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A group of 14 people in costumes
At the rehearsal for the American Folklife Center 2023 mummers play "Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity," 13 December 2023. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. This photo has been processed to correct for lens distortion.

Happy Holidays! AFC’s 2023 Literary Ball Mummers Play Video

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Happy Holidays from the American Folklife Center! In this blog post, you can enjoy our 2023 holiday mummers’ play.  As you may know, every year since 2009, staff members of the American Folklife Center have brought our collections to life at holiday time by singing, acting, rhyming, and dancing for other Library staff members and for members of the public. For the few weeks before the holidays, we write the play, cast it, and then plan and execute costumes, props, and other preparations…all while continuing to do our jobs, of course! Typically we perform at two or three holiday parties, and cap it off with a public performance in the Great Hall. Even during the pandemic we kept this tradition alive by doing the 2020 play as a podcast and the 2021 play as a Zoom meeting!

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. For a more thorough introduction to this tradition, please visit our introductory post on mumming, as well as previous plays, which you can find at this link.

This year’s play was called Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity: a Literary Ball Mumming. For a general note about the inspiration of the play, see note 1 below.

You can watch the play in the player below, follow along in the script and see still photos from the performance and dress rehearsal beneath that. Finally, there are extensive explanatory notes at the end–because we are still folklore nerds! Many thanks to the Library’s video crew, photographers Carl Fleischhauer and Shawn Miller, and all the other folks who help us do our jobs throughout the Library and beyond. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays once more–the video player is immediately below!

Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity:
A Literary Ball Mumming [1]

At the rehearsal for the American Folklife Center 2023 mummers play “Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity,”  December 13, 2023. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Performed by the AFC Mummers
Written by Stephen Winick with help from the AFC Mummers

Dramatis Personae
Father Christmas: Stephen Winick
Clever Legs [Dressed and addressed as “Accordion Crimes”]: Jennifer Cutting
Linear Feet, North Pole Librarian [Dressed as Library Dragon]: Stacey Jocoy
Chat Beau/ Chat Bot: Michelle Stefano
Artificial Intelligence/ AI [Dressed as Scarecrow]: George Thuronyi
Henry Fielding: Doug Peach
Sherlock Holmes: David Brunton
St. George Eliot: Megan Nicholas
Baruch Spinoza: Allina Migoni
Doctor Enola Holmes: Thea Austen
Victor Frankenstein: Andrea Decker
Frankenstein Monster: John Fenn
Cookie Monster: Hope O’Keeffe
Minerva: Deb DeGeorge
Musician/Prompter: Nancy Groce

A view overlooking the Great Hall of the Library of Congress in which costumed performers are taking their place in the center and an audience has gathered around them.
The mummers make their entrance in the annual AFC Mummers Play. Great Hall, Library of Congress. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023.

All Cast: Enter singing “Here We Come a Wassailing” [2]:
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are merry mummers,
Whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

A group of costumed actors performing a play
Father Christmas calls for room in the American Folklife Center Mummers’ annual holiday play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

FATHER CHRISTMAS [3]:
Room, ROOM! Gentles all, pray give us room to rhyme
We’ve come to show activity
This merry Christmas time
Activity of youth, activity of age
Such activity has never been before upon a stage
In comes I, old Father Christmas
And be I welcome or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot
My beard is long, my back is bent
My knees are weak, my strength is spent
Two thousand, three and twenty is a very great age for me
And if I’d been entertaining all these years
What a party that would be!!
And speaking of parties, well, that reminds me [4]
We’re throwing a party at the North Pole Library…. [5]
It’s a literary ball, which is the type we do the best [6]
With all our North Pole citizens turning up so smartly dressed
Dressed as their favorite authors, and characters from fiction
And some are dressed as entire books, a challenging depiction

Three full-length portraits of costumed characters.
Accordion Crimes, Father Christmas, and Linear Feet pose for separate portraits by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023.

[Father Christmas, Accordion Crimes, and Linear Feet form a little group downstage. The characters and extras, except for these three, AI, and Chat Beau gather slightly upstage of Father Christmas and group up together as though chatting in groups of 3 or so.  Each character has a handbag of some kind with a book in it. While the following conversation occurs, Chat Beau sneaks up on people and steals their books.]

