- mumming plays
- The most widespread of English *calendar customs in the 19th century. The mummers would tour their chosen area, at the specified season, enacting their 'play' in houses, pubs, or in the open, collecting money and moving on after each performance. 'Mumming' is the generic term, but the custom and performers went by different names in different areas - Tipteerers (Sussex/Surrey), Seven Champions (Kent), Johnny Jacks (Hampshire), Soulers/Soulcakers (Cheshire), Pace-Eggers (Lancashire), White Boys, Paper boys, *Guisers, and so on. Hundreds of versions of the play are known, from all over England (except, oddly, Norfolk and Suffolk), lowland Scotland, Ireland (north and west), and south Wales, and a few in countries settled by British emigrants. Versions differ in many respects, including text, characters, and costume, but the variations are markedly *regional, and the similarities across the country are more remarkable than the differences. For the majority of teams the customary time for performance was over the Christmas/New Year season, but in the Cheshire area it was Halloween, in the north-west it was Easter, while in the East Midlands *Plough Monday (first after 6 January) was the favoured time. In the majority of cases it was adult, working-class males who made up a mummers team, sometimes specifically the 'young men' of the village, at others the leading lights were older men who had been mummers for years. In some areas, particularly in the north of England, the custom was perpetuated almost entirely by children's teams, but this may have been a relatively recent development after the adults ceased taking part.Researchers have identified three basic types of play: the Hero-Combat or St George Play; the *Sword Dance play; and the *Plough or Wooing play. The first was by far the most common, and the others have their own entries elsewhere in this dictionary. Within the Hero-Combat division, there are four subdivisions: (1) Standard Hero-Combat; (2) Soul-ing play - characterized by appearance at Halloween and a 'wild horse' character; (3) Pace-Egging play - characterized by appearance at Easter and some different characters; (4) Robin Hood play - relatively rare, but while the basic action is the same as the standard Hero-Combat, the characters and much of the dialogue are taken from traditional Robin Hood ballads. The basic plot, or 'action' of the Hero-Combat play is simple enough: someone introduces the team, calls for 'room', and announces that a performance is about to take place; a character boasts of his prowess and challenges another to fight; another accepts the challenge; they have a sword fight, one is killed or wounded; in some versions the victor fights and vanquishes one or more other characters; a character laments the death and calls for a doctor who arrives, boasting of his skills and his travels; often there is bartering over his fee; in some versions the doctor has an assistant with whom he has some verbal crosstalk; the dead/wounded character is brought back to life; one or more extra characters appear, each with a short speech, one of whom asks the audience for money or food, which ends the play; many teams would then entertain the company with songs, tunes, and so on.The play texts have in turn baffled and intrigued most commentators. They are mostly couched in rough rhymed couplets, although parts of the Doctor's speeches are in prose. Local words crop up here and there but in general they are not in dialect. They contain numerous bits and pieces from other genres, including echoes of stage plays, anachronistic references, and topsy-turvy imagery, but cannot be traced to any specific known source. Broadly speaking, the costumes worn by the mummers can be separated into two distinct types. In the older style, the participants dressed all the same, often covered from head to foot in strips of rag or wallpaper of various colours with tall hats covered in rosettes, tinsel, and so on. Even where the whole body was not covered, ribbons, patches, or tufts of material were often sewn at random on to ordinary clothes. Where the face was not covered by fringes, a common feature was to blacken it with burnt cork or soot. In later years, participants attempted to dress appropriately for the character they were portraying. Props were minimal. The combatants' 'swords' were often merely sticks, or walking sticks; the Doctor normally had a bottle or box of pills, and the men needed little else apart from something to collect the money in. Character names varied from place to place, and again showed marked regionalization, and it is often better to talk in terms of character roles - Presenter, Combatants, Doctor, Doctor's helper, and so on. The presenter was often Father Christmas, or a character whose name denotes his role, such as Roomer, Letter-in, etc. By far the most common first combatant is King or St George, while his opponent is most commonly a Turkish Knight or Bold Slasher. The character who laments the death often claims to be the victim's father, and the Presenter often fills this role. The Doctor is the only character who appears in every version, sometimes with a name (Doctor Brown, Doctor Dodd) but more often than not he is just 'The Doctor'. In some areas the doctor has an assistant - Jack Finney or Win-ney. The most widespread of the characters at the end of the play is Beelzebub (or a variation of his name), but others are Devil Doubt, Twing Twang, Johnny (Jolly) Jack, Billy Sweep, and Souling plays included a Wild Horse character, whose antics closed the performance (see *hobby horses, *Antrobus Soul-Cakers).A feature of a number of plays was a 'female' character called Molly, Bessie, etc., played by a man. Contrary to popular opinion, the Dragon hardly ever appears as a character in traditional plays - in perhaps twenty of the more than 1,000 versions known - and in most of these there is evidence of literary borrowing to explain its presence.Describing the custom as a 'play' is misleading in that the word raises expectations which the mummers could not, and did not try, to fulfill. There was little space in many