"This is a Mummers’ play I wrote": Part 7 - Compiled Plays and Others

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Compiled Mumming Plays

Compiled Mumming plays are collations of two or more traditional play scripts. This may be done with performance in mind, or the compilation may be a purely intellectual exercise. Consequently such plays may or may not actually be performed. The aim usually appears to be to produce an "improved" script. This might simply involve cherry-picking the best bits from the source texts, or the purpose may be to lengthen the script, for instance to accommodate additional cast members. Alternatively, the motivation may be to reconstruct a "more complete" version. This implies that the compiler regards the source texts as incomplete or fragmentary.

In general, the individual source lines and speeches tend to be kept in their original form, but there may be deliberate omission of what the compiler regards as objectionable material or "modern corruptions". Some newly composed lines are usually added, typically to bridge the inevitable discontinuities that arise from attempting to merge different texts. Some compilers may also introduce new lines to reflect their interests and views.


  • Henry Slight’s Christmas: his Pageant Play (H.Slight, 1836)

    Slight states that this text was "compiled and collated with several curious Ancient black-letter editions." In my PhD thesis, I show that in fact this play was compiled from three texts published in the early 19th century (P.Millington, 2002, pp.217-218, fig.27). These are two scripts published in Hone's Every-day Book (1827) - a shortened reprint of the Alexander and the King of Egypt chapbook text, and the play from Falkirk contributed by J.W.Reddock. Curiously, a third text in Hone's book - a Cornish play contributed by "W.S." (William Sandys) - was not used. Instead, Slight's other source was the Cornish text published by Sandys in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833).

    In compiling his text, Slight generally did not tamper with the original source lines, although he did tidy up their language. This is most noticeable with the speeches taken from the Falkirk text, where Slight has converted Scottish dialect into Standard English.

  • Juliana Horatia Ewing’s The Peace Egg (J.H.Ewing, 1884)

    This play was compiled in 1884 from five texts, which Ewing lists in her introduction. I discuss the compilation of this text in some depth in my paper on the St.Kitts' Mummies plays (P.Millington, 1996). (I can add that I have since discovered that the unaccounted for traditional lines in her play, and her declared "Mock Play" that seems to duplicate her Alexander chapbook source, both derive from another book by William Sandys published in 1852.)

    One of Ewing's declared aims was to make the play suitable for performance in children's nurseries. This is why the cast was increased to 17 characters, including bit parts for the younger and less-able children. It also explains why she Bowdlerised the text, for instance by omitting the character Beelzebub.

  • Annotated Griffin Road Mumming Play (R.Holmes, 2002) This play was compiled in 2002 by Rich Holmes - sole dancer of Griffin's Corners Morris of New York state, USA. It was performed at a New Year's Eve party on the 31st December 2002.

    Holmes used numerous sources, all of which he itemises in copious endnotes. He included one or two non-traditional sources, such as lines from Goon Show radio programme, so as Holmes says, "modern corruptions were ... inserted rather than omitted".

    Having seen a draft of this paper, Holmes contends that his compilation is also a Performer's Rewrite, since one reason he compiled it was to extend the repertoire of Griffin's Corners Morris. This illustrates that the categories outlined here are not necessary mutually exclusive. However, I believe it is primarily a compiled play. His approach was "to include as many elements and jokes that [he] liked as possible" while also trying to develop his own style of play. He concedes that this could be considered "improving" the script (R.Holmes, Personal communication, 2003).

Other Modern Compositions

There remain a few plays that do not fit into any of the foregoing categories, being more exercises in experimental writing or vanity than plays intended for performance. Indeed, they may not be performable. For instance, at least one play lapses into narrative rather than scripted dialogue, so improvisational acting might be required.

With vanity mumming plays, the approach seems to be "I can do [better than] that!", although often this self-assessment is arguable.

With experimental writing exercises, the playwrights seem to be exploring what they can do with the mumming play genre. Can they make it non-violent, politically correct, etc.? Can it be made funnier, shorter, etc.? The results can be interesting.

Example of Experimental Writing

In Honor of the Season
The Shortest Known Mummers’ Play
["RuTemple" (2003)]
(you must imagine the finger-puppets)
[Fool]: I'm the Fool! RuTemple
Fig.7 "RuTemple"
Ruth Temple
[Hero]: I'm the Hero!
[Villian]: I'm the Villian! [sic]
[Hero]: Scum!
(they battle, Villian falls)
[Fool]: He's dead! Call a Doctor!
[Doc]: I'm a Doctor!
[Fool]: Can you cure him?
[Doc]: Sure thing
(raises Villian)
[Villian]: I'm alive!
(all bow)

Quoted in its entirety, this play by "RuTemple" (Ruth Temple) is interesting because her implicit aim is to reduce the mumming play to its barest essentials. It therefore reflects her view of the vital ingredients of a mumming play - what is and is not important. Firstly, she focuses on cast and basic plot. The characters are designated by roles rather than names, which probably implies that, in her view, specific names are unimportant. The skeletal plot succeeds in following the traditional hero-combat form - dispute, fight, death, call for a doctor, revival and ending - although there is no introduction.

The script, on the other hand, differs in format from traditional plays. There is no verse, although this is probably because of the brevity of the lines. It is difficult to compose verse when there is only one line per speech. There are self-introductions, but neither "In comes I" nor "Here comes I" formulae are used.

© Copyright 2003, Peter Millington (petemillington@virginmedia.com), Last updated: 07-Apr-2016