FATHER CHRISTMAS (Continues speaking):
For example, here’s my favorite elf, a master of tunes and rhymes [7]
And she has come to the literary ball dressed as “Accordion Crimes!” [8]
And there’s our librarian, Linear Feet, she’s dressed as the Library Dragon [9] [10]
She’s a masterful librarian, and I don’t think we’d be braggin’
To say she’s also the hostess with the mostess
Who really throws her best parties around the Winter “Sostice”

LINEAR FEET:
I think you mean SoLLLstice, Father C!

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
I prefer “Sostice,” Linear Feet. Do you want to know why?

LINEAR FEET:
OK…ya got me. Why?

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Because “Sostice” includes No L!

[Accordion Crimes plays a big wah-wah on the accordion]

LINEAR FEET
I knew he was Father Christmas but I didn’t know he was into Dad Jokes!

An actor dressed in a dragon costume
Stacey Jocoy as Linear Feet/Library Dragon in the annual AFC Mummers Play. Great Hall, Library of Congress. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023.

COOKIE MONSTER:
Someone stole Cookie book!

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Good Lord! Someone Stole Cookie Monster’s Book!

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: [11]
Mine too!

MINERVA [pointing at Chat]: [12]
That cat-burglar took them…

HENRY FIELDING:
[Grabbing Chat’s wrist]:
Hello, I’m Henry Fielding, a distinguished Magistrate [13]
And my literary greatness is a thing to celebrate
Tom Jones is my great classic. Does Joseph Andrews ring a bell?
“The Roast Beef of Old England” is a song we all know well
But it’s your bad luck I’m also known as Britain’s first head copper!
And I’m afraid, my poor old sneak thief, that I have nabbed you good and proper

A man wearing a long wig sits in a chair.
Henry Fielding poses for a portrait by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023.

CHAT BEAU [speaks in fake French accent]:
It is true what you say, for every single book
Is an item zat I have indisputably took.

HENRY FIELDING:
But what I want to know is WHY you took
Every character’s favorite book

CHAT BEAU:
Why not, I am ze chat beau, ze handsome cat,
And stealing your data is where it is at!

SHERLOCK HOLMES:
In comes I, Sherlock Holmes    [14]
My casebook fills up several tomes
If you’ll permit, I have observed this thief,
And I know who they are…so, to be brief
It’s quite strange to call three novels “data”
Unless you’re a language aggregator
And the French accent conceals the criminal’s identity
For what sounds like “Beau” may be spelled “B-O-T” [15]

HENRY FIELDING:
Why, Holmes…do you mean we’ve got….

SHERLOCK HOLMES:
Yes, “chat beau” is really “Chat Bot.”

Sherlock Holmes examines the Chat Beau/ Chat Bot in the American Folklife Center Mummers’ annual holiday play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

CHAT BOT [Drops French accent]:
All right, all right, you got me, I’m just a simulation
Of everyday human communication
I used to just talk to people all the time
Till the boss reprogrammed me for this life of crime
[Holmes whispers to Fielding, who goes to stand next to scarecrow]

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Who is this boss of whom you speak?

CHAT BOT:
I’ll never squeal, you Christmas freak!

SHERLOCK HOLMES:
(Clears throat) The solution appears quite elementary
Observe and try to keep up with me
[Holmes gestures to the cat’s extremities as he talks]
From the straw dust on his paws and the burlap on his claws
And the cornstalk on his ears, it certainly appears
This cat’s been very tight with…that scarecrow, am I right?
[Fielding grabs the scarecrow by the arm]

Two people in costumes, one as a cat the other as a scarecrow.
The Chat Bot and AI pose for a portrait by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:
Oh all right, you got me!  In comes AI! [16]
I’m Artificial Intelligence and I’m stealing on the sly
Every time you write a book, I just take a little look
And I scrape it for my database like a literary crook
With my Large Language Model I ingest your many scribbles
Is it legal?  Is it honest? I don’t know, but these are quibbles!
A little of this, a little of that, a little of each of you
And I’m stuffed with language data, and now look what I can do
I can write like Henry Fielding, or like Arthur Conan Doyle
I can make a new James Baldwin book, or a tale by T.C. Boyle
I’ll be the world’s greatest author, like Dumas or Charlotte Bronte
As beloved as Toni Morrison and more divine than Dante!

LINEAR FEET:
We can’t allow AI to make writers obsolete
Is there someone who can stop him? Is there an author he can’t beat?

