Reginald Tiddy's grave at Laventie
In August 2008, I took a detour during my return from holiday in France to pay my respects at the grave of Reginald John Elliott Tiddy in the British military cemetery at Laventie, mid-way between Béthune and Armentières. The title of this piece is taken from the inscription at the foot of his gravestone. His grave may be seldom visited, but two other memorials provide regular reminders of him. One is Tiddy Hall, a community venue in Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, the Cotswold village where he made his home. The other is his book "The Mummers' Play", published posthumously by his friends David Pye and Rupert Thompson in 1923.
Much biographical information has been published about Tiddy, not least in the introductory "Memoir" inserted by Pye in "The Mummers' Play". I will therefore give just a brief overview of his life here. My main purpose is to review the impact that his book has had on folk play scholarship and its enduring legacy.
Tiddy was born 1880 in Margate, educated at Tonbridge School, where he was head boy, and studied classics at University College, Oxford. On graduation, he became a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, teaching classics, although he later changed to tutoring his real interest, English literature. By all accounts, he was a popular don. He was a leading light of the folk dance movement in Oxford, being a close associate of Cecil Sharp, for whose demonstration morris dancing team he was first reserve. He took up residence at Ascott-under-Wychwood, near his mother's childhood home, where he took an interest in educational activities and the local morris tradition. To this end, he himself had the reading room and village hall built that was later re-named in his honour. After the outbreak of the First World War, Tiddy felt compelled to do his patriotic duty, and joined the Oxford and Berks Light Infantry in 1915 with whom he was commissioned as a Lieutenant. He was sent to fight in northern France, and was cut down by a German shell on the 10th August 1916 while searching a trench at night for wounded soldiers.
Lieutenant R.J.E.Tiddy, 1916
The period during which Tiddy researched Mummers' plays appears to have been relatively short but intense. What caused him to become interested in the plays is not recorded, but presumably Cecil Sharp must have been an influence. The dates of letters from Tiddy in the Ordish Collection and elsewhere suggest that he first started researching the plays in 1913 (Smith, 1997). In the Spring of 1914, he delivered the lectures that eventually became the five chapters of his book. The 33 play texts published in "The Mummers' Play" plus a couple more he sent to Ordish came from a variety of sources. He collected some personally in the villages around his home at Ascott-under-Wychwood, and others came from correspondents elsewhere in the country. He continued collecting even while on active service. We now know that at least one of his texts came from a published source - the "Play for Christmas" from Cornwall (Millington, 2003) - and he evidently consulted other published texts. His reading of general English literature was extensive, as a result of which he identified a number of literary sources that had been incorporated into certain folk plays (particularly evident in the footnotes to the aforementioned Cornish play).
Like his contemporaries Edmund Chambers and Cecil Sharp, Tiddy thought that the plays originated from some pre-Christian ritual. This view, based on the approach of J.G.Frazer, has long been discredited, but would no doubt have chimed well with his background in classics. However, Tiddy was still working on his ideas when he died in action. It is tempting to speculate how his book would have looked had he survived the war and continued his research. There are some clues that things might have been different. Tiddy was not unquestioning in his take up of other people's views. For instance, he was disinclined to believe that man-woman characters were survivals of a ritual marriage such as were still said to exist in Greece. Also, scholars had hitherto assumed that Elizabethan dramatists had borrowed from the folk plays. In his final chapter he concedes that it could have been the folk plays that had been the borrowers. This was in recognition of the undoubtedly literary fragments he had identified in some folk play texts. Had he pursued this line of research, perhaps the mounting evidence would have caused him to modify his views on origins.
There is still plenty of information to be found about Tiddy's life and research. We know, for instance that there is correspondence from Tiddy in the Ordish Papers and in other archives. It would be useful to locate and catalogue all this material. However, the real prize would be to locate Tiddy's long lost manuscript papers. These ought at least provide useful information on the provenance of the texts in his collection, and might turn up new material. I commend this as potential postgraduate research project for someone.
What is Tiddy's enduring legacy? The text of his book may now be little read, as times have moved on, but his collection of scripts remains a useful body of source material. The book's publication stimulated a surge of fieldwork in the 1920s, yielding an indirect legacy, and his material has continued to be the starting point for much research right up to the present day. Long may this carry on.
The Truro Cordwainers' Play: a 'New' 18th-Century Christmas Play
April 2003, Vol.114, No.1, pp.53-73,
Available: https://nottingham-repository.worktribe.com/output/1022040, accessed 23rd Jan.2021
Thomas Fairman Ordish (1855-1924): A Lasting Legacy
Lore and Language,
1997, Vol.15 Nos.1-2, pp.84-116
Available: folkplay.info/sites/default/files/collections/thomas-fairman-ordish-collection-7469.pdf, accessed 23rd Jan.2021
The Mummers' Play
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923
Reprinted: Chicheley, Paul P.B.Minet, 1972, ISBN 0-85609-014-X