our old Lass" - who introduce the play - a butcher and a boy holding a bowl to catch the blood. Ian Russell (1979) has published a definitive study of the Derby Tup play tradition of the 1970s. A few versions include odd characters from the local Quack Doctor plays, and some melodies and choruses are similar to the Old Horse plays (see below), with which they overlap geographically.

Non-Quack Doctor > Old Horse Plays

Like the Derby Tup plays, the Old Horse (or in dialect t'Owd Oss) is also a dramatised version of a song, usually in this case with no dialogue at all. The song is about a decrepit old horse, played by a man bent over and covered in a blanket, with a horse's head on the end of a stick. The head was often a real equine skull, with jaws rigged to open and snap shut. The main entertainment came from the horse playing up - quite literally horseplay - while a blacksmith tried to shoe it and the leader strained to keep it under control. This play is found in north Nottinghamshire, overflowing into the counties of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and overlapping the Derby Tup area.

Literary Parallels

Over the years, many cases have been found where folk play scripts incorporate material found in published literary works or in ballads. Their dating suggests that the folk plays borrowed lines from the literary works, although the reverse is also theoretically possible.

Chapbook Texts

Several versions of the plays - all Hero/Combat versions - have been published as small pamphlets known as chapbooks. The earliest of these dates from the mid 18th century, and the most recent were still available in the early 20th century. These had a major regional influence on the traditions in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Ireland. Chapbook texts are marked accordingly in the list.


Cass, E., M.J. Preston, and P.Smith (2003) The Peace Egg Book: An Anglo-Irish Chapbook Connection Discovered
Folklore, April 2003, Vol.114, No.1, pp.29-52

Cawte,E.C., A.Helm & N.Peacock (1967) English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index
London: Folk-lore Society, 1967

Cawte,E.C., A.Helm, N.Peacock & P.T.Millington (2007) Electronic ERD: An Index to English Folk Drama
Internet URL:, 2007, Accessed 7th Feb.2018

Millington,P. (1995) Correspondence : 'The Ploughboy and the Plough Play' by Alun Howkins and Linda Merricks in Journal, 6.2 (1991), 187-208, and Correspondence from Beth Shaw in Journal, 6.4 (1993), 506-07
Folk Music Journal, 1995, Vol.7, No.1, pp.71-72
Available online at:, Accessed 7th Feb.2018

Millington,P.T. (2002) The Origins and Development of English Folk Plays
Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield, 2002
Available online at:, Accessed 7th Feb.2018

Millington,P. (2003) Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries
Folk Drama Studies Today: The International Traditional Drama Conference 2002,
Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 2003, ISBN 0-9508152-3-3, pp.97-132
Available online at:, Accessed 12th Nov.2020

Preston,M.J. (1976) The Robin Hood Plays of South-Central England
Comparative Drama, Summer 1976, Vol.10, No.2, pp.91-100

Russell,Ian (1979) "Here Comes Me and Our Old Lass, Short of Money and Short of Brass": A Survey of Traditional Drama in North East Derbyshire 1970-8
Folk Music Journal, 1979, Vol.3, No.5, pp.399-478