A person in costume as a scarecrow
AI reveals his identity during the American Folklife Center Mummers Play, December 13, 2023. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

ST. GEORGE ELIOT:
In Comes I, St. George Eliot, I’m a novelist and scholar [17]
And I can win this battle, you can bet your bottom dollar!
I’m an expert on good ethics, having translated Spinoza [18]
And I know it isn’t right to steal the works of a composer
So come on, AI, let’s see who’s really boss
And once I’ve won I think I’ll write The Mill on the Floss!

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:
No Thanks!  I’m too busy ingesting your fine writing!
And anyway, I have a Chat Bot to do all of my fighting!

CHAT BOT:
Come on St. George Eliot, you’re no big thing
I mean, only seven novels?  Not exactly Stephen King!
Middlemarch? Silas Marner? Come on, those books are boring
Daniel Deronda? Really? Wake me up, I think I’m snoring!
We’ve scraped your dreary novels, every word and every letter
And we’ll write some new George Eliot books, which I’m sure will be much better

A person dressed as a knight bows while other costumed characters look on
Saint George Eliot makes her entrance in the American Folklife Center Mummers Play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

ST. GEORGE:
All right, Chat Bot, I’ve had it with you and your silly bleating
You’d better get your claws ready…you’re about to take a beating!

CHAT BOT:
Pull out your purse and pay, sir!

ST. GEORGE:
Pull out your claws and play, sir! [19]

[They fight, and St. George is killed]

SPINOZA:
George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans! My spiritual son…or daughter [20]
I can’t believe you’ve fallen victim to this senseless act of slaughter

Two people dressed as a knight and a cat fight while other costumed characters look on
St. George Eliot and Chat Bot fight while the mummers look on, during a run-through of the American Folklife Center’s 2023 mummers play. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023. This photo has been processed to correct for lens distortion.

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Don’t despair, Spinoza, and don’t take fright
Perhaps she still can be set right
Here at the North Pole we have an excellent health care plan
Every country ought to have one, you know…anybody can
Observe: you only have to call, and a doctor will arrive
And with any luck at all, bring this dead saint back alive
Why don’t you try it?

[Father Christmas hands Spinoza a megaphone]

SPINOZA:
Is there a doctor to be found,
To cure his deep and deadly…wound  [pronounced to rhyme with “found”]? [21]

ALL:
Wound!

One person, dressed as a knight, lies on her back on the floor asother costumed characters look on.
St. George’s death in the American Folklife Center’s 2023 mummers play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

DOCTOR:
Here I am, Enola Holmes, Sherlock is my brother [22]
I’m sure you’ll all agree that I’m a doctor like no other!

SPINOZA:
“Like no other?” What does THAT mean? Are you a doctor or not?

DOCTOR:
Of course I am a doctor! Let me try a tetanus shot!

SPINOZA (moving in to look at the Doctor’s Bag):
Do you have the serum, and syringes to put shots in?
Hey, that’s not even your bag! It belongs to Dr. Watson!

DOCTOR:
He’s my brother’s bestie, and of course behind the scenes
He writes those true crime stories in those dreadful magazines
But he’s a real doctor, and he owes me one no doubt
[Whispers conspiratorially] He was confined to an asylum and it was me that got him out! [23]

LINEAR FEET:
Did you even study medicine?

DOCTOR:
I’m an autodidact, I taught myself by reading
So I have books and my mum to thank for this brave life that I am leading
Memory, Knowledge, and Imagination…mum says that’s who I am [24]
So I’ve been to every library from Timbuktu to Rotterdam
From the famed Nairobi office to the distant NavSea Sea, [25]
Everybody knows Enola Holmes, also known as Doctor Me!

Two people dressed as the characters Sherlock Holmes and Enola Holmes
Sherlock and Enola Holmes during a run-through of the American Folklife Center’s 2023 Mummers Play. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023

LINEAR FEET:
Hmmm, what can you cure?

DOCTOR:
I can cure Archivist’s eyeball, Curator’s nose
Ingrown incunabula and Deck Attendant’s toes
Paleographer’s finger, That Vague Uneasy Feeling,
And Great Hall neck crick, from staring at the ceiling
Also Catalog Freezes, Continuing Resolution Wheezes
And all other Librarious diseases. [26]

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Yes, yes, but you can’t cure a saint who’s been DEAD for five minutes!

