Mummers' Plays (also known as mumming) are seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers or guisers (or by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, galoshins, guysers, and so on), originally from the British isles (see wrenboys), but later in other parts of the world. They are sometimes performed in the street but more usually as house-to-house visits and in public houses.
Although the term "mummers" has been used since medieval times, no play scripts or performance details survive from that era, and the term may have been used loosely to describe performers of several different kinds. Mumming may have precedents in German and French carnival customs, with rare but close parallels also in late medieval England (see below).
The earliest evidence of mummers' plays as they are known today (usually involving a magical cure by a quack doctor) is from the mid to late 18th century. Mumming plays should not be confused with the earlier mystery plays.
Mummers' and guisers' plays were formerly performed throughout most of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as in other English-speaking parts of the world including Newfoundland, Kentucky and Saint Kitts and Nevis. In England, there are a few surviving traditional teams, but there have been many revivals of mumming, often associated nowadays with morris and sword dance groups.
Mummers and "guisers" (performers in disguise) can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages, though when the term "mummer" appears in medieval manuscripts it is rarely clear what sort of performance was involved. A key element was visiting people in disguise at Christmas. At one time, in the royal courts, special allegorical plays were written for the mummers each year - for instance at the court of Edward III, as shown in a 14th Century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. However, apart from being in rhyme, these plays were nothing like the current traditional plays, whose documented history only goes back as far as the mid-18th century.
Although usually broadly comic performances, the plays seem to be based on underlying themes of duality and resurrection and generally involve a battle between two or more characters, perhaps representing good against evil. Usually they feature a doctor who has a magic potion which is able to resuscitate a slain character. Early scholars of folk drama, influenced by James Frazer's The Golden Bough, tended to view these plays as debased versions of a pre-Christian fertility ritual, but this view is discredited by modern researchers.
In mummers’ plays, the central incident is the killing and restoring to life of one of the characters. The characters may be introduced in a series of short speeches (usually in rhyming couplets) in which each personage has his own introductory announcement, or they may introduce themselves in the course of the play's action. The principal characters, presented in a wide variety of manner and style, are a Hero, his chief opponent, the Fool, and a quack Doctor; the defining feature of mumming plays is the Doctor, and the main purpose of the fight is to provide him with a patient to cure. The hero sometimes kills and sometimes is killed by his opponent; in either case, the doctor comes to restore the dead man to life.
The name of the hero is most commonly Saint George, King George, or Prince George. His principal opponents are the Turkish Knight (in southern England and Turkish Champion in Ireland), or a valiant soldier named Slasher (elsewhere). Other characters include: Old Father Christmas (who introduces some plays), Beelzebub, Little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience), Robin Hood (an alternative hero in the Cotswolds), Galoshin (a hero in Scotland), etc. Despite the frequent presence of Saint George, the Dragon rarely appears in these plays, though it is often mentioned; a dragon seems to have appeared in the Revesby Ploughboys' Play in 1779, along with a "wild worm" (possibly mechanical), but it had no words to say. In the few instances where the dragon appears and speaks, its words can be traced back to a Cornish script published by William Sandys in 1833.
Occasionally, the performers will wear face-obscuring hats or other kinds of headgear, which create the impression of being masked. Some mummers' faces are blackened or painted red by way of disguise. Many mummers and guisers, however, have no facial disguise at all.
Mumming, at any rate in the South of England, had its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century and the earliest years of the 20th century. Most traditional mummers groups (known as "sides") stopped with the onset of the first world war. To most groups. mumming was a way of raising extra money for Christmas and the play was taken round the big houses. Most Southern English versions end with the entrance of "Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back". Johnny. traditionally played by the youngest mummer in the group, first asks for food and then more urgently for money. Johnny Jack's wife and family were either dolls in a model house or sometimes a picture.
Those involved with mumming groups were often unwilling to admit to it as they did not like to confess to begging. But it seems that it could be quite lucrative, it is said that three nights of mumming often raised as much as a whole month's wages for the agricultural laborers who mostly made up the groups.
