Historical Mayflower Pageant (Plymouth, 1920)


‘Preparations for the Mayflower Tercentenary Festival at Plymouth’, The Graphic (4th September 1920),

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Historical pageants, a sort of amateur re-enactment, were incredibly popular forms of engagement with the past in the early to mid 20th century. They usually took the form of a series of chronological episodes, often starting as far back as the Romans and sometimes coming right up to the present day. The cast was almost always made up of local volunteers, and could be massive - as many as 10,000 people in some cases. You can read more about historical pageants in Britain on this website.

In Plymouth, which had probably the largest commemoration in 1920, a cast of 300 performers - men, women and children - performed the 'Historical Mayflower Pageant' 18 times in early September. It's possbile that as many as 30-40,000 people saw the pageant (given that the Hall held over 2,000, and there were more than that for the opening performance).  Hugh Parry, Minister of Harecourt Chapel in London, wrote and produced the play and also took one of the leading roles. He was commissioned by the Mayflower Council of England, chaired by James Rendel Harris (who also wrote an interlude for the pageant). Parry had already produced another spectacular with a religious theme - the Historical Pageant of Non-Conformity - that took place in London in 1912.

Unlike a lot of pageants, which very much focused on events in one town throughout history, Parry's spectacular was a tale of religious freedom across the Western world. Consisting of seventeen scenes, the pageant depicted the history of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower voyage, with special attention paid to the well-known characters of William Brewster, Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Invented characters also featured to add elements of comedy and danger.

The storyline begins in the present, as two children play with a toy ship. Their father, a minister, announces that its time for a story - 'about you, and me, and America'. The first episode then opened with a scene of village revels in Scrooby in 1608, which are interrupted by the arrest of a local “Brownist” preacher by the villain of the piece, Blanchard (the director himself sometimes appeared in the part), and his foolish assistant, the drunken Bartholomew. William Brewster, later a leader of the Plymouth Colony, intervenes to stop the arrest. The Pilgrims are eventually betrayed and surrounded by Blanchard’s men just as they are on the point of embarking for Holland.

Eventually, they succeed in raising sail, and a few quaint Netherlandish scenes follow. These were an opportunity for artistic depictions of handsome Dutch buildings, much admired by the character of Miles Standish. These scenes are followed by another exciting departure in which Brewster and co are once again able to escape Blanchard’s clutches just in the nick of time. making their way back to England (where they are depicted in both Southampton and Plymouth before setting sail).

The scenes in the New World show the first settlement and the introduction of the friendly Native American, Samoset. Henry Longfellow’s invented romantic subplot involving John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and Miles Standish also featured. All comes good in the end, with a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans and the blissful family life of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins - who then see a vision of the future is given: ‘men marching and counter-marching by swift millions… the frontiers and the boundaries of old aristocracies broken… the landmarks of vast Empires removed… the People beginning their own landmarks, and all others… being removed.’ John then sees the old ‘Mayflower’ returning eastward and homeward (signifying America’s coming to the aid of Britain during World War I - a popular symbolism at the time).

The pageant ended with a tableau of the “spirit of Liberty”. This was a colourful scene accompanied by singing. Representatives of various nations took the stage: Britannia of course led the way, and America, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, China, Japan, Africa (the continent, not a specific country) all followed, with the figure of Liberty last of all. Her torch held aloft shed liberty’s light on all nations, and each figure took it in turn to light their own torch. The symbol of the Cross flashed in the background, suggesting that it was in Christianity that liberty finds its sources and protection.

Parry's pageant interwove his own nonconformist religious interests with the romance of the Mayflower - a lot of which he had got from Wadsworth. Clearly, though, it was also about the present: the Anglo-American alliance in the shadow of the First World War. Plymouth had been a key naval base for the Americans after they entered the war in 1917, and of course had a long and illustrious history as a British base already. Speeches during the commemoration in Plymouth insisted on the importance of this Anglo-American relationship in the context of widespread postwar dislocation - strikes, demobilised soldiers, and the spectre of radicalism arising from the Russian revolution. As J. Butler Wright, the American Charge d'Affaires, put it in one speech - the temptation of a 'fanatical disease called Bolshevism' could be overcome by the fervent civic 'atmosphere' that surrounded Plymouth during the Tercentenary. 

Public opinion was mostly positive - the local Western Morning News, for example, said that the first performance was applauded with 'contagious enthusiasm'. But national newspapers were complimentary too - the Times said it was 'beautifully staged' and had 'a breadth, a power and pathos'. The Observer, while suggesting it was too long, still said that 'any person who gets the chance to see it should not miss it.' Fortunately, if there had been anyone who had missed the performances in Plymouth, Parry's pageant went on to be performed in a whole range of other towns and cities - such as London, Huddersfield, and Preston.