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Mummers Plays

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 England, 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. 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" (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, such as the court of Edward III, 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 discounted by modern researchers.

In mummersí 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 in the English tradition is most commonly Saint George, King George, or Prince George. His principal opponents are the Turkish Knight (in southern England), 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.

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. However 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 labourers who mostly made up the groups.
       
   
© PURBECK MUMMERS..