Mummers Play

 

Mummers’ Plays, also known as mumming, are seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers or guisers (performers in disguise) originally from England but later in other parts of the world. They are sometimes performed in the street but more usually as house-to-house visits and in public houses.

Although the term “mummers” has been used since medieval times, no play scripts or performance details survive from that era, and the term may have been used loosely to describe performers of several different kinds. Mumming may have precedents in German and French carnival customs, with rare but close parallels also in late medieval England

The earliest evidence of mummers’ plays as they are known today, usually involving a magical cure by a quack doctor, is from the mid to late 18th century.

Mummers and “guisers” can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages, though when the term “mummer” appears in medieval manuscripts it is rarely clear what sort of performance was involved. A key element was visiting people in disguise at Christmas.

Although usually broadly comic performances, the plays seem to be based on underlying themes of duality and resurrection and generally involve a battle between two or more characters, perhaps representing good against evil. Usually they feature a doctor who has a magic potion which is able to resuscitate a slain character.

In mummers’ plays, the central incident is the killing and restoring to life of one of the characters. The characters may be introduced in a series of short speeches (usually in rhyming couplets) in which each personage has his own introductory announcement, or they may introduce themselves in the course of the play’s action. The principal characters, presented in a wide variety of manner and style, are a Hero, his chief opponent, the Fool, and a quack Doctor; the defining feature of mumming plays is the Doctor, and the main purpose of the fight is to provide him with a patient to cure. The hero sometimes kills and sometimes is killed by his opponent; in either case, the doctor comes to restore the dead man to life.

The name of the hero is most commonly Saint George, King George, or Prince George. His principal opponents are the Dragon and the Turkish Knight. Other characters include: Old Father Christmas, who introduces some plays, little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience), and Robin Hood.

 

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