Ancient Twelfth Night theatre traditions we still honour (even if we don’t know it)

Twelfth Night can seem the most dismal time of the year. The skies are grey, you’re back at work, and every street you walk down is a graveyard of mummified Christmas trees. But there’s a reason why Shakespeare set his anarchic comedy on Twelfth Night: a rich history of feasting and disobedience that’s seeped in and fuelled by theatre.

If you’re one of those people who complain that the run up to Christmas is too long these days, spare a thought for our medieval ancestors. For them, Christmas was just one part of a far longer festival designed to bring light to the darkest days of winter. It began at Halloween and only came to an end after the constant feasting and revelry that were the 12 Days of Christmas (though the decorations didn’t come down until Candlemas on February 2). For many people, Twelfth Night, rather than Christmas itself, would have been the highlight of this all this celebration, and looking back on it, it does sound rather a hoot.

A Twelfth Night celebration in the 19th century

A Twelfth Night celebration in the 19th century

On Twelfth Night, the world turned upside down. At the start of the festival, a cake would be shared among the revellers that contained a hidden bean. Whoever found the bean would be nominated as the King or Queen of the night, responsible to presiding over the misrule which saw kings and lords swap places with their humblest subjects; starving beggars presiding over glorious feasts. And, of course copious amounts of alcohol helped blur the lines.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night reflects this spirit of anarchy with its many role reversals and servant Malvolio’s dreams of becoming a nobleman. The play may actually have been first written to be performed for Queen Elizabeth I on Twelfth Night 1601.

Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry, engaging in a bit of typical Twelfth Night tomfoolery

Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry, engaging in a bit of typical Twelfth Night tomfoolery

Shakespeare’s play also embodies far older theatrical traditions of performing ‘Mummers Plays’ at this time of year. Since at least medieval times, bands of raucous players would dress up in digsuises to visit the houses of friends and family (and often pay a visit to a local pub) to perform short, comic plays. They almost always featured a character dying and being resurrected (a fitting theme to mark a new year), and often included the hilarious mishaps of a quack doctor.

Although Mummers plays have sadly largely died out, some groups in the UK, Ireland and around the world continue the tradition to this day.

Mummers in Exeter in the 1970s

Mummers in Exeter in the 1970s

Traces of Twelfth Night theatrical traditions can also be found in modern Christmas pantomimes, with their topsy turvy plots, healthy disrespect for authority and penchant for gender swapping.

But if you’re going to be in a theatre on Twelfth Night, you really want it to be the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. There, following a tradition started by actor Thomas Baddeley in his will in 1794, the management of the theatre provide all the actors in the current company a slice of cake and a glass of punch to celebrate Twelfth Night. Baddeley started the practise after walking into the dressing rooms on 6th January and noticing that…

“all the company were dull and moping around the fire; so he immediately sent out for cake and punch, and said, as long as he could prevent it that such a thing could never occur again, meaning, of course, the depression of his brother and sister artists”

The Baddeley Cake for the cast of Oklahoma in 1948

The Baddeley Cake for the cast of Oklahoma in 1948

The masterpiece presented to the cast of Oliver! in 2010

The masterpiece presented to the cast of Oliver! in 2010

So bottoms up to the current company in residence at the Theatre Royal for Twelfth Night. Cake and punch beats a bar of chocolate any day.

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