Boxing Day (so-named because servants and tradesfolk were given gift-boxes on this day by the larger houses – although now it seems synonymous with sales at places like Ikea – different kinds of boxes! Perhaps it should be renamed Flat-pack Day), AKA St Stephen’s Day is a traditional time for Mummers Play, at least round these parts. The oldest is in the Cotswold village of Marshfield, just north of Bath – now famed for its icecream and flapjacks! –
where at noon today the Old Time Paper Boys gather to perform their seasonal rite at five locations along the High Street (which is just as well, because it’s often hard to catch what they’re saying if they happen to face the wrong way, or if the wind is up – none are professional performers, so we shouldn’t expect them to project. The cast is drawn from a motley of real local characters – the butcher, the baker, a farmer, a postman, etc. They become such memorable moochers as ‘Saucy Jack with his family on his back’, Beelzebub with his club, Ten Penny Nit, Old Father Christmas, St George of course, and the Doctor (Who is now I regular feature on Xmas TV!).I once shared a flat with a guy – Marshfield born and bred – whose grandfather used to take part: the costume of paper rags was stored in their house, along with the script, such as it is (at one point, apparently, the costumes were made of leaves – which thrilled me with the thought of some primal fertility rite taking place in a forest clearing; this notion was somewhat disabused when I discovered the Mummers, the oldest in the region, probably only date from the 19th Century like alot of ‘ancient’ folklore). Still, it is wonderful to behold and gives Yuletide a refreshingly real, earthy quality after the tinsel and 2-D entertainment of Christmas – a sobering shock to the system, standing in the rain or freezing fog, watching a death and resurrection show. The script is fabulously nonsensical, tantalisingly fragmentary – like some half-understood radio transmission, cultural Chinese whispers (rather like the Mabinogion, the 13th Century collection of older oral Welsh tales written down by unwitting monks). There’s other Boxing Day Mummers locally in Southstoke and Keynsham. And on New Years Day the Widcombe Mummers perform their play – this has only been going for five years, and is open in its ‘newness’, featuring an anachronistic cast of traffic wardens, hobby horses, fools, and local figures such as ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (which my friend the late Tim Sebastion Woodman researched and first performed – indeed the last time I saw him fully conscious was in the Widcombe Social Club, New Year’s Day, 2006, when he had just watched the Mummers – too ill to perform that year, my friend Ian Davidson stepped into the role. Tim allowed the Mummers to use his Wassail Bowl – which was passed onto me after he died a month later). Every year, the Widcombe Mummers incorporate some topical issues, for instance a satirical stab at the Spa fiasco. This year they plan to bring in King Bladud’s Pigs, which stormed the city this summer.
I’ve been working on my own plays recently – dusting off the Mummers Play I wrote in 1994 (‘The Head of Winter’) which has only been performed once publicly so far, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in 1998 in a commedia dell arte style in a chilly Walcot Chapel. My Bardic Chair winning poem, Spring Fall, was inspired by the ancient Mummers mask found under Stall Street, and now on display in the Roman Baths museum. It got me wondering what kind of play would have been performed in the Temple Precinct (a theatre was also discovered). And so I set about writing a mystery play about the springs – Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath was the result.
I also dug out a play I wrote about the perils of genetic engineering – an updated version of the Taliesin legend called ‘The Child of Everything’. This I typed up and sent off to a script competition at the Bristol Old Vic. I love the idea of grafting modern themes onto ancient myths (and vice versa). Mummers have always brought in topical references – witty asides to cock-a-snook at whoever deserves public mockery, usually those with too much money and power and too little sense. Guised in their shaggy costumes, often with blacked up faces, their anonymity allowed the Mummers a degree of satirical freedom. Their identities were kept ‘mum’. The pantomime is a later derivation of the Mummers Play and indeed the Mummers – relating right back to early Greek tragedy, performed in static masks – could be seen as the prototype of theatre. The masks of tragedy and comedy are still the symbol of theatre, summing up the most ancient repetoire and the bittersweetness of life. (Incidentally, on Christmas Eve, the playwright Harold Pinter died of cancer of the liver, aged 76. One of the greats of modern theatre).
Yesterday, enjoying a quiet Christmas, I wrote the first draft of a new play, ‘Wassailing Avalon’, which dramatises the wassailing traditions of the West Country, which commonly take place on Old Twelfth Night, 17th January, weaving in local mythology… I hope one day to see all of these performed!
A friend gave me a copy of Hugh Lupton’s and Chris Wood’s ‘Christmas Champions’, which I heard when first broadcast on Radio 4 a couple of years ago and I highly recommend it – an enchanting and moving evocation of a tradition that connects people and place, combining storytelling, poetry, song and archive recordings of the original players. Put it on, pour yourself a glass of good cheer, sit back and enjoy.
Long live the Mummers!