"This is a Mummers’ play I wrote": Part 11 - Conclusions

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In using the word "play" it is natural to think of mumming plays in terms of drama or theatre. However, our analysis of the Wexford plays, suggests that perhaps we should reconsider them more as a progression of characters. The conclusions of many traditional plays are exactly that - a sequence of independent characters whose speeches normally have nothing to do with the foregoing action, nor with each other. The linear structure of the graphs plotted for the Eastwood plays also lend support to this approach, as do similar graphs that I have plotted for many other plays both traditional and modern. Viewed in this light, the plays appear very similar to non-play mumming and guising customs, the difference mainly being in the degree of verbal performance. Indeed, this "paradigm shift" allows us to envisage a route by which drama came to be grafted onto the pre-existing house-visiting customs in the early to mid-18th century. This origin has been suggested by several scholars over the years and seems to be achieving some consensus (P.Millington, 2003). I posit a three-stage metamorphosis:

The original house-visiting mummers and guisers were essentially non-verbal, as we still see today in Newfoundland (H.Halpert & G.M.Story, 1969). The key element was disguise. Apart from colouring their faces or wearing masks, they would dress strangely or even cross-dress. Part of the fun was for the hosts to guess the identity of their disguised visitors. To maintain their anonymity, the mummers kept silent, or made a "mumming" sound. Or if they had to speak, they would do so while breathing in. Once they had been identified, they were offered hospitality and/or largesse, and they could relax. The visitors often then provided additional entertainment - singing, dancing, and generally making merry.

The hypothetical intermediate stage was for the mummers to dress as particular characters - trades, personages, etc - rather than in non-specific disguise. An extension of this would have been for them to be introduced to the audience. Such introductions could have been spoken by the characters themselves (as with Wexford's Patriotic Rhymes), or by a leader (after the manner of a sword dance calling-on song), or sung jointly (as occurs with some Pace-Egging plays). Ostensibly independent, some of the characters could have complemented each other - e.g. a hero and a villain - and it would have been natural for them to engage in some form of horseplay or banter. The final stage, therefore, was to link such disjointed vignettes into a cohesive drama.

This hypothesis needs validating, although there may already be evidence to hand in the supernumerary characters. For instance, Georgina Smith (now Boyes) in a paper on the relationship between chapbook plays and traditional performance (G.Smith, 1981, pp.213-214) states:

"If one recurrent element of performed plays can be proposed as deriving from pre-chapbook, 'traditional' forms, it is the occurrence of the supernumeraries..." "...it seems reasonable to suggest that the inclusion of supernumeraries in printed and performed plays reflects a tradition which, in some areas at least, predates the known chapbooks."

These would include Tosspot in the Pace-Egging plays, and in the plough plays, the Farmer's Man, Dame Jane, etc.

Once the first mumming play had been written, there appears to have been explosive evolution of the texts from the late 18th century onwards. With modern compositions, the main motivations are to increase the repertoire and/or to "improve" the scripts. It seems reasonable that the same motives and rewriting processes also applied in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus some features, such as verse text and the quack doctor, were retained for authenticity and continuity. An interesting case in point is the Dragon. The earliest traditional texts do not have a Dragon. Instead King/Prince/Saint George's opponent was either Slasher or the Turkish Knight. Presumably it was felt that it would be an improvement if Saint George were to fight the Dragon, so one was duly added (possibly by W.Sandys in 1833). Despite this change, most traditional plays still lack a Dragon, so, as we have seen, today's playwrights continue to add dragons to their "new improved" scripts. Clearly, modern compositions do give us a valuable insight into the processes that have taken place in the tradition.

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