The Transformative Power of Names in Traditional Drama

Kay Snell


           Dramatic performance relies on a suspension of disbelief on both the part of the audience and the actor to perceive the liminal reality being formed before their eyes. Through the transformation of actors into their character, audiences are pulled far enough from the real world to see the new fictional world. But how do actors transform into the characters they represent during performance? In traditional English folk plays this transformative act must happen quickly because the length of these plays is usually quite short. For instance, Michael Merrill points out, “masking,” defined as the use of a ceremonial mask that visually links an actor to an archetypical identity, guides participants through a transformation of persona because of the strong association between face and identity (17). However, unlike the plays we are familiar with today where characters are recognizable by their dress, in the early tradition of English mummers’ folk drama, all actors donned the same attire (Roud 17). The process of masking or “guising” in these traditional plays would obscure all the actors’ faces to protect their identity, but as you might expect, this makes actors less distinctive, not more (Roud 17). Therefore, what made these players unique was not their costuming, but their dialogue and their name. Only in later traditions would costuming become representative of the character, eventually enabling the audience to see the face of the actor. However, as Merrill points out the face has a strong tie to identity (17). Without this visual component to facilitate a transformation into a new persona, I propose there must be an additional component at play. I argue that a key part of the transformative process in drama, aside from the well documented physical alteration of appearance, is a change in name which represents a change from the self to the new persona.

The Power of Names Culturally

            Throughout history the power of names has held significant weight in many cultures. For example, Protestant children may be named after favourable qualities evident in names like Charity, Faith, and Hope (Granger 29). Likewise, it was believed in the United States near the end of the 1800s that naming a child after a saint would bring them good luck and possibly even grant the child the saint’s protection (Granger 28). Similarly, the Romans also believed in luck associated with naming demonstrated when Sulla named his children Faustus and Fausta with the intention of giving them an “auspicious” future after their namesake (Granger 28). These practices indicate a strong correlation in the belief between name and identity.

           There are even cultural phenomena where a person changes their name in the hopes to change their condition. For instance, within the Kwapa/Quapaw tribe in the United States a person may shed their name if they felt deathly ill in an attempt to leave the sickness behind with their old name, and the old self (Granger 33). Comparably, the loss of a name can also be seen as a loss of self as seen in Moroccan culture; when one is thought to possess the “evil eye” they are made into a social pariah and have “no name, no friends, nor the possibility of a social life” (Dundes 294).

           While it is difficult to discuss ancient cultural practices in great clarity, scholars suggest with a high level of certainty that ancient Egyptians believed a name and an individual were intrinsically connected (Vittmann). This belief held great significance as each person was given a “great” name and a “little” name, the great name was kept secret while the little name was for public use (Granger 27). This suggests a very old precedent for a connection between a name and identity so inherent that a name must remain unspoken to preserve the essential self from corruption.

           These sentiments are echoed throughout various religions and folklore in the belief that knowing the “true” name of something grants control over that person or creature. A common legend with many variations features a demon figure, typically a woman, who steals a child, however through the intervention of an angelic or saint figure that forces her “reveal her names” she is made to give back the child (Dundes 272). Similarly, in folktales like that of ATU 500, (the classification designation within the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index,) commonly known as “The Name of the Helper” or Rumpelstiltskin, by learning the name of the creature a girl evades being killed by him. Interestingly, there is also an old Irish belief that even speaking a demon or fairy’s name aloud may conjure them, and therefore they are referred to not with their personal names, but by their classification like troll or dwarf (Jackson 121). This phenomenon persists in modern western culture in party games like Bloody Mary where people believe the apparition of Bloody Mary will appear if her name is chanted into a mirror (Meddings). All of this research suggests a strong cultural relationship between names and self perception. Therefore, it would stand to reason that by changing one’s name the self is perceived to be altered. Particularly, in the case of theatre where actors take on new names to portray new identities.

