Normally, across Great Britain, from mid-November until Twelfth Night, you might be lucky enough to witness the performance of The English Christmas Mummer’s Play. “What is a Mummer?” you ask. Glynn Jones is going to give us “one man’s view”!
What I am about to share with you is “one man’s view” on the tradition of The English Christmas Mummer’s Play. This is my opinion, not a thoroughly researched thesis. I am not an academic or a scholar but I have been performing in Mummers’ plays for over twenty years and am currently the Captain of Sompting Tipteers. “What I do – I do plainly before your face and if you can’t believe that – it’s a very hard case”.
The following is a mixture of recorded history and plausible conjecture. I am going to give you some of the background to Mumming as I understand it and introduce you to the play that Sompting Tipteers perform.
What is a “Mummer”?
Dating from the Mediaeval period, a Mummer is one who delivers a masked or disguised performance also known as Guisers or Rhymers, Pace-Eggers, Soulers, Galoshins and in Kent and Sussex-Tipteerers. The name, perhaps, came from the Greek word “Mommo”, meaning a mask, the wearing of which became popular at royal functions in the fourteenth century, the practice of such being termed as “Momerie”. A group of Mummers or Tipteerers is now known as a “Side” or “Team” and it is usually led and (loosely) organised by its Captain.
The Plays as we now know them
The plays performed today are mostly Hero Combat Tales – depicting battles between good and evil – light and darkness – life and death; they may have differing story lines and characters but the format is broadly similar. Traditionally, an all-male cast even for female characters. An heroic or villainous figure enters and grandly announces himself – he makes a boast about his prowess – this leads to a fight – one of the protagonists falls wounded or dead – the wounded man is then resurrected promptly by Father Christmas or by a doctor figure who makes much fuss about his skills and his fee. The actors divide into the “Principle” parts and the “Fancy” or smaller parts. A study of scripts gives the impression that Fancy parts were made up and added at will to give opportunities for others to take part and share the spoils. The Hero-Combat tradition with its boasts, battles and rebirth is represented in many cultures throughout the world, for instance, Katha Kali dancers in Kerela, southern India, perform a very similar tale in their travels around the rural villages.
There are three main theories regarding the origins of our plays.
Many say that Mumming, like Morris Dancing is not Folk entertainment but a survival of pre-Christian ritual activity. For these purposes we will define “ritual” as a ceremony carried out by a Shaman and/or his/her acolytes to bring about a desired outcome.
Three witches chanting Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble around a steaming cauldron is one example, aboriginal people dancing to bring the approval of their gods in a forthcoming hunt or battle is another. Broadly we would describe pre-historic activities like these as pagan and as such unacceptable to the Christian Church.
Mediaeval Period – The Dark Ages
As the name suggests we have very poor records of life in this period. There are tantalising references to mummers from the mediaeval period but no surviving evidence of the nature of the performances other than the idea that they involved disguise and were intended to educate or entertain. It is therefore unsafe to assume that they were performing early versions of today’s hero–combat play or survivals of prehistoric rituals. It is reasonably certain that Mummers had no connection with the Mystery Plays of that period
Mid to Late Eighteenth Century
In the late 17th to Early 18th century European Commedia dell’arte spread from mainland Europe to England, it was an important milestone in the development of theatre as we know it and a source of inspiration for several genres including Pantomime and Punch and Judy. Said to be the first entirely professional form of theatre often performed in the open (Street Theatre) and funded by passing the hat. Commedia is a very physical type of theatre that uses dance, music, the slapstick, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery. The plays were based on a selection of Stock Characters, easily recognisable “Types” who the public loved to ridicule. One of these was El Dottore who represented a (supposedly) learned man but not necessarily a man of medicine. It would appear that disdain for “Experts” by the less well educated has a long history.
It is generally accepted that this was a major influence on the Mummers’ Play as we know it today. This type of theatre is likely to have been seen or heard about by common working people and the ideas and the style may have been adopted to put on their own entertainments.
Christmas was a lean time for many agricultural workers. There was little employment at that time of the year and not much to celebrate. It is suggested that the poorer members of the parish would put on an entertainment for those with something to spare. The plays would typically be performed at the grand private houses, the pubs and inns around the village, hence Father Christmas’s common opening line – “In comes I Old Father Christmas, am I welcome or am I not?” The players would be rewarded with a drink, something to eat or a few coins, all of which helped Christmas cheer. These folk would not have access to expensive theatrical make up and the easiest way for them to transform their appearance was to use soot or burnt cork. It is unfortunate that this has more recently been interpreted as “Blacking Up” or “Cultural Appropriation” and is now officially frowned upon when it certainly wasn’t the original intention.
Most rural villages in the South would have had their own play which was part of oral tradition; many of the players would have been illiterate and written scripts would be of little use. This has led to “mission creep” with ideas, lines and characters changing through time and from village to village. Adjoining villages would have very similar plays but the small differences would accumulate with distance and a play on the other side of the county would be recognisable but very different. Characters can change sides from good to evil and their lines become swapped around. The various elements of the play may stem from several sources, though these are hard to pin down.
Many of the people who the play had been handed down to had been killed in WW1, but a renewed interest in folk customs occurred and R.J. Sharp headed the revival in Sussex, forming the Boxgrove Tipteerers in 1927. Mr. Sharp first saw the play, revived by a Mr. Foard, when he was living in East Preston. Mr. Foard learned the play when he was a boy.
The play, currently, performed by Sompting Tipteers is not the Sompting Play. The Sompting play is said to have been recorded by a Mrs Pullenberry of Sompting in the late 1800s. The script survives but, for reasons unknown to us, we in fact perform the, very similar, Steyning Play. This is yet another mumming mystery.