Some groups continued after the first world war and even beyond the second, but most did not. The groups were normally based on a village and each village had a slightly different version of the play. In the second half of the twentieth century many groups were revived, mostly by folk music and dance enthusiasts. The revived plays are frequently taken around inns and public houses around Christmas time and the begging done for some charity rather than for the mummers themselves
The fullest early version of a mummers' play text is probably the 1779 "Morrice Dancers'" play from Revesby, Lincolnshire. The full text ("A petygree of the Plouboys or modes dancers songs") is available online. Although performed at Christmas, this text is a forerunner of the local East Midlands variants usually performed on or around Plough Monday (see below) and often known as Plough Plays.
A text from Islip, Oxfordshire, dates back to 1780.
A play text which had, until recently, been attributed to Mylor in Cornwall (much quoted in early studies of folk plays, such as The Mummers Play by RJE Tiddy – published posthumously in 1923 – and The English Folk-Play (1933) by EK Chambers) has now been shown, by genealogical and other research, to have originated in Truro, Cornwall, around 1780.
Chapbook versions of The Christmas Rhime or The Mummer's Own Book were published in Belfast, c.1803-1818. A mummers' play from Ballybrennan, County Wexford, Ireland, dating from around 1817-18, was published in 1863.
Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native (1878) has a fictional depiction of a mummers' play on Edgon Heath. It was based on experience from his childhood.
Although the main season for mumming throughout Britain was around Christmas, some parts of England had plays performed around All Souls' Day (known as Souling or soul-caking) or Easter (Pace-egging or Peace-egging). In north-eastern England the plays are traditionally associated with Sword dances or Rapper dances.
In some parts of Britain and Ireland, the plays are traditionally performed on or near Plough Monday and are therefore known as Plough Plays. The performers were known by various names, according to area, such as Plough-jags, Plough-jacks, Plough-bullocks, Plough-stots or Plough witches. The Plough Plays of the East Midlands of England (principally Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire) usually have a different plot from the Christmastime "St George" type of play and feature several different stock characters (including a Recruiting Sergeant, Tom Fool, Dame Jane and the "Lady bright and gay"). Tradition has it that plough boys would take their plays from house to house and perform in exchange for money or gifts, in a similar way to the American custom of Trick-or-treat; some teams pulled a plough and threatened to plough up people's front gardens or path if they did not pay up. Examples of the play have been found in Denmark since the late 1940s.
According to German and Austrian sources dating from the 16th century, during carnival persons wearing masks used to make house-to-house visits offering a mum(en)schanz, a game of dice. This custom was practiced not only by commoners, but also by the nobility: on Shrove Tuesday of 1557, Albert V, Duke of Bavaria went to visit the archbishop of Salzburg and played a game of dice with him. A similar incident, involving an Englishman, is attested for the French court by the German count and chronicler Froben Christoph von Zimmern: during carnival 1540, while the French king Francis I was residing at Angers, an Englishman (ain Engellender) wearing a mask and accompanied by other masked persons paid a visit to the king and offered him a momschanz (a game of dice), bringing with him a sum of money which was so high that the king was ashamed not to have a similar sum at hand and had to wait two hours until the money could be lent from local merchants.
While the game mum(en)schanz was played not only by masked persons, and not only during carnival, the German word mummenschanz nevertheless took on the meaning "costume, masquerade" and, by the 18th century, had lost its association with gambling and dice.
The custom attested for early modern Germany and France seems to have parallels also in late medieval England. According to History and the Morris Dance (2005) by John Cutting (page 81), there was a curious event in 1377, where 130 men on horseback went "mumming" to the Prince of Wales (later Richard II). They threw some dice, which appear to have been loaded dice, and so lost several gold rings. The rings were effectively presents for the prince. In 1418 a law was passed forbidding "mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment". In the first case the event was on February 2, nine days before Ash Wednesday, and may well have been a carnival practice. In the second case, the law was applied to "the Feast of Christmas" (Cutting page 83), not related to the ordinary period of carnival preceding the Christian fasting of Lent, yet maybe related to Christmas fasting, which went ordinarily from November 11 to January 6.