The Transformative Power of Naming in Mummers' Plays

           Culture does not exist in a vacuum, and the echoes of naming phenomena present in cultures around the world are felt in dramatic performance when saying a character’s name aloud reaffirms the actor’s persona to the audience. In many English folk dramas the transformation from the actor’s name to the character’s is often made explicit as soon as a character is introduced. For example, in the mummers’ play, St. George and Slasher from 1817 in Cheshire, most players with actionable roles are verbally introduced before they “step into” the scene; step into is marked in quotations as these plays often occurred in public spaces where all actors would already be visible in the public eye. These players are announced in one or both of two ways: by another character anticipating their “entrance” or by themselves. The narrator or “First Captain” (according to the transcript) of the play proclaims the “next that enters in/ Is the captain of this worthy crew” which is shortly followed by the Second Captain, or simply the “Captain,” entering and saying, “I am the Captain of this worthy crew.” Similarly, there are marginally more fluid ways of making this introduction such as the introduction of the Doctor, wherein after one of the fighters is wounded Sir Guy calls out for a doctor, saying, “A doctor, a doctor here.” The Doctor enters and responds, “Hark thee, here am I,” thus identifying as this figure. Likewise, some characters are only declared by themselves when they make their entrance such as Bold Slasher whose first line is, “I am bold Slasher.”

           However, the figure of the Fool, also labelled as the Prince of Beezlebub in the cast list, has a unique introduction. He begins his entrance with a negative, saying, “I am not the Prince of Beelzebub.” There is no description in the script about the costuming choices to reaffirm any one title, Fool or Prince, but as the money collecting fool figure it would make sense within his role to describe himself in a nonsensical way. Yet, as noted in the cast list, this character is still identified by the name he says he is not, the Prince of Beezlebub. This identification is likely made because it is a notable title and it is the only name he says in relation to himself, making it memorable for the audience. In other plays like “Galatian, a New Year Play” from Peebles in 1841 the figure of the money collector explicitly states, “Here comes in Judas, Judas is my name,” and is subsequently labelled as Judas in the cast list. Crucially, this cast list would not be made available to audiences because mummers’ plays were often spontaneous and informal, often taking place in public locations (Cotswolds). This knowledge of the cast list would only be available to scholars who had transcribed it or actors who had this knowledge passed to them in some form when learning the play. However, the figures starring in the plays would be recognizable within the community as folk dramas drew on the local knowledge of their audiences.

           Notably, in Jitka Štollova’s study on the impact of character lists in early modern printed drama, Štollova cites Charles B Lower who points to a sizable difference in the perception of plays when audiences knew the names of all players, including “names by which the figures are never addressed on stage,” than from audiences who took in the performance entirely based on costumes and dialogue (Štollova 315). This indicates that the mere knowledge of a name has the ability to alter the perception of a show.

           With this in mind, it is important to recognize that characters in traditional English folk drama are not known for their depth like we might see in Shakespeare, instead their identity is based primarily on occupation. Even for audiences who were likely already familiar with many of the figures present in the play, the ability to recognize characters quickly is a necessary function of folk drama due to its short play time and the unconventional performance setting which allows audiences to come and go at any time during the performance. Notably, Thomas Pettitt describes mummers’ plays as non-representational because there is minimal effort made to create a distinct dramatic reality separate from the immediate surrounding social reality (Pettitt 49). Specifically, Pettitt attributes this at least partially to the location of the play and the subsequent staging which does not separate players from spectators to preserve the illusion of a fictional reality where characters may hide themselves backstage. It may be the case that this lack of adherence to the representation of realism in mummers’ plays may not necessitate the same dramatic transformation a more complex play may have. However, I would argue due to the constraints of the setting it is all the more imperative that characters create the illusion themselves, through naming, rather than through the surrounding set. As mentioned before, instead of a more subtle or natural insertion of a name into dialogue, characters announce who they are when they enter for expedience. Therefore it makes sense to identify most characters not from their personal name but from a name derived from their occupation or notable enough that it has strong associations like Father Christmas.

