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In Comes I! 2017 Mumming Is Tomorrow!

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The 2016 American Folklife Center Mummers perform at the Library of Congress Holiday Party in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. The cast at program’s end: Captain Acquisition (David Brunton), Fiddler (Cathy Kerst), Guitarist (Maya Lerman), Curly Toes (Jennifer Cutting), Bishop (Stephanie Hall), Father Christmas (Stephen Winick), Linear Feet (Valda Morris), Metro Manager (Alicia Bartlett), Arrearage Squid (George Thuronyi), Doctor Dover (Thea Austen), Processing Saint George (Sarah Lerner), and Processing Pro (Hope O’Keefe).

Every year, in the week of the Library’s holiday party, staff members of the American Folklife Center put on a play based on ancient traditions, dressed up with a modern twist. 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. The American Folklife Center’s archive boasts one of the largest collections of English Mummers’ Play texts in the world, in its James Madison Carpenter collection. These short 15-minute plays were traditionally performed in England, Ireland, the Caribbean, and other places at holiday time, as the Mummers went from house to house and pub to pub, collecting food, drink, and small change as a reward for their entertainment. The plays always involved a hero and a villain, and a theme of death and resurrection. Audiences are encouraged to cheer for their favorite characters, and boo their least favorite. There will also be an opportunity to sing along on the traditional English carol, “Gloucestershire Wassail.” In addition to the traditional elements, we introduce topical themes to our plays each year. This year’s play pits “Pop-Up St. George” against “Fake News” in a battle of Alternative Facts!

(For a more thorough introduction to this tradition, please visit our introductory post on mumming.)

Usually, we post the play script and photos after the play, and we’ll do so again this year. But we thought we’d also announce here that for the general public, the best time to see the play is Wednesday, December 13, at 3:15 pm in the Great Hall of the Library’s Jefferson Building. We hope a few of you blog-readers can make it!


Comments (4)

  1. Looks very nice, but nothing like the Philadelphia Mummers.

    • You’re right, Debbie. The Philadelphia Mummers do have roots in this tradition–this kind of mumming was known in Philadelphia before the emergence of the current mummers. But there are many other traditions mixed into the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, so that it barely resembles this kind of mumming anymore.

      Incidentally, the AFC Mummers’ play has roots in Philadelphia. Several members of our staff, including me, went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s and 1990s, and we had an annual tradition of performing versions of this play there. A few years after I arrived to work at AFC, the former U Penn students joined with Jennifer Cutting, who curates the James Madison Carpenter collection (our major collection of play texts), and asked some other staff members with theatrical experience (like Thea Austen) to join in.

  2. Ah, I remember fondly participating in mummers plays in the late 1960s-1970s. My line was usually “In Comes I, Beelzebub!” Enjoy!!
    The Ghost of LC Folk Archive Past.

  3. I really hope to make it back to D.C. some year for this event! Maybe the Board meeting next December could be scheduled to coincide with the Mummers!

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