Morris Men: Dancing Englishness, c.1905-1951
The morris dance revival of the early twentieth century was one manifestation of a nationwide resurgence of interest in English identity, predicated on an assumption that the truest essence of national culture resided in the vernacular traditions of rural society. Histories of the folk dance movement have often regarded the morris dance revival of the interwar period as one characterised by prevailing right-wing, conservative attitudes towards notions of class, gender, and nationalism. This thesis contests this view, arguing instead that the movement was motivated by various aesthetic and intellectual concerns, both conservative and progressive. Moreover, the nascent revival contained a diversity of political and artistic prejudices. Whilst appealing to the very same dances, presented in similar fashions, dancers projected onto their activity a multitude of ideological conceptions. This study is concerned with the ideas Englishness promulgated by a small group of morris men in the first half of the twentieth century. It is informed by extensive original primary source research, utilising archival materials largely unknown by scholars of the folk dance movement. Introducing the contested nature of authenticity in revival morris, through a reappraisal of the work of Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal, this thesis presents a series of intellectual biographies based on three protagonists of men's morris dancing in the interwar era. Pioneering agriculturalist Rolf Gardiner sought to subsume morris to the service of new communities, representing order and unity between people and their landscapes. Alec Hunter was an artist and designer who believed the dances represented the highest developed form of English social art, expressive of a native creativity. Joseph Needham was a biochemist turned historian, who conscripted morris as an agent in making plans for a Heaven on earth in a socialist mould. A final chapter addresses the condescension towards morris dancing, with reference to the caricature of the ‘crank’ as an obstinate enemy of progress, and their attitudes towards new commercial leisure practices. Allying ideas about dance and performance to those of national identity and culture, this study offers a new case study in the history of Englishness.
- PhD