Mummer’s plays have been performed throughout Britain since the mediaeval period with records dating back to the 13th Century. They spread through the English-speaking world and are performed around the main festivals of the year such as Christmas and Easter.
English folk play texts are mostly performed in rhyme, and often include songs, dances and sword fighting with a small set of characters two of whom do battle and one is killed, to be revived by the most important character, a quack doctor. The heroes vary regionally and include Saint George, Robin Hood (in the Cotswolds) and in Scotland, Galoshin. The adversaries include Slasher (a soldier), Hector and the Turkish Knight. Additionally, there are a variable number of extra characters whose main purpose is to ask the audience for money, food and drink at the end of the performance. The most memorable of these characters is Beelzebub.
Below is the poem The Mummer’s Song by Selwyn Image, an important British artist, designer, writer and poet associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Ho, care away!
Fetch holly for our holiday,
And never a glimpse of ivy-spray;
On its sullen purple and green!
Laugh and be jolly
Under the mistletoe, under the holly;
Prudence and gravity, sure they’re but folly?
Bid them fly,
And never a tear or a pout be seen!
Hark the bell’s rung, the feast begun;
Forward mummers and start the fun!
Snow and storm,
What count ye by the yule-log’s glow?
Carol and quip,
As the cup it passeth from lip to lip;
Bid God’s blessing and take a sip;
Blithe and warm,
Share we all in the glad wine’s flow!
Dance and sing,
To merry notes let the rafters ring;
Each lass a queen, each lad a king —
Who’ll cry nay
This night of nights in the live-long year?
Old and young,
O it’s aye for the right and avast the wrong,
As we hark the angels’ birthday-song —
In brave array
They’re out on the midnight’s frosty air!
Down we’ve knelt our homage to pay!
Then up, up,
To sing, laugh, feast on old Christmas Day,
Te benedicentes, domine!
Now it’s your turn. Mummer’s plays revolve around the eternal battle between good and evil and are particularly apt at this time of the year when we move from the dark back towards the light after the Winter solstice. If you were to write a Mummer’s play which characters would you create and how might the storyline develop?