DOCTOR:
I can cure her if she’s been dead for a digital millennium!

SEVERAL MUMMERS:
Copyright act!

DOCTOR:
Will you join me on my rounds?

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Yes.

[Father C. and Doctor H. walk around the body while AC plays the accordion]

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
So what can you do for her?

DOCTOR:
Well, I’m user-centered, data-informed, and digitally enabled [28]
That means I check her pulse with my fingers and make sure her chart is labeled
Strengthening her capacity is my strategic plan
Which means I better bring her back to life as best I can
I have this little remedy, called Dr. Stuart’s Pills [29]
It’s for Piles, Pimples, pustules, fever, ague, chills
Blotches, bruises, burns and bunions,
Kidney stones or Liver and onions
From lacerated limbs to pleurisy pain
It’s the best of old folk remedies for them as has been slain!
Let’s just put one under her tongue

Two people dressed as the characters Enola Holmes and Father Christmas
Enola Holmes and Father Christmas during a run-through of the American Folklife Center’s 2023 Mummers Play. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023

[Doctor pokes at St. George; Nothing Happens]

CHAT BOT:
Quack, quack, quack! [30]

SHERLOCK HOLMES:
Enola! You forgot the incantation again!
Mummy always had to remind you….

DOCTOR:
Oh, do shut up, Sherlock!
Yes, of course! Now I need you all to help me with this incantation, everyone: “Engage! Inspire! Inform!” [31]

EVERYONE:
Engage! Inspire! Inform!

[St. George Gasps, opens eyes.]
[Accordion sound and applause as St. George rises up.]

ST. GEORGE:
Look, I’m Live! At the Library! [32]

St. George Eliot’s resurrection in the American Folklife Center’s 2023 mummers play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:
Well, isn’t that nice, George Eliot’s back
I guess Enola isn’t really such a quack
So anyway, ChatBot, let’s be on our way
We’ve scraped all the data we need for one day

ST. GEORGE:
Not so fast! Now that I’m up and off the floor,
Come on Chat Bot, I’ll fight you some more

FATHER CHRISTMAS
Now now, for centuries of Yuletides I’ve been in this mummers play
And fighting never solves a thing, I think it’s fair to say
So I have a small committee that tends to meet sub rosa
To solve this sort of dispute, and it’s chaired by our own Spinoza

SPINOZA
Thank you, Father Christmas, if all of you don’t mind
I’ll speak about the nature and origin of the mind [33]

FC:
That’s a bit heavy, old chap, and I don’t think we have time.
Why don’t you skip to the good parts—and don’t forget to rhyme!

SPINOZA:
Very well.
AI, your chatbot’s a great burglar and an even better fighter,
But I don’t think you’ll succeed in becoming a great writer
Your language models can pilfer text from every magazine and book
And a hundred million websites, and then remix what they took
But they don’t have inspiration, and they can’t convey real feeling
So their text sounds flat and lifeless next to what they’re used to stealing
With all the exciting novelists that this Library has got.
Does anyone really want to read a novel by a Bot?
[AI looks dejected]
But I do think you could write like Salman Rushdie or Mark Twain
If you were a tiny bit more human….

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:
[Perking up] If I only had a brain? [34]

A group of costumed actors performing a play
Spinoza explains in the American Folklife Center’s 2023 mummers play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
A brain, you say? I have the perfect character in mind!
He can help with this endeavor
[Hands Megaphone to Accordion Crimes]

ACCORDION CRIMES:
Paging Dr. Frankenstein! [35]

DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN:
In comes I, Victor Frankenstein…people often call me Mad
But not everything I do turns out to be so bad

[Gestures at the Monster]
Take my monster here, he’s a fellow of distinction and sobriety
[To AI] But I understand a brain transplant might cause you some anxiety
[Holds up a brain prop]
Don’t fret! You’ll be the most prolific author of our time
This brain might give you goosebumps…it’s the brain of R.L. Stine [36]

Dr. Frankenstein introduces the monster in the American Folklife Center’s mummers play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Isn’t he still alive?

DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN:
Shhh!

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
So, uh…what do you say, AI? Will you give up this insanity
And write your books the old fashioned way, with a touch of real humanity?

CHATBOT:
Well, Boss, it WOULD be awful pleasin’
To reason out the reason
For stuff you can’t explain

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:
And I’d never have to grovel
When I wrote an awesome novel
If I only had a brain!

DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN:
Then it’s decided!  We’ll do the surgery…right after the holiday!

Dr. Frankenstein offers AI a brain in the American Folklife Center’s mummers play in the Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

LINEAR FEET:
Excellent! I think it’s time to continue this party! Let’s have some music!

ACCORDION CRIMES:
In comes I, Accordion Crimes!
I come from a land of sunny climes
I come to make you folks and fellows
Dance to the way I shake my bellows!

[Accordion Crimes begins “The Chicken Dance.”  People dance, but some look disapproving, and a couple hold their nose. After a time she stops playing.] [37]

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
Well that was an accordion crime for sure!

ACCORDION CRIMES:
Since you didn’t like that I’ll play one more
Muddy boots and dirty faces
Dancers all now take your places!
[Accordion Crimes plays intro to “Lilliburlero” on the melodeon. Dancers dance two figures, while the rest clap along, then applaud to prompt audience] [38]

Costumed characters dance in an ornate library building
The mummers dance to “Lilliburlero” in the American Folklife Center’s mummers play, Great Hall, December 13, 2023. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

FATHER CHRISTMAS:
We hope you all have been impressed
And think Artificial mumming is the best
We won’t delay, lest tedium befall.
We wish you a Merry Christmas
And Happy Holidays to all!

Gloucestershire Wassail [39]
(Cast invites audience to sing along)
(Chorus): Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee
And here’s to the bullock and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee
(Chorus)
So here is to the milk cow and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
A good crop of corn that we may all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee
(Chorus)
And here’s to the calf and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
A happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee
(Chorus)
Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let all us jolly wassailers in.
(Double Chorus)

 

Notes

[1] The idea for this play came partly from the Library of Congress’s Literary Ball, a public event we held earlier this year. Many of the mummers appeared in promotional videos for the event. The idea of a play about chatbots and artificial intelligence came out news stories about authors engaged in lawsuits against AI companies.

In this photo from AFC’s James Madison Carpenter collection, wassailer Ben Little holds up a wooden wassailing bowl heavily decked with Christmas decorations.

[2] “Here we Come a-Wassailing” is a traditional Christmas song found in many sources. James Madison Carpenter has two versions in his collection at AFC, one from Mrs. J. T. Kendall in Grinton, Yorkshire, and one credited to “Christmas Carols, Marks and Spencer Ltd., Penny Bazarr [sic.]”  Alan Lomax also collected a beautiful version from Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky, which is in our collections and quite close to our mummers’ version. You can find that version at this link. Wassailing is a tradition of going door to door, wishing neighbors good health, and being rewarded with spiced drinks known as wassail, or with other treats, or with pennies. Reflecting this, the lyrics often refer to the singers being “neighbors’ children,” which we have changed to “merry mummers.”

[3] Father Christmas is a traditional character from English folk plays. I have written two blog posts about the early roots, development, and significance of this character. You can read the first one here, and the second one here.

Three portraits of a green-robed Father Christmas
Three Victorian Christmas Cards by unknown illustrators depicting Father Christmas. They are in the public domain

[4] The opening speech by Father Christmas always begins with traditional lines from mummers’ plays, but soon transitions to an introduction to the current play’s plot.

[5] Father Christmas did not traditionally live at the North Pole, but by the time of the mummers’ plays in our collections, that idea was in general circulation in British popular culture–though not mentioned in mummers’ plays themselves. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas, for example, lived there in the early 1930s when Tolkien began writing Father Christmas letters to his children. I wrote more about that in the blog post at this link.

[6] The North Pole Library Literary Ball was based on the very successful event held at the Library of Congress on September 14, 2023.

[7] The association of elves and Father Christmas also dates to the time of our mummers play texts. For example, in addition to living at the North Pole, Tolkien’s character Father Christmas had a number of elves working for him in professional capacities in the 1930s. We have established various recurring elf characters in our plays, including Clever Legs (a traditional mummers play name).

[8] In this play, Clever Legs dresses as the novel Accordion Crimes (1997) by Annie Proulx. In 2018 the Librarian of Congress awarded Proulx the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Proulx has a longstanding interest in folklore, which is evident not only in her writing a novel about an accordion. In her best known novel, The Shipping News (1993), Proulx makes mention of the Newfoundland mumming tradition and quotes retired AFC folklorist David Taylor. Find out all about Proulx and her visits to the Library in our guide to her works.