venues, and no theatrical trappings. The men would normally stand in a line or shallow semi-circle against a wall, facing the audience, thus defining a performance space in front of them. Each performer's 'entrance' would simply entail him stepping forward into the performance space, and for his 'exit' he would simply step back into line. There was much pacing up and down, especially during the boast and challenge section, but there was little attempt at characterization or real 'acting', even in the sword fight. Indeed, many writers comment on the stiff upright postures and toneless singsong voices adopted by the men, which is dismissed as inability to act, but it is clear that this was the traditional style in which the play was meant to be performed. As time passed, however, the pressures of the real stage and other expectations gradually killed the older style and more conventional acting styles were adopted, but modern-day revivalists appear to base their performances on the model of either pantomime or melodrama. The presence of St George also leads some writers to presume a overtly nationalistic tone to the custom, but, apart from a few versions collected in the West Country, this is another misinterpretation. Most written accounts are completely silent on why the mummers performed, usually because the writers' own confirmed ideas made it unnecessary to ask. Ex-mummers interviewed in the 20th century almost always stressed the economic benefits of participation. Men could earn the equivalent of several weeks' wages over one season, which they would either spend on drink or on their families. In conversation, however, a second motive was often voiced - 'you took pride in it', 'you were the Mummers and you had to get it right'.The history of mummers scholarship is littered with unfortunate accident and unfulfilled promise. Thomas Fairman *Ordish amassed the first important collection in the 1880s and 1890s, but failed to produce his promised book. R. J. E. Tiddy commenced another collection, but was killed in the First World War, and his The Mummer's Play (1923) was edited from his notes. E. K. Chambers, the well-known drama historian, was the first to write a book-length study, The English Folk Play, published in 1933. Chambers relied entirely on literary sources and does not seem to have bothered to witness any performances or interview any performers even though there were several teams still active within 20 miles of his home in Oxfordshire. His book is thus only useful for tracing early textual connections between mummers and the legitimate stage. At the same time as Chambers was finishing his book, a visiting American ballad scholar, James Madison *Carpenter, collected several hundred texts from ex-performers, but his collection remained completely unknown to British scholars until the late 1970s. In the mid-1950s, Alex *Helm, while researching morris dances and other calendar customs, became interested in the mummers when asked to sort out the Ordish collection. Along with colleagues Dr E. C. Cawte and Norman Peacock, he commenced a systematic programme to gather information, and by 1967 they were able to publish the seminal English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index which listed over 800 versions, demonstrated the distribution of the custom, and gave researchers access to a vast wealth of previously unsuspected material. The introductory chapters also provided the first conceptual framework in which to view the custom. Helm and team also published a series of booklets, providing texts, photographs, and commentary on a scale previously unknown, but, again, Alex Helm died before he could publish his major book on the subject. Helm's manuscript was finally published as The English Mummers' Play in 1980, and although some would now question his emphasis on ritual, this book is far and away the best on the subject. Helm's work brought the subject to the attention of a new generation of collectors and a number of valuable collections were amassed in the 1960s to 1980s. These later researchers more than doubled the number of places known to have had a play, but at the time of writing, this material remains largely in private hands and has not yet been processed into major publications. The emphasis of these later collectors has been less to do with the supposed ritual basis of the custom and more to do with the mechanics and the social context of traditions.The mumming play has been the most consistently misrepresented and misunderstood of English calendar customs. The assumption that the mumming play is a relic of pre-Christian fertility ritual has bedevilled writing on the subject at least since the Second World War, but many writers before that time were more modest in their claims. The presence of St George and the Turkish Knight led many to assume an origin in the period of the Crusades, but as the 20th century advanced, the supposed starting-point of the custom was moved sharply backwards and writers begin to use phrases such as 'pre-Christian', 'pagan', and 'fertility ritual', on a routine basis. The central problem for all these theories is the stunning lack of evidence to support them. The plain unromantic fact is that the first clearly identifiable references to the mumming play as we know it are in the middle to late 18th century - 500 years after the Crusades, and a thousand years after the English were converted to Christianity. The play is notable by its absence in the written and pictorial record for all that time, despite the fact that, if later distribution is anything to go by, it would have been performed every year in thousands of places throughout the kingdom, and early antiquarians such as *Aubrey,*Strutt, and *Brand fail to mention it. The question of origins is still unsolved, but the way that references suddenly start appearing in the 18th century would strongly argue for an origin around that time, and, as that period is not noted for its fertility rituals or pagan customs, a 'literary' origin is most likely.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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