The English Mummers Play

A perspective monograph from a practitioner's viewpoint*

*Viz: a feeble attempt to disguise any inaccuracies herein by the use of overblown linguistics -

{phraseology (c) Chris Eubank 1991}

There are two versions of how mummers plays came to be:

1. THE OLD OLD STORY (romantic but not really academically justified)

The Mummers Play has very deep roots in English tradition. Shakespeare was probably well acquainted with the form, reflected in "Pyramus & Thisbe", the Mechanicals play within "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and in Hamlet's instructions to his strolling players. The mummers have been trying to control "Him Who Plays The Clown" ever since! Mumming plays can be traced back at least to the middle ages and were a traditional part of Christmas at the court of Edward III, as shown in a 14th Century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Mummers could also be called Maskers or Guisers - the words are related to "Mime", "Mask" and "Disguise". The plays were performed by villagers as part of local holidays. Times of the year varied according to local tradition, and they were in some ways the secular equivalent of the Mystery Play. In places, they could be linked with maypole dancing and the morris. Features varied widely from place to place, as you might expect with a folk tradition.

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Few were ever written down and only fragments survived in many areas by the time the collectors of tradition came to document them. The "scripts" would have been handed down orally from generation to generation, with the obvious possibilities for evolution and change. How far back they went is a matter of conjecture, but the recurrent theme of death and resurrection is thought by some to hark back to pre-Christian ritual. There is a similar tradition in the legends of "Jack in the Green" and "John Barleycorn" and the idea of sacrifice to guarantee the birth and fertility of spring. Mummers costumes of tatters have some similarity to the Jack's clothing of leafy branches, and although in some places they were made of torn up newspaper and in others of colourful cloth scraps it is possible to see a common origin. Our company historian says there is a tradition of removing a strip of material from the undergarments of any young lady seduced - and sewing this onto the shirt, but we think he's bragging ......

Overlaying the ancient themes are historical references to all manner of wars and events. The mummers' idea of exactly what a Turkish Knight might be was generally a bit quaint, but may very well be a Folk Memory dating back to the crusades. More modern references are to the Spanish and the French. Lord Nelson and Lord Collingwood, (positively modern heroes in this sort of time-scale) feature in the Pace-Egging song.

see for Chambers account of the Mummers

2. THE NEWER EXPLANATION (fits the facts but is more complex and less magical)

Although other traditions - such as morris dance - are documented well into the past, mummer's plays as such seem to have sprung to life, in reported literature at least, around the middle of the 18th Century. There were earlier folk plays and there were mummers who did not perform plays, and who are referred to in older texts. There were also periods where plays of any sort were banned - Cromwell was notably strict and players during the Restoration had to have Royal licence, hence the "Theatres Royal" one still finds up and down the country. There are striking similarities between Mummers and Comedia del Arte (various BBT Members have done both, so we ought to know!).
All of this means that it's quite possible that Mummers plays "discovered" by collectors in the early 20th Century were a fashion started only about 150 years earlier as a pleasant enhancement to existing high days and holidays. Common threads in the various plays are there possibly because they come from chap-book scripts and   articles in almanacs.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of parallels with modern Pantomime as well - especially the village hall sort, performed everywhere around Christmas. Panto grew from roots in comedia. It's a good example of local people enhancing a festival with their own home-grown fun, complete with the chance to satirise local worthies and be a bit saucy into the bargain.

That mummers plays attached themselves to established holidays & ritual doesn't surprise me either - after all panto has fixed itself to Christmas - so have Christmas Cards, Christmas trees & Father Christmas, all of them migrants into a long established festival with roots back into prehistory.

See Peter Millington's very good article Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers' Plays American Morris Newsletter, Nov./Dec.1989, Vol.13, No.3, pp.9-16
and The BBC 
H2G2 site

Whatever the truth, Mummer's plays were undoubtedly a bit of fun and an excuse to beg coins from the neighbours (and drink beer). They would possibly have had a practical social function in some places as a safety valve for youthful high spirits, or hormonal steam pressure, if you prefer. In other villages the children performed them for pennies, often around the New Year. Or they were local ceremonies to grace a particular Bank Holiday. With the tradition, there would always have been a certain degree of licence. Wearing tatters showed the performers were poor and thus allowed to beg. Blacked faces, masks and strange costumes meant the actors were in disguise, so of course they "couldn't be recognised" afterwards - useful when mocking the Lord of the Manor or attempting to carry off the occasional maiden.

The mumming performed by the Beerfordbury side is an amalgam of various scripts from around England. It's as near as we can come to the traditional plays without being too short, too long, or too incoherent. It is presented very much in the style of modern vernacular theatre, as performed in village halls all over England at pantomime time. Please feel free to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, shout encouragement to any actor you think is flagging and to heckle generally. Mummers plays may have been many things, but they were never about being polite ........

Geoff Leeds

With acknowledgements to various of the BBTWTA for technical input.

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