It should be pointed out that there is no clear evidence linking these late medieval and early modern customs with English mummers' plays in the late 18th century, nor evidence for proving that the English words mummer and mumming are more likely to be derived from continental roots than vice versa.
Mumming was used as a means of entertaining at feasts and functions, particular mention is made of one feast where 150 torch bearers lead the same number of mummers in, who would do acrobatics in a variety of costumes, including animal costumes.
At certain feast days (eg saint's days), a lot of the populace would put on masks, and in practices that vary with geography, celebrate the day. One practice in example was for a group to visit a local manor, and 'sing out' the lord. If the lord couldn't match verse for verse the singing group (alternating verses), then that lord would have to provide amenities.
The formation of roving mumming groups became a popular practice so common it became associated with criminal or lewd behaviour, as the use of masks allowed anonymity; and in the time of Henry the VIIIth, became banned for a period.
On documents such as receipts and bills from the late medieval, come details of mumming parties organised by English Monarchs, with Henry VIII being famous for taking his court mumming, as a kind of incognito.
Later, Henry would ban social mumming, and bring the 'masque' form of entertainment to England.
Although they can be dated back to John Langstaff's 1957 New York City Concert, "The Revels" did not become popular across the USA until the 1970s. They are a loose association of people trying to keep folk traditions alive. They perform Christmas Carols, sword dances and Mummers' Plays. Links: History, and Revels
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada, has a two-hundred-year long tradition of mummering or janneying between Christmas and January 6 (Twelfth Day). In complete disguise the mummers go from house to house to entertain and socialize. Often men dress as outsized women, but no one is supposed to be recognizable. People often give alcoholic beverages to the mummers.
Philadelphia has its own tradition of mummers marching on New Year's Day. The Mummers are a fixture of ethnic communities in South Philadelphia, and organized in a number of social clubs principally located on 2nd Street. There is a Mummers Museum dedicated to the history of Philadelphia Mummers at the corner of Washington Avenue and 2 Street.
About 15,000 mummers perform in the New Year's Day parade each year. The 7-mile-long parade up Broad Street to City Hall starts early in the morning and lasts until it is done. Thousands of Philadelphians line the route and visit open house parties. The clubs participating in the televised parade are judged, and several hundred thousand dollars are awarded in prize money.
The Mummers are organized into four distinct types of troups: Comics, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades. All Mummers dress in elaborate costumes. Comics often appear in a type of drag known as a "wench". Many Comic skits are based on current events and can be sophisticated, satirical or exuberantly sloppy. Fancies are composed of a variety of spectacular costumes, often huge and covered in ostrich feathers. Mummer rules dictate that the wearers be able to move their costumes unaided the length of the parade.
The String Bands are large marching bands composed of saxophones, banjos, violins, string basses, drums, glockenspiels, and accordions with dancers and backdrops. The Fancy Brigades only march in the parade. Since the 1990s they perform a complicated dance routine with elaborate backdrops to prerecorded music at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Both the String Bands and Fancy Brigades have evolved into highly choreographed, professionally costumed spectacles. Both the String Bands and Fancy Brigades choose a theme to base their elaborate routines on. Popular past routines have evoked ancient Egypt, OZ, undersea life, Greek gods, Imperial Russia, The Moulin Rouge, and mythical wizards. Dedicated crews dressed in black roll the backdrops and large props.
A contemporary Sacred use of the mummery theatre concept has arisen within a small New Religious Movement named Adidam The founder and Spiritual Teacher of Adidam, named Adi Da wrote what is now called The Mummery Book,(which he first began writing in 1957) expanded over many years into what he calls a “Liturgical Theatre”. It is performed at the Adidam Ashram (or Retreat Sanctuary) named “The Mountain of Attention”, located in Clear Lakes Highland in Northern California, at least once annually and often several times a year. It uses artistically talented formal members of Adidam with some professional help. The central theme, meaning and script content of The Mummery Book and its theatrical impact appear to be related (most closely) to this definition of mummery "a ridiculous, hypocritical, or pretentious ceremony or performance.
There are several traditional songs associated with mumming plays; the "calling-on" songs of sword dance teams are related:
Other related customs