From “The English Mummers” Play

by Alex Helm (Folklore Soc, 1980) [ISBN 0-85991-067-9] A4. 124pp)


(NB – The Stony Stratford Mummers do not perform in the style described below – we are an ‘acting’ group rather than a ‘declaiming’ group and enjoy being animated and not entirely silent while ‘off-stage’.)

The seasonal round of life in England was once marked by ceremonials performed exclusively by men wearing ‘disguise’, not only to preserve their temporary anonymity, but also to mark them as beings set apart from their community. One of the most persistent is the Mummers play, still surviving in scattered places in the British Isles, and although it is eagerly anticipated by the audiences who gather (often from many miles away), it is almost completely misunderstood by performers and witnesses alike. The performances usually occur during the Christmas period, though they are a feature of the winter months from All Souls to Easter. They take place in the streets, but also in pubs, dance halls, large houses, or the performers make the rounds of outlying farms as they still do in Ireland. Widely scattered as they survivals are, they still retain elements common to versions long since extinct and to each other. A group of men enter to stand silently in a semi-circle at the back of where they are to perform. They are disguised either by a poor attempt at dressing in character, or by strips of paper or ribbon sewn to their everyday clothes. They remain silent and immobile until, when it is their turn to speak, they step forward, declaim their lines in a loud voice devoid of any inflexions, and stand back at the conclusion of their speech. The performance only shows lively action when two of the performers fight each other with swords, one is killed and brought to life again by a wonder-working doctor. Following this other characters step forward and speak lines completely irrelevant to what has just occurred. At the end, a collection is taken and the performers leave.

This kind of performance, with variations discussed below was once a familiar scene of the winter months. On paper the texts read badly; they were an amalgam of misunderstood words and local allusions, often with garbled passages from reputable literature interpolated without any sign of relevance. The named characters are often mutually anachronistic. Napoleon can appear in company with Julius Caesar, the legendary St George accompanies the historical St Patrick, and even Lord Nelson is found in the company of characters who could never have any real life counterpart. Beelzebub is an important character of almost all Mummers plays. Despite these absurdities, once the performance begins, all nonsense disappears and the performers become very different beings from the rather peculiarly dressed individuals they appear at first sight. Without effort they establish a bond between themselves and their audience, so that all are caught up in an atmosphere far remote from the 20th century. This atmosphere cannot be transmitted on paper, it must be experienced physically during a performance before the sense of age, magic and mystery, all caught up together can be felt.

There are three varieties of Mummers plays, The sword dance ceremonies are confined to Yorkshire and the North-East, the essential feature being that each dance holds a link, the sword, with the next dancer, but other features such as a death and cure by the doctor are common. The main variety is the hero-combat play, widespread through England, Scotland, southern Wales and english speaking Ireland, as well as in America and Canada. Its basic theme is revitalisation, expressed in the following terms:

In a combat of champions, one is killed and revived by a doctor. Occasionally the combats are multiplied. Characteristic performers include St George, Turkish Knight or Black Prince, ‘Female’, Doctor, Jack Finney, Devil Doubt (Beelzebub), Big Head. These names are however subject to endless local variations. Some named characters, the last three mentioned amongst them, do not carry the action further. A central feature of all Mummers plays is the nonsensical dialogue of the Doctor which is only equalled by the way in which the cure is brought about. The part shows a clear attempt at a parody of a real doctor’s work. It adds to the attraction of the combat and allows a streak of comic inventiveness on the part of the performers to develop.

In the East Midland Counties of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland, the ceremony took a very distinctive form, best called the ‘Wooing’ Ceremony. Unlike the Hero-Combat versions, which attracted comment at an early date, they seem to have escaped notice. It may be that their survival in only a small area of the country prevented them being better known. Whatever the reason, the earliest known example is from Bassingham in 1823, contained in the Hunter collection in the British Museum. The version contains all the ingredients of those existing in the century and can be defined as follows:

The wooer of a young ‘female’ is rejected in favour of a clown and enlists in the army. The clown is occasionally accused of being the father of a bastard child of an older ‘female’ which he denies. The action continues with a champion overcoming an opponent who is revived by the (ubiquitous) doctor. A major difference in the Wooing plays is that much of the action is expressed in song. Characteristic performers include the Recruiting Sergeant, Ploughboy or farmer’s man, Lady, Clown (or fool) and Dame.