The first recorded performance in
Newfoundland was in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert travelled to the island to claim it as a British possession. On his ships, Gilbert brought
hobby horses and
May Day rites
to entertain both the native inhabitants and his crew members during their stay.
Performance development from the
early 17th century plantation period until the late 18th century
remains obscure; then historians began to record, notably in
Conception Bay and Bonavista Bay outports, the practice of Christmas mummering.
Mummering, also called mumming, is commonly known in many outport communities throughout
Newfoundland as jennying or jannying. An old Christmas custom from England, it can be
traced back hundreds of years. although it is unclear precisely when this tradition was
brought to Newfoundland by the English, the earliest record dates back to 1819.
|Mummering in François, south coast of Newfoundland.
Mummering is a traditional custom which is still practised in many regions of Newfoundland today.
Courtesy of Yva Momatuik and John Eastcott, This Marvellous Terrible Place: Images of Newfoundland and Labrador (Camden East, Ontario: Camden House Publishing, ©1988) 137.
Mummering involved a group of people, disguised in ridiculous attire, who called on local
homes during the Christmas season. These
Mummers or Jennies, as they called themselves, dressed in bright coloured
clothing and wore masks when available or painted their faces black. They also distorted
their voices to avoid being easily recognized. After being invited inside a house, festivities
ensued where food and drink were offered to the visitors who acted the fool and sang and danced
while the hosts attempted to identify them. Once a person's identity was correctly determined,
it was customary for the mummer to remove his or her mask. The traditional custom of mummering
still occurs in many regions of the province today.
By the 1840s, mummering,
lords of misrule, fools and hobby
horses were reported around Christmas among the St. John's working
class. It would appear that for a time these practices helped to
maintain the status quo by providing an annual release mechanism.
Fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, along with religious and political tensions,
violence was a frequent outcome. This led to the legal abolishment in June 1861
of mummering festivities throughout Newfoundland.
After 1861 the practice of
mummering continued in various outports at Christmas, sometimes
including plays whose origins were English or Irish. This
entertainment was augmented with, and sometimes replaced by,
community-generated variety shows which flourished until the mid
||Young Dancers from an Acting Troupe, ca. 1900.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University of
Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
In St. John's, mummering disappeared under the
watchful eye of strolling constables and theatre development was
shaped by visiting performances, staged by the
British Royal Navy or by touring American and
Canadian professional troupes. These performances spurred amateur
theatre chiefly among the local merchant class, and were
satirised by Johnny Burke, one of Newfoundland's most famous balladeers.
In both outport Newfoundland and
St. John's, performance material was imported, but the outport
tradition introduced indigenous materials and, more importantly,
local attitudes. The St. John's theatre reflected the
pro-British or pro-Irish leanings of much of the merchant and professional class
which led to a bias toward imported cultural material. This bias
was not challenged until the early 1970s when Provincial and
Dominion Drama Festivals provided a venue for a spate of locally
written plays. At the same time, a group of young
Newfoundland theatre practitioners, first generation Canadians,
came to maturity and questioned the sense of inferiority that
they felt had been conferred unjustifiably upon them. Unsatisfied
with existing theatre material, both imported and locally
written, they began to write and perform plays collectively, which
quickly established a provocative indigenous professional theatre
dealing with their views of Newfoundland life and history.
|CODCO actors, ca. 1974.
During the 1970s, the acting company CODCO greatly influenced the revival of the performing arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Photo from the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland. Photo by Pam Hall. © CODCO. Courtesy of M. White.
The provincial government began
to push in the late 1960s and early 1970s to develop the arts in
performance and other areas. However, the new collectives rapidly
became alternative theatre, after the appointed officials overseeing
this development did not seriously consider them. Mainstream theatre
was limited to amateur drama
festivals, community theatre chiefly performing musicals, and the
occasional touring production from the Canadian
mainland. However, collective plays, proved to be so popular that
theatre groups performing them eventually secured both federal
and provincial government funding.
The Brule Boys in Paris by Tickle Harbour.
Music has played an important role in the performing arts revival in Newfoundland and
Labrador. Groups such as Tickle Harbour have contributed significantly to this
Image and music courtesy of Tickle Harbour Copyright © 1994. Cover painting: Brule by Gerald Squires.
(Real Audio Player required for music)
In 1988 Memorial University of Newfoundland's Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in
Corner Brook opened a Bachelor of Fine Arts program for Newfoundlanders interested
in performance art.
Theatre has not only proliferated
on the island, but the collective tradition thrives in the
Creative Arts Festival for young people in Labrador. In addition
to theatre, which frequently involves musicians, performance arts
have expanded to include a strong presence in contemporary and new
dance, the focus of which is often, as it is in theatre,
Newfoundland life and experience.
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