30 December 2009

The Seasons: The Mummers' Plays

By Sandra Schwab

In comes I, Old Father Christmas,
Am I welcome or am I not?
Sometimes I'm cold, sometimes I'm hot,
I hope that Old Father Christmas will never be forgot.

Room, ladies and gentlemen, room I pray,
While I lead St. George and all his noble men this way.
Walk in St. George and act thy part,
And shew the ladies and gentlemen thy valiant art.
Walk in, St. George.
This is the opening of the "Sussex Tipteerers' Play," a mummers' play which was recorded by Frederick E. Sawyer in 1884. Mummers' plays are seasonal folk plays which were performed by local men or young boys on specific times of the year, typically around Christmas and New Year, but in some places also on All Souls' Day or at Easter. They emerged in the early eighteenth century as a working class custom. In rural areas there was usually only one group of mummers and one play per village, while in urban areas there were often several different groups.

Traditionally, the members of a team of mummers wore costumes which made them appear all the same. The men sometimes heightened this effect by blackening their faces. Over time, the uniformity of the costumes diminished, with characters like Father Christmas or the Doctor being the first to appear in distinct costumes. Some of the Souling plays also feature a Wild Horse character (sometimes called Dick) with a rather elaborate costume consisting of a painted horse skull with snapping jaws on a pole.

Mumming was a visiting custom: the teams went from house to house and from pub to pub in their areas to perform their plays. In the early days of mumming, they (or only a presenter like Old Father Christmas) would simply burst into the house and start with the play. This explains why Old Father Christmas in the quotation above asks for room (to perform). There is strong evidence to suggest that by the nineteenth century, the mummers only visited houses where they were sure of their welcome (and reward!).

World War I marks a decisive cut in the history of mumming. Many of the performers didn't return from the war, and those who did often didn't have the heart to continue with the custom without their dead team members. Consequently, after 1918 the numbers of teams rapidly declined until in 2002 there were only six teams left whose history extended beyond the 1940s. Most of the groups active today were formed in the wake of the folk revival movement in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Here's a modern day example of a Souling play (don't you just love the Wild Horse character?):

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