(Collected by MICK TEMS from Barrie Evans, Donnie Evans and Bill Prosser)
This mummers' play from the coalmining heartland of the Rhondda Valleys was performed by children until the early 1950s. Costumes were very simple, mainly consisting of cloaks and blankets. Barry Evans (no relation) was three years younger than Donnie Evans and remembers how people would throw open their windows as the party arrived, because the mummers would drive evil spirits out of the house. Donnie Evans' party and Bill Prosser's party operated at different ends of the village and were unaware of each other's existence.
KING GEORGE: I open the door and enter in
And soon the battle will begin
I go to the fire, stir a light
And in this house there'll be a fight.
UNNAMED CHARACTER: Don't talk so bold, King George
There's a man outside that will soon put your blood cold.
KING GEORGE: Who is he, I'd like to know?
UNNAMED CHARACTER: Turkey Snipe.
TURKEY SNIPE: In step I, Turkey Snipe,
I come from Turkish land to fight
So hand to hand and shield to shield
And let the battle rage, King George!
(The battle. Turkey Snipe falls.)
KING GEORGE: Is there a doctor in the town?
DR BROWN: Yes, yes, Dr Brown.
The finest doctor in the town
If my oils and pills won't cure him
I won't be Dr Brown again.
HAPPY JACK: In step I, Happy Jack,
Wife and family on my back,
One in the workhouse, one at home,
One in the corner, sucking a bone.
JOHNNY FUNNY: In step I, old Johnny Funny,
I'm the man to collect the money
Money I'll want, money I'll have
If I don't have money, I'm sure to starve.
(THEN SING A CAROL).
BILL PROSSER'S TEXT
Bill remembers six characters taking part, but he does not have names for them. His Character A bears a striking resemblance to Fire Bright, who appears in some of the versions of the Crwmpyn John play from the Swansea Valley.
CHARACTER A: I open this door and enter in
For soon a battle shall begin,
I kindle the fire and light the light,
For in this house, there'll be a fight.
Step in, King George.
CHARACTER B: In step I, old King George,
King George is my name.
My father killed ten thousand men
And I intend to do the same.
CHARACTER A: Don't talk so bold, King George,
For there's a man outside who'll make your blood cold.
CHARACTER B: And who is he, I'd like to know?
CHARACTER A: Turkey Snipe. Step in, Turkey Snipe.
CHARACTER C: In step I, old Turkey Snipe,
From Turkeyland I came to fight.
I'll fight King George, his courage bold,
If his blood's hot, I soon make it cold.
(CHARACTERS B and C then touch hands, swords and shields and say:)
Hand to hand, sword to sword,
Shield to shield, let battle commence.
(After two or three minutes, Turkey Snipe is wounded and falls to the ground.)
CHARACTER A: Doctor, doctor, is there any doctor in this town who can cure this man?
CHARACTER D: In step I, old Doctor Brown,
The most famous doctor in this town.
If my oils and pills won't cure him
I won't be Doctor Brown again.
(He then administers the magic potions and says:)
Get up, my man, and fight again.
CHARACTER E: In step I, old Happy Jack,
Wife and family on my back.
One in the workhouse, one in the home
And one in the corner chewing a bone.
CHARACTER F: In step I, old Jack Funny,
I'm the man to collect the money.
I OPEN THIS DOOR AND ENTER IN...
A forgotten Rhondda tradition is brought back to life
(This article was written by Mick Tems in the period between talking to Donnie and Barry Evans and locating Bill Prosser's text. It was published in the December 1997 issue of Taplas.)
Less than 50 years ago, the dark days of winter between Hallowe'en and Christmas were marked in the Rhondda mining village of Llwynypia by the annual appearance of a troop of mummers. Local children would blacken their faces, dress themselves in makeshift cloaks and take on the roles of King George, Turkey Snipe, Doctor Brown, Happy Jack and Johnny Funny. Their lines were never written down, for they were passed down orally from the generation above.
But come 1953 or 1954, perhaps because the television age was dawning, suddenly there was no younger generation of would-be mummers waiting to learn the story of the mighty death-and-resurrection battle between good and evil. The play slipped into oblivion, unrecorded and unmourned, only the third example of a mummers' play to have appeared in the South Wales Valleys.
It stayed that way until the start of this year, when I took the Llantrisant Mari Lwyd into my Welsh class at Coleg Rhondda in Llwynypia. As I told the class about our local custom, my Llwynypia-born friend Barrie Evans asked if it was connected with the Christmas event he could remember performing in his village: "In step I, old Johnny Funny, I'm the man to collect the money."
That was all Barrie, now in his late fifties, could recall. But he was pretty sure that his childhood friend Donnie Evans no relation would remember, because Donnie had been a bit older than the rest of them.
Barrie had not seen Donnie for 30 years. However, he started scouring Rhondda for news of Donnie's whereabouts. Some weeks later, he tracked Donnie down to a council estate in Penygraig. The good news was that Donnie, now 60, had a fairly clear memory of the play and had immediately written out a version. Soon afterwards, Barrie and I paid him a visit.
In the Rhondda of the 1950s, front doors were never locked. "You could just walk in. Doors were always open", Donnie recalled. "Into the passage, then into the living room: 'I open this door and enter in'... and what we often got was '...and you can enter bloody out again'. People weren't always friendly. If the old man was drunk we might get a whack with the poker."
But usually there was a welcome for the youngsters. Barrie remembers windows being thrown open when the mummers arrived: "People said that we drove the spirits out of the house, and that's why they opened the windows."
Donnie talks of seven mummers taking part, but the lines he has remembered only allow for five or six parts. Neither Barrie nor Donnie can recall at the moment the names of the characters who spoke some of the lines.
Donnie recalls: "We always ended up with a carol any one would do." Barrie adds: "You might get money or a cake, something small. But the play died out with us. Nobody else wanted to learn it. I don't remember how we got it."
Donnie: "It was handed down to us. When we were younger we used to tail the kids who were doing it. I probably started round about the outbreak of the war. It was only done in three streets... Church Street, Williams Street and Mountain View, up alongside Llwynypia Hospital."
How did the play arrive in Rhondda? Llwynypia Colliery, famous for its role in the Tonypandy Riots, closed in 1940 but the surface still operated as a training centre. It was known as the Scotch because of the large number of Scotsmen who came down to work in the early days.
The play itself may give clues to its origins. Was Character A merely King George (as indicated by Character B's first words) or was he the equivalent of Fire Bright, the scene-setter who crops up in some versions of the Crwmpyn John play from the Swansea Valley? Are there other plays in which King George, rather than St George, appears? There are certainly other plays featuring Turkey Snipe, an amusing misinterpretation of Turkish Knight.
Paul Tarrant, expert on the Gower plays, tells me that Happy Jack appears elsewhere, often with dolls sewn onto his back to represent the wife and family. The Rhondda mummers had nothing as ornate.
"We blackened our faces with cork and ashes," says Donnie. "We couldn't afford costumes. We all wore cloaks, except the doctor. We were real swashbucklers.
It was always the smallest one who played Johnny Funny, because he'd get the sympathy when he wanted the money. We'd go out anytime from Hallowe'en onwards, but it would stop a couple of days before Christmas. Nobody wanted us around over Christmastime."
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