           Naturally, one might assume considering the benefits for quick audience recognition that mumming plays would feature costumes to aid in the identification of characters, however originally this was not the case. In the south of England, mummers would all dress the same, commonly using long strips of wallpaper or rag and sewing it into their clothes (Roud 17). Significantly, this would be accompanied by a tall cardboard hat adorned with these strips to completely obscure the face of each performer (Roud 17). As previously mentioned, Merrill draws strong correlations between the self and facial identification, thus when this factor is hidden a key component for differentiating and identifying characters in these older dramas can be attributed to the actor’s dialogue which would be used to name. To cement this point, Roud discusses the minimal acting style of older performances of mumming plays which would not have long bouts of dialogue or appeals to the audience, yet would still retain the entrance statement, “In comes I-” followed by their name (Roud 16). This common practice of announcing “In comes I” can be observed in every character except the Doctor in the “Romsey Mummers’ Play” from sometime between 1796 and 1837, who is identified by someone calling on him before he enters and then saying, “there is an Italian Doctor,” in reference to himself. This method of identification, and the fact that the verbal identification of persona persists through mummers’ plays for hundreds of years, implies that it is a foundational component in the structure of the play.

           In later years, many folk drama performers would begin dressing in character rather than all in the same strips of paper or rags (Roud 18). However, even in modern mummers’ plays characters who did not have an easily recognizable persona might still obscure their faces using these paper strips (Roud 18). The examples Roud gives are for the characters Twing Twang or Hind Before, whose costumes might not be as clear cut when attempting to derive meaning from their name in comparison to someone like Saint George or Black Knight. This is significant because of the implication that persona is based entirely off of name, likely as a result of the lack of dynamic characters in mummer’s plays wherein characters are defined in relation to their occupation. In the case of Twing Twang, his occupation is not in his name which makes his role within the play less distinct.

           That being said, in the “Romsey Mummers’ Play” every character, including Twing Twang, is named, highlighting their transformation into that character formally in front of the audience. Despite what Roud describes as a less identifiable persona, Twing Twang is still given distinct character traits as a “Lieutenant of ye Press Gang,” who sends mummers to fight “the French and Dutch and Spaniards.” Giving a character a name is saying they are important enough to deserve one, but also acts upon them inversely granting them importance and distinction. In the case of Galatian, a New Year Play, the Talking Man character remains verbally unnamed within the play and is thus referred to simply as Talking Man in the transcript. Furthermore, Talking Man takes on the necessary role of a narrator but lacks any distinctive character traits or actionable parts narratively. In other plays like the “Romsey Mummers’ Play” the role of narrator is taken on by Father Christmas, whose name is announced to the audience in the customary “In comes-” manner. In contrast to Talking Man, Father Christmas has taken the recognizable persona associated with his name and it is thus shared with the audience.

           However, the transformative process is not only witnessed by an audience but experienced by the actors themselves. As discussed earlier, the relationship between naming and identity holds cultural significance internationally which suggests an intrinsic relationship between self-identification and the names we take on. When an actor temporarily leaves behind their true name to take on the name of their on-stage persona, it is part of an internal transformative process that will eventually support the creation of the play-space needed to establish the fictional reality where the story can take place.


           Within a dramatic ritual context, Merrill points to the face as a powerful symbol of identity used in the differentiation between the self and the other (17). For this reason, when masking hides this identifying facet, it facilitates the transformation from the self to the persona of the character. But when these masks are indistinct, as we have seen in traditional English folk dramas, the naming aspect of the transformative process is illuminated in a way that may be harder to identify in other forms of drama. As we now know, the audience is asked to rely on verbalization of a character’s identity to recognize them. Likewise, as discussed in supernatural myths cross-culturally, saying a name aloud possesses a tangible power. In doing so, the true name of the actor, which is so strongly associated with the self, is temporarily dismissed in favour of the persona. Even later, when costumes become distinct and recognizable, the practice of announcing character names during performance (whether it be the character themselves or another actor,) persists, thus implying that naming is a core part of the play and process of crafting a shared illusion.

           Beyond the scope of traditional English drama, this transformative process of naming may be identified and applied within other mediums. For instance, within internet culture we often leave our true names behind and in their place take up a username; this anonymization may lead to a personality that strays from the one we are familiar with. Likewise, on a corporate level, companies change their names to better represent what they stand for, like Facebook’s transition to Meta. By recognizing naming as an important aspect in the construction of identity, we can better recognize within ourselves, the spaces we occupy, and the material we interact with as malleable and subject to subconscious categorization based on naming presumptions.


This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


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