AS WITH the coming of spring this year, signs cannot always be taken at their face value. However, in looking at the pace-egg play, there is some evidence that the popularity of this Easter event in the north west is on the rise.
One of the most popular venues to see the pace-egg play, the north west version of the mumming play, is Heptonstall in West Yorkshire; and whilst this year, the morning performance was as quiet as usual, by the afternoon the tiny village was crowded. As "St George" (Ray Riches) said to me after the last performance of the day, "The numbers [of spectators] becomes overwhelming". But it is all good business for the two local pubs.
One team at least had the largest collection ever in its long years of performing, good news for the charities which are the beneficiaries of the collection.
This year, for the first time, Peter Millington and I posted a list of pace-egging times and venues on our Folk Play Research Pages on the Internet. This part of our site had nearly 400 hits in the period up to Easter.
Through the site I learned of a new version of the play, performed by the Curtain Theatre group in Rochdale on Easter Sunday, the second new version to have started since I commenced my research into the history of the pace-egg play some five or six years ago.
I even learned of a pace-egg ceremony, but not a play, in New Zealand.
I have traced references to the play in Lancashire, where most of my fieldwork has been done, as early as the end of the eighteenth century but, as with the mumming play in other parts of the country, the main period of performance was in the nineteenth century. Moreover, I have a manuscript reference from 1842 which comments that the play is already in decline by that time, at least in the cities.
Whilst the play is recorded in Rochdale, Lancashire as late as 1955 in an older form of street performance by children anxious to collect money for the Easter Fair at Hollingworth Lake, it was the post- Second World War folk revival which led to a resurgence of interest in the play.
The first revived play at this time was that performed by the boys of Calder High School in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire, but this was a revival of a play which had been seen in this area since the 1930s and interrupted by the war.
The first true revival-movement plays came in the 1960s in Furness, Middleton, Bury and Southport. The first three of these sides are still performing.
Some more recently established plays have come from outside the revival movement; Heptonstall and the Curtain Theatre from amateur drama groups, the play at Stalmine on the Fylde Coast from the parish church men's group.
So, as with the mumming play elsewhere and along with the morris dance, the revival was a great motivator. However, in the area of the play, it was also a great leveller (I am not competent to comment on the morris dance).
Whilst it is possible to see pace-eggers in costumes which reflect a more traditional, local form of dress, as at Midgley and Bury, many actors in plays from the revival period wear costumes influenced by the drama workshops provided at some of the folk festivals of the 1960s.
Nevertheless, attempts are made to continue local traditions. The Fool in the Mossley, Lancashire play wears a Pierrot costume which seems to have been in use in folk performances from earlier centuries - a welcome comment on the research some morris men undertook before staging a play.
A couple of years ago, the then-squire of The Morris Ring commented on sides made up of "ageing men with aching knees" (I paraphrase). To some extent, that is still a feature of the pace-egg play and I am sure, that is true by extension of other mumming plays.
But there are welcome signs that all is well with the continuation of the tradition for the time being. In Bury and Middleton, sons are taking over roles from fathers; at Furness, teenagers have taken part in the play.
As I said earlier, two new versions of the pace-egg play have been launched since I started my research - and no version has ceased to exist. This year, Bury Pace Eggers extended their run to include Good Friday - the first time for more than 20 years; and the Curtain Theatre group tell me that they intend to visit more pubs next year.
Who knows? Spring may really be here for the pace egg play.
Eddie Cass's book, The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play: A Social History, will be published during the summer by The Folklore Society, Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London, WC1H 0AB
English Folk Play Research Page - including pictures of 2001 pace-egging
©2001 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers