First Performance: Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, ON, Canada - January 19, 1978
I can't say when I first discovered the legend of Robin Hood. Like King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, or modern-day superheroes such as Superman and Batman, Robin Hood was always there. But I can tell you that one of my earliest and longest lasting memories of Robin Hood was seeing a children's play in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada back when I was seven-and-a-half.
I remember a few details clearly -- there was some comic business where we urged Friar Tuck to "duck" and he kept correcting the audience because he thought we were saying his name wrong. I remember loving the show. And most of all, I remember that for weeks afterwards, my friends and I talked about making our own Robin Hood production -- most likely as an 8mm home movie. (For the benefit of people born in the 21st century -- this was the Stone Age equivalent of YouTube videos, shared just among friends, family and visitors you wanted to torture instead of the whole world.) Because my name was similar to Robin Hood's minstrel, I wanted to play Alan-a-Dale.
We never did make that movie. However, this play also helped foster a love of the Robin Hood legend that eventually led to the creation of this website.
The play was The Adventures of Robin Hood by Clive Endersby, and it premiered at the Studio Theatre at Hamilton Place on January 19, 1978. The director was Blair Mascall, and it starred Gerald Lenton as Robin Hood, Barry van Elen as Alan-a-Dale, Valerie Holland as Maid Marian, Michel Lefebvre as the Sheriff and Donald Saunders as Sir Sneakamore. It was put on by Theatre Aquarius, a local professional theatre company then in its fifth season (a season which began with a production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.) I tracked down the script, and also the original review from the local paper.
As I said before, it wasn't the first version of Robin Hood I saw. If nothing else, I'm absolutely certain that I was regularly watching Rocket Robin Hood. This cartoon from the late 1960s told the tale of the 30th century direct descendants of Robin Hood and the Merry Men. The futuristic heroes got up to the same tricks as their famous ancestors, albeit with some sci-fi twists. It had an unnaturally long rerun life in Canada. In early 1978, Rocket Robin Hood was playing Saturdays at 11:30am on Channel 79, Toronto's CityTV. (Not that anyone actually had access to 79 channels on a single TV set back then.) I may have also already read the Bancroft Classics edition of Robin Hood. Perhaps I felt that the book gave me extra knowledge about Robin Hood that inspired me to suggest we do our own amateur filmed Robin Hood play. Or perhaps the stage production inspired me to read the book. I can readily imagine it going either way. Endersby's play engaged my imagination -- which is why I remember a few details so many years later. But imagination is not the most reliable guide to memory.
So, why dredge up the script and some unreliable memories? Well, this play led to experiences that are both unique and completely typical.
Unique? The total audience for this play for its entire history would be less than the audience who saw any major Robin Hood movie on a single day of its initial release (and probably even less than visit my website within a single week.) Only a couple hundred would have seen exactly the same performance I did. Only a few school friends talked about doing a Robin Hood amateur play or movie. And as far as I know, I'm the only one of those childhood friends who went on to create a large educational website about the legend. (Not that we even dreamed of websites in 1978. Back then, the 21st century was still a time of spaceships or, more pessimistically, post-apocalyptic dystopias.)
Typical? I’d be surprised if there’s a town or city anywhere in the English-speaking world that hasn’t seen a Robin Hood play performed there. From the 1400s to the 1600s, Robin Hood plays were a dominant part of village festivals in May and June. There were professional shows in the 1600s and 1700s. And from the 1800s onwards, Robin Hood was a regular feature of the children's holiday plays known as pantomimes or panto for short. Even as I type these words, there are dozens of cities and towns performing Robin Hood plays, including my current city of residence Toronto which is playing host to The Heart of Robin Hood, a slightly upmarket children's play. My own experiences with a Robin Hood children's play might be unique, but it ties to a tradition that stretches back centuries. [As I reformat that this page in December 2019, there's another Robin Hood play on in Toronto -- the panto Lil' Red Robin Hood.]
The 1978 Adventures of Robin Hood play is structured in four scenes. Scenes one and three are in Sherwood Forest and scenes two and four take place at Nottingham Castle.
The play opens with the following lines sung to the English folk tune Early One Morning.
Here among the birds and game,
There lives an outlaw who rose to fame.
I'll tell you how he became
An outlaw brave and bold.
His name is Robin Hood,
He dwells here in the wood.
Now you can see
His story being told.
The same tune and similar-styled verses were used to open episodes of the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene. Not that I would have known that at the time. If I recognized the music at all, it would have been as the theme music to the Canadian children's series The Friendly Giant.
Alan-a-Dale who bills himself as "the greatest minstrel of them all" comes on stage to describe Sherwood Forest to us. He points out they have running water (indicating a waterfall) but notes that the roof (ie: the sky) leaks a bit. He also encourages the audience to respond by saying "ay", the funny way they said yes in Sherwood. He introduces us their Arrow Express early warning system, where an arrow is shot into a message tree. When the warning horn is sounded, he asks the audience to join in and shout "Duck!" to remind the Merry Men to dodge the incoming arrow.
Alan also explains why Robin does what he does.
Well, Robin didn't want to be an outlaw... When he was younger he obeyed all the laws because he loves his King very much. The King's name is King Richard the Lionheart .. and he rules England with wisdom and fairness. But, for the past few years, the King has been away in foreign lands, fighting wars ... and left behind the barons and princes and sheriffs, and told them to rule England while he was away. But they are evil men ... and instead of doing good things, they rob the poor people to make themselves rich ... and that made Robin Hood so angry he began to rob the rich people and give the money back to the poor people who deserved it.
Now that the audience was assured that Robin was completely justified in his robberies, the Sheriff and his tax-gathering lackeys (most notably the obsequious Sir Sneakamore) enter. Alan hides in a tree but continues to break the fourth wall by telling the audience of the sheriff’s nasty temper. The sheriff overhears Alan's description and accuses his underling Sir Sneakamore. Then, Sir Sneakamore overhears the unseen Alan describe him as a "slimy dog" and attacks the hapless guard he believes is responsible for the insult.
The sheriff and his minions collect tax from the peasants which include the Widow Lobb but also Robin Hood in disguise. The tax collectors ask Robin for his details so they can write them down. Robin gives his name as Robin Hood, his residence as Sherwood Forest -- all taken down by Sir Sneakamore "in the best Civil Service tradition" and it's only when Robin lists his occupation as "Outlaw" that Sir Sneakamore looks up from his forms and realizes who he is dealing with.
Robin plans to return "this tax money ... that has been taken from the people." Guards and the Merry Men fight. The sheriff holds the Widow Lobb hostage forcing the outlaws to drop their weapons. The sheriff's men make off with two bags of tax money. Then Robin shoots an arrow into the wings and Sir Sneakamore reappears onstage with an arrow in his behind, dropping his bag of gold.
Robin plans to sneak into the castle alone to retrieve the second bag of gold, but Alan-a-Dale and Little John follow, just in case Robin needs help.
In the castle, we meet the sheriff’s wife who has been strapping a pillow to Sir Sneakamore’s injured rear with a large trail of bandages. In comic but sharp-tongued banter, the wife convinces the sheriff that Sir Sneakamore is an idiot and adds "And you, my husband, art a fool to think Robin Hood can be caught in Sherwood.”
We also meet the sheriff's niece Maid Marian and her companion Lady Priscilla (Prissy for short). Marian wants to go the forest to find Robin Hood. Meanwhile, Sir Sneakamore tries to woo Prissy and gets knocked back on his injured rump. The sheriff’s wife says "Mark my words, Marian should be sent away. She gives naught but trouble." It’s not the last harsh suggestion or complaint she makes in the scene.
Meanwhile Robin Hood hides in a wine barrel to evade the guards. Marian and Prissy plan to escape the castle disguised as boys, but they also need to hide in barrels. The sheriff and Sneakamore begin to count the tax money near the barrels. Robin grabs the tax money when they aren’t looking and hides back in his barrel. However, the sheriff gets wise that someone must be hiding in the barrels and discovers Robin and the two ladies. Robin fights his way out with the help of Alan and Little John. Alan knocks out Sneakamore who was going to attack Robin Hood. The sheriff's wife orders them to stay out of her kitchen. Robin and his men escape. Marian and Prissy sneak out to find Robin in Sherwood, but Sir Sneakamore follows them.
Back in Sherwood Forest, Friar Tuck wonders where Robin has got to, and starts talking to the audience. The audience tries to warn him of incoming message arrows by shouting "Duck!", but he thinks they are mangling his name and corrects them "'tis Tuck ... not Duck ... Tuck!” He holds up a chalkboard displaying his name which a message arrow shatters. Robin eventually enters, and Tuck explains the king has returned to England and they are singing in the streets of London. Robin and Little John remark it will be good to have the king back, but turn their attention to the two strangers that have been spotted.
Marian and Lady Priscilla wander the forest disguised as men. Marian instructs Prissy to act more like a man -- boastful and rude. Little John comes upon them, and Marian insults him. The war of words escalates to a swordfight which John wins easily. But Prissy shouts "How dare thou pick on someone smaller than thee" and then beats Little John up. Robin enters, and Marian reveals her true identity and returns his sword. Robin introduces the rest of the Merry Men -- Alan-a-Dale, David of Doncaster, Friar Tuck, Wat Taylor and Will Stutely. Alan explains how the various Merry Men first met Robin by singing to the tune of the English folk song The Keeper as the outlaws re-enact the encounters. One example is the famous quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John:
JOHN: Let me by. (RAISES STAFF)
ROBIN: Why not try. (RAISES STAFF)
JOHN: My blow. (LUNGES WITH STAFF)
ROBIN: Too slow. (BLOCKS WITH STAFF)
ALAN: Fighting to and fro. (BATTLE CONTINUES ON LOG)
ALL: Among the leaves so green O.
Robin escorts Marian and Prissy back to the message tree, where Sneakamore, the sheriff and the guards are waiting. Robin is captured. Alan and Little John find Robin's hat, and plan to go to the castle to rescue him.
The sheriff and Sneakamore pump Robin for information about the location of his camp. He doesn't talk, and the sheriff's wife suggests trying to extract the information from Marian and Prissy instead. But they refuse. The sheriff plans to feed Robin to his pet dragon. But they are interrupted by a magician and his two female assistants (really Alan, John and Tuck in disguise).
The disguised Alan promises to make Robin talk using magic, but the song and slapstick routines that follow are a ruse to give Robin time to escape. The identities are revealed, the Merry Men and the guards are poised for a final fight, but just then the King returns. King Richard turns to the audience to ask whether he should believe the sheriff or Robin. The script anticipates that the audience will shout "Robin Hood", and so the king banishes the sheriff. The play concludes with a return to The Keeper song, this time chronicling Robin Hood being pardoned.
Looking at the script now -- about 35 years older than the show's intended audience - I still see a lot of what would have charmed me back then. In her review in the Hamilton Spectator, Kathleen Wernick lavishes praise on the forest set. She describes the swordfights as "unspontaneous and a bit sloppy” but still notes they "caused mayhem in the audience", speculating that it was probably our first experience with swordplay in film or stage. (Not likely. At the same time, ads were proclaiming Star Wars was in its 8th month at the Centre Twin Cinema and I must have seen Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader's lightsaber duel at least two dozen times by that point.) You might think the visual aspects would leave the deepest impression, but they didn't. It's the wit and wordplay that lasted in my memory.
TIn her review, Wernick also describes the message tree and duck moments as "an ingenious and popular bit of business on the part of Mr. Endersby," Popular enough that it stuck in my memory for decades. And as I reread the play, Alan-a-Dale's breaking of the fourth wall as he introduced the characters also stirred my memory. And I wondered what would happen if King Richard asked the audience who he should believe and the kids replied the sheriff. The local newspaper reviewer wondered the same thing. (I like to imagine the actors would have ad-libbed something about the audience being an untrustworthy bunch). I'm also sure I would have loved the comic banter - such as everyone's putdowns of Sir Sneakamore. All of that -- and the repurposing of familiar tunes -- is straight out of the British tradition of pantomime. (As are other touches like having a dragon named Drexel as homage to the Drexel Dragons.) However, pantomimes are not so common in North America and these touches would have seemed more novel to us than they would to a British audience. Endersby’s play is not quite a true pantomime, but it's a close cousin.
One aspect where the Robin Hood legend and pantomime coincide is in the tradition of cross-dressing. Endersby's play follows the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian (and several film and TV adaptations) by having Marian dress as a boy when she goes to meet Robin in the forest. Also, Friar Tuck and Little John are disguised as women in the play. Robin Hood himself was disguised as a woman in the ballad Robin Hood and The Bishop (Number 143 in Child's ballad collection) and in the 1973 Disney cartoon. But while the characters in the play disguise themselves as the opposite gender, the characters are all played by actors of the same gender. This wouldn't be the case in the true panto tradition where a leading male part (the principal boy), such as Robin or Alan, would be played by a girl, and a comic female role (the dame) would be played by a man in drag. The roles of the Sheriff''s Wife and Lady Priscilla are comic enough to fit within the dame tradition, if that had chosen to cast men for those roles.
The sheriff is also married in the ballads Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and the Butcher, although Endersby's play is one of the rare modern works to follow in that tradition. (Michael Cadnum's In a Dark Wood is another.) Many versions of the Robin Hood story give Marian a female companion such as a nurse. The most notable, perhaps, is Una O'Connor's Bess in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film. But with her physical prowess and tough attitude, the play's Lady Priscilla probably owes more to the Lady Cluck character from the 1973 Disney cartoon Robin Hood.
In her review, Wernick describes Marian as "written in such inconsequential and insipid fashion." That's a fair assessment which describes not only the Marian of Endersby's play but also the Marian of the 1973 Disney cartoon and the 1975 BBC mini-series The Legend of Robin Hood. Marian was lacking strength, especially compared to butt-kicking heroines such as The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman on TV and Princess Leia on the big screen. The Marians of both previous and future TV shows, movies and books are more intelligent and capable than the Marians of the 1970s. For example, in the ballad, Marian was able to fight off Robin for over an hour, where as in the play she loses easily. Also, Maid Marian - often in boy's clothing - is one of the most capable Merry Men in the 1950s TV show, and as well as a spy in the sheriff's camp. The 2006 TV series features Marian as a cross-dressing superhero who'd been helping the poor and oppressed of Sherwood long before Robin started his outlaw career.
The play’s use of the Keeper folk music allows them to touch on the ballads at lightning speed. Little John and Friar Tuck's encounters come straight from the ballads Robin Hood and Little John and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. The Robin Hood stories have multiple characters named Will with a surname beginning with S. (Sometimes they are treated as different names for the same character, but other times there are multiple Wills in the band.) Will Scarlet is the best known, but Endersby opts for Will Stutely, and the song hints at the ballad Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly. Robin Hood stories from the 19th century onwards often feature Robin rescuing someone (sometimes Much the Miller's Son, a Merry Man from the early ballads who doesn't appear in this play) from foresters, and Endersby uses this as the background for Wat Taylor. The 19th century children's author Howard Pyle used the name Wat for the tinker when he adapted the Robin Hood and the Tinker ballad, but Endersby's Wat more likely owes his name to Wat Tyler, a leader of the real-life Peasants' Revolt of 1381. David of Doncaster doesn't have his story narrated in song, and Endersby doesn't feature the archery tournament from Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, the ballad where David appears.
Alan-a-Dale also omits the story of his own first encounter with Robin, a tale which appeared in a popular ballad. While we might not learn his backstory, Alan is a prominent character in the play. He introduces the play, serving as a narrator and commentator on events. Allan-a-Dale played a similar role in the 1952 live action Disney film, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, and the popular cartoon from 1973. The audience's immediate connection is with Alan. And then later, he's the one who knocks out the guards and devises the plan to rescue Robin. I remember as a child wanting to play Alan-a-Dale in our proposed children's play or home movie. Over the years I've assumed that I was passing over the more prominent Merry Men (in books, TV shows, etc) just because I (spelling differences aside) shared the name of Robin's minstrel. Looking at this play again, I now wonder if I was deliberately exploiting the similarity of name to secure the co-lead.
Endersby's Robin Hood is strictly a do-gooder -- the criminality of the medieval ballad figure had been well softened by a centuries-long career in children's entertainment. In her review in the Hamilton Spectator, Kathleen Wernick notices they called special attention to the fact that Robin was only stealing back what the sheriff's men had already stolen. Such a distinction was also made in the Robin Hood comics of the 1950s where a tax collector observes "Unless we get rid of Robin Hood, we'll never keep what we steal." The Disney films were cheekier about Robin's outlawry. In the 1973 cartoon, Robin says "We never rob. We just sort of borrow a bit from those who could afford it", and a skeptical Little John replies "Borrow? Hunh. Boy, are we in debt." The play is a bit too safe for such humour.
Still Endersby's Robin retains a lot of trickster charm. He cockily reveals his true identity to the dim-witted tax collectors. Robin and the Merry Men mock their enemies and outsmart them by the use of disguise. Whether for adults or children, humour is a necessary ingredient in the Robin Hood legend.ould all be the same Robin Hood.
Clive Endersby's career spans decades of children's entertainment. He wrote for shows I was well-familiar with in my childhood -- Read All About It! and The Polka Dot Door (a Canadian loose adaptation of the British TV series Play School). In the 1980s, he was the lead writer for Today's Special, the popular TVOntario series about a department store mannequin who would transform into a real human at night and go on educational adventures with the store's night staff. In the 1985 episode "Storybooks" written by Endersby, Muffy the mouse is transported into a storybook where she is transformed into Robin Hood. The other characters follow her and are also transformed (although unlike Muffy, they retain their real memories). Mannequin Jeff becomes Alan-a-Dale (proof again that it was the most desirable role). They fight the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and his lackey Sir Sneakamore -- recycled from this play to live on in TV syndication. Endersby also recycles his "Duck, Tuck" joke. (Hey, I still remember it over 35 years later, don't knock it.) In the 21st century, Endersby worked as a writer or story editor for such shows as The Worst Witch and King Arthur's Disasters. Robin Hood is a supporting character in the latter, a dim-witted comic foil for the titular king. (I don't know if Sir Sneakamore makes a third appearance in Endersby's Robin Hood canon.)
The Adventures of Robin Hood by Clive Endersby is not a great play by any stretch of the imagination. It is repetitive, with the action alternating between the forest and castle without a true plot to move the story forward. But it’s not bad either. It has plenty of humour, charm, action and by referencing several ballads serves as a good introduction to the Robin Hood legend. It would and did please a crowd of children.
The history of Robin Hood is often dominated by the big moments from the late medieval ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode to the breakout success of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to Howard Pyle’s children novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood which has remained in print since 1883 to the enduring popularity of Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood movie. But there are thousands upon thousands of Robin Hood books and plays that are forgotten by scholars which nevertheless entertained and enchanted their audiences. On a cold afternoon in a Canadian steel town in early 1978, Clive Endersby’s play entertained a seven-year-old boy, filling him with enchantment and a love of story that never truly went away. Even if no one else remembers this play, I always will. And as for my desire to take on the role of the character who introduces the audience to the legend of Robin Hood … well, it’s funny how that turned out.
Young King Arthur & The Adventures of Robin Hood by Clive Endersby can be purchased through The Playwrights Guild of Canada. Visit this site. You can also inquire about performance rights there.
Wernick, Kathleen. "Robin Hood Good Cure for Those Winter Blahs." The Spectator [Hamilton] 23 Jan. 1978: 32. Microfiche edition. Photo is uncredited.
Ad from Jan. 13, 1978 edition of the Spectator
Quotes from the play and review are used without permission under the principle of fair use