Every year, in the week before Christmas, staff members of the American Folklife Center put our research and performance skills into play, bringing collections to life in a dramatic performance that tours the halls of the Library of Congress. Dressed in costumes that range from striking to silly, we sing, act, rhyme, and dance for other Library staff members and for members of the public. Our performances are based on the ancient tradition of mumming, which has come down to our archive in the form of play scripts, songs, photos, and other items collected in the early twentieth century.
In traditional European cultures, “mumming” involves disguising oneself, going door to door, and performing songs, dances and plays in neighbors’ homes and in public places. It’s a very old and widespread custom, going back at least to the Middle Ages. As a general practice, mumming can be found throughout Europe and the European diaspora, from Bulgaria to Ireland and from Australia to Newfoundland. It has also given rise to such offshoots as the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, which combines traditional elements with modern music and showmanship.
The type of play we perform, which is often called a “mummers play,” is somewhat less ancient and less universal than the general practice of mumming. In fact, it may not go back any further than the eighteenth century, since earlier English-language references to “mumming” either are vague about the exact type of performance, or are clearly a different kind of play. But it still has interesting resonance with ancient themes as well as obvious connections to older mumming traditions. Characters in traditional mumming range from Napoleon to Cromwell, and from “The Duke of Blunderland” to a bloodthirsty soldier called “Cutterman Slasherman.” (Nowadays, you can also find Mummers Plays about Captain Kirk, Dracula and other heroes of postmodern pop culture.)
Mummers plays have a basic recurring plot that is used as a launching-pad for the actors’ rhyming, singing, and dancing. The plot involves a fight between two champions, who can be any of the ones named above, but who can also be St. George and the Dragon, or St. Patrick and the Turkish Knight, or any other combination of historical or fantasy characters. In the fight, one of the combatants is killed. A doctor then arrives. After being accused by the others of being a quack, the doctor proceeds to revive the dead hero, which results in celebratory songs and dances.
Mumming in the English-speaking world mostly occurs around the Winter Solstice, which makes the death-and-resurrection theme resonate with the world outside the play, which is undergoing its own death and rebirth. It also places the play at a time of year when the nights are long and boring; in the days before electricity this meant that people particularly appreciated entertainment. Finally, it occurs when the harvest is over and the growing season is a long time off, so many members of the community are facing lean times. The play is often performed in exchange for food, drink or money, so it allows people to informally redistribute wealth toward those who need it, a traditional form of charity that spreads holiday cheer throughout the community. Although we perform our play for free, some of the performances occur at Library of Congress office holiday parties where the various divisions offer us food and drink, keeping us in touch with these ancient roots of the mumming tradition.
In their death-and-resurrection theme, and their timing near the solstice, mummers plays clearly resonate not only with Christian beliefs, but also with earlier pagan beliefs, leading some to theorize that they are vestiges of a pre-Christian pagan ceremony. However, given the almost thousand-year gap between the Christianization of England and the appearance of the plays in the written record, it seems more likely that the plays reflect vestiges of pre-Christian thought within Christian communities and Christianity itself. This would make them pagan in flavor but Christian in origin, a solution that’s supported by the prevalence of Christian Saints as characters in the plays. Plays of this type are widespread throughout the English-speaking world, including Britain, Ireland, Newfoundland, Kentucky, and the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
The American Folklife Center is lucky to have a collection particularly rich in mummers play texts, the James Madison Carpenter Collection. During his fieldwork in Britain in the 1930s, Carpenter collected over five hundred texts of folk plays. He also collected photos of some of the prominent mummers’ groups, and drawings by George Baker, a dry-stone mason who lived near Stow-on-the-Wold in the English Cotswolds, and whose father had acted in the local mummers plays.
In 2009, it occurred to Folklife Specialist Jennifer Cutting to adapt a new version of the mummers play from the Carpenter materials. She enlisted my aid, and the two of us produced the first script in that year. The following year, we changed it, adding new characters as well as topical references, which are a traditional aspect of mummers play performances. Now we change the play each year to reflect what’s on our minds; our 2013 play was influenced primarily by our dual roles as library professionals and federal employees, with the growing challenges of managing digital data forming the basis for the conflict and the recent government shutdown and furlough of employees providing much of the humor.
Since our play depicts the need for data to be described and controlled by metadata, an important aspect of our work life in the largest library in the world, we didn’t want to end with data and metadata in continued conflict. To reconcile them, we used another traditional dramatic genre usually not connected to British mummers’ plays: the mock wedding. Mock weddings are performances that make fun of traditional weddings by subverting elements of the ceremony, especially the wedding vows, and using them to highlight common or stereotypical conflicts between the sexes. In typical examples, the “woman” (often played by a man) vows to take charge and make the man miserable, and the “man” (often played by a woman) vows to give up all fun and submit to his wife. Some of the mock wedding lines we used in St. George and the Data Dragon were collected in North Dakota by Michael Taft, retired head of the AFC’s archive. By adding a mock wedding to the end of our play, we reconciled data and metadata, suggesting a harmonious relationship in the future. More importantly, we kept it lighthearted and amusing–or, at least, we hope we did! Because our St. George was played by AFC intern Hannah Santino and the Dragon was played by VHP staff member Christy Chason Lavelle, we even preserved the gender-bending nature of many mock wedding texts!
