Mummers plays are seasonal fertility plays performed to bestow blessing upon the location of the performance and its inhabitants. The cast normally comprises working class members of the local community: the butcher, the baker, the blacksmith, etc. Usually poor and, by the lean midwinter, when work is scarce on the ground, in need of some extra grub and grog. So the guizers would adopt a simple disguise, put on a mufti of costumes, or tattercoats, and parade through their village, performing the play at the bigger houses and inns where chances of some decent offerings would be more likely. The raggle-taggle cast usually consists of a St George and Saracen/Turkish Knight, a devil figure, Father Christmas, a fool or two, and crucially, a doctor. For the basic plot of the Mummers Play remains unchanged in all its variants: a ritual combat, death and resurrection. In this simple arc we have encoded (possibly) a midwinter solar myth: the apparent ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ of the sun at the time of the winter solstice (the shortest day/longest night of the year).
The performances by amateurs are by their nature rough-and-ready. Lines are often delivered in a wooden way, or occasionally with booze-induced gusto, but nobody is going to win an acting award. The script is often garbled nonsense, with terrible rhymes and jokes – and yet … it still works. There can be no better evocation of the Yule spirit, than watching a mummers play by or in a village pub whilst enjoying a pint or two. Beyond all the tinsel and the mass consumerism, it is a glimpse of something primal, powerful and mythically true, tapping into the deep mystery of midwinter. Millions flock to big budget blockbusters depicting Manichean conflicts between the forces of light and darkness for a similar fix, although few would realize the folk antecdent. Star Wars is a mummers play writ large with a charismatic cast and fancy special FX. Impressive, but essentially new money for old rope. Very old rope, if you follow the thread back far enough.
Some argue that mummers plays and other curious folk customs (eg the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance; or Padstow May Day) are remnants of ancient fertility ritual dating back thousands of year, but most are Victorian constructs – attempts at revival of a ‘lost England’ to counter the disenchantment of the Industrial Revolution, or later, the shattering trauma of the First World War. In a nutshell, nostalgia: the snake oil that JJ Abrams is selling us very successfully.
The Stroud Mummers emerged out of the ashes of the Stroud Morris Men in the early Twenty First Century and their cast fits into this archetypal pattern: St George; Bold Captain Rover; Bels Abub; Devilly Doubt; Mummy Christmas; Bonaparte and Nelson; and Jack Whinny (a kind of false doctor, which I played). With no rehearsal and scant information we embarked upon a weekend of performances, commencing on Friday night (18 Dec) in front of the Subscription Rooms – the thin audience comprising confused revellers on their way to see Doreen Doreen. Yet despite this unpromising start, that night the Mummers raised £150 for The Door Youth Project. On Sunday, that figure leapt to £325. A double performance at Stroud Brewery seemed to go down well and was rewarded with barrels of ale for all the performers. The most warmly received performance was to the patrons of the Rose and Crown, Nympsfield, which turned out to be the local to some of the group. The performances were enlivened with the odd pint of real ale. Amazingly, despite sword-fighting in confined spaces no injuries occurred. It was a laugh, and worthwhile. It felt a privilege to be part of a living folk tradition. May the Farce be with us.
PS the next performance of the Stroud Mummers is Jan 9th as part of Stroud Wassail. http://stroudwassail.com/
FFI: Stroud Mummers incl updates http://stroudmummers.blogspot.co.uk/