Many elements of our play, including the songs, dances and costumes, as well as the text itself, combined old elements with new ones to bring the mummers play into the modern world. In addition to a traditionally-attired Father Christmas and St. George, the play featured a “Digital Assets Manager” whose digital nature was represented by a breastplate of CDRs. The songs were updated from old texts to remove references that would merely confuse modern audiences. Nevertheless, we attempted to keep the spirit and the flavor of traditional mummers plays intact.
By performing our mummers play, the AFC mummers (including some friends from other divisions of the Library) hope to show that folklife is more than old-fashioned recordings and manuscripts contained in the archive. It’s also a set of living cultural practices that have proved useful to people in addressing recurring social situations for hundreds of years. One of those situations came up for us: how do we entertain our friends at holiday time? Drawing on a long heritage of folk performances and celebrations, but making sure we addressed people’s current lives and concerns, we put together our play.
The next post on Folklife Today will include the text of the 2013 AFC mummers play.
Does anyone know if there is a cultural link between the Mummer’s plays and the traditional Cajun Mardi gras? Both have the characteristics of the timing during lean times (relationship to death and resurrection), groups traveling the community begging, and the charity of giving.
Thanks for your question, Sheridan. There almost certainly is a connection, going back to the Middle Ages. As I mentioned in the post, the word “mummer” goes back in English longer than the play texts themselves, and some of the earlier uses of the word “mummer” refer to customs similar to French and German Carnival traditions. In particular, John Stow mentions in his 1598 Survey of London the night of February 1, 1377, on which “one hundred and thirty citizens, disguised and well horsed in a mummery” rode into Kennington palace, where the new Prince of Wales (later Richard II) was living with his mother and his uncle, John of Gaunt. According to Stow:
The association of mummers with dice was also a feature of continental Carnival celebrations, in which mummers traveled from house to house and played dice with the inhabitants, a custom known as mummenschanz. In 1377, February 1 was only about a week before Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras. This suggests that the event involving mummers and dice represents an English version of mummenschanz, which would be a direct connection between English “mummers” and European Mardi Gras.
Even if the specific connection above seems tenuous, there is also a tradition of another English mummer’s play, usually referred to as the “Pace-egging play,” which occurs at Easter. This shows that the English custom of mumming is not confined to Christmas, and can become attached to any festive season. Mardi Gras house-visitors in Cajun country, and even Halloween “trick-or-treat,” share common roots with these Christmas and Easter mumming traditions, and would have been recognized in the middle ages as “mummery.”
The “Gower Wassail” remains my favorite of them all. Great range, minor melody, and harmony possibilities.
Long live the AFC Blog!
Yes, Joe, we love the Gower Wassail too. It also has some lovely poetry:
We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
And we know by the sky that we are not too high.
We know by the stars that we are not too far,
And we know by the ground that we are within sound….
We’ll think about doing it next year!
Steve, Thanks for you response. I also notice that the costumes in the Bampton, England pic of mummers are similar to Cajun Mardi Gras e.g., tatters & the large conical hat (mimicking medieval ladies). The cajuns also wear the crown and the mortar board hat, as do the mummers.
The play in Cajun Mardi gras is the riding of the mardi gras (revellers) around the countryside to beg for food. They are accompanied by musicians playing the Mardi Gras song. The mardi gras are very mischevious (dancing with farmer’s wives, stealing etc) and are “herded” by “Capitaine”. There is also the custom of throwing up a chicken for the coming of age boys to chase and retrieve. The relevellers return to the town with all the collected food for the gumbo pot. Music, dancing, and eating ensue. I understand that this tradition has it’s roots in medieval France.
Reading this made me wonder if the rolling of dice could be related to the rolling of the dreidel at Hanukka.Wildly different holidays but folklore can sometimes move in strange ways.
Thanks for your comment, Susan. Yes, these traditions are definitely related. The dreidel doesn’t appear to be a very old Hebrew tradition, but rather one that Jews adopted from their European neighbors. The spinning of a top with letters on the sides directing you to put one in the pot, take half the pot, take all the pot, or do nothing, existed in England and Germany before we find reference to it it among Jews. In English the top and the game were called teetotum, which ultimately comes from the Latin for the instructions. The earliest teetotums would have been made by simply drilling a hole through the center of a die and putting a stick through it–in other words, the ancestor a dreidel is a die.