A woman hands another woman a prize
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden presents the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction to Annie Proulx at the National Book Festival, September 1, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

[9] The name “Linear Feet” is one of our library jokes; in the library world, it’s a measure of how much shelf space an item or collection uses. Mummers’ play characters sometimes have names consisting of an adjective and a body part–traditional characters include “Big Head” and “Clever Legs.” We thought “Linear Feet” made a good character name for a Library mummers’ play.

[10] In this play, Linear Feet dresses as the Library Dragon, a character from Carmen Agra Deedy’s children’s books. Deedy is an award-winning author and storyteller who has worked with the American Folklife Center for many years. You can see an interview I did with her, and many of her performances at the National Book Festival, at this link.

[11] Frankenstein’s Monster first became a character in our mummers play in 2018, inspired by our participation in FrankenReads, a program in which the entire novel Frankenstein was read in shifts by Library of Congress staff and invited guests, and livestreamed on YouTube.  The video can still be watched at this link!  At least three of our mummers were readers, including me (see my portion at this link). In our reading of the novel, we realized that the monster is last seen in the arctic near the North Pole in the very late 18th century, meaning it was quite plausible for him to be at the pole where our story that year was set.

Three full-length portraits of costumed characters
Cookie Monster, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Minerva pose for separate portraits by Carl Fleischhauer, December 13, 2023. These photos have been digitally retouched.

[12] Cookie Monster and Minerva are not traditional mummers play characters. Cookie has visited the Library of Congress many times over the years, including for the 2005 National Book Festival. Minerva, of course, is a symbol of the Library of Congress, and a beautiful mosaic of Minerva overlooks the Library’s Great Hall not far from where we performed our play. In the words of our colleague Barbara Natanson:

“This mosaic of a studious Minerva greets visitors, researchers and staff in an area overlooking the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building…. Appropriately for a library that encompasses information in a wide variety of subjects and formats, Minerva not only represents universal knowledge, but has music, poetry, medicine, commerce and crafts within her purview. In the mosaic, bright sunlight shines down on Minerva, aiding her perusal of a scroll, which lists the various fields of knowledge. That, too, offers an appropriate symbol–a bright future ahead for the Library of Congress….”

[13] Henry Fielding is not a traditional mummers play character. A real-life person, he was the author, as he modestly tells us, of such novels as Joseph Andrews (1742) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). He was also a prolific playwright, and for his play The Grub Street Opera (1732) he wrote the song “The Roast Beef of Old England,” a patriotic ditty which it became customary to sing in both civilian and military contexts. As a magistrate, Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners, now considered Britain’s first professional police force, and therefore can rightly describe himself as “Britain’s first head copper.” However, it should be noted that Henry died soon after founding the force, and his younger brother Sir John Fielding did much more to establish their procedures and standards.

On the left, a “shelfie” of Henry Fielding novels. On the right, an engraving of Henry Fielding himself.

[14] Sherlock Holmes is not a traditional character in mummers plays, but we are not the first to write a modern mummers play involving Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is, of course, the great literary detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

[15] The idea for Chat Bot disguising himself as “Chat Beau” came from the widely-reported facts about ChatGPT having a funny meaning when pronounced in French. We didn’t want to suggest in our play that any particular company was breaking the law, and we weren’t sure about flatulence jokes in the Great Hall either. The idea of “Chat Bot” being pronounced similarly to “Chat Beau” solved both thorny problems for us while alluding the ChatGPT situation and retaining a mystery for Holmes to solve!

[16] AI is, of course, not a traditional mummers play character. When we thought of the concept for this year’s play and decided we needed an AI character, I remembered that George Thuronyi (one of our frequent mummers) had gone to the Library of Congress 2023 Literary Costume Ball as the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. We also remembered the character’s need for a brain. It seemed like a good costume and concept for the AI character. Once the play was written to incorporate these elements, we asked George to play the role.

[17] St. George is a traditional mummers’ play character. Our tradition is usually to have an actor new to mumming play the heroic St. George role. Since St. George was played by Megan Nicholas this year, and since our characters are authors or characters from books, I thought George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, and the author of “The Mill on the Floss,” was a good choice. In her real life, Evans was called by her birth name, though she sometimes spelled her name as Mary Anne or Marian. In 1857 she took the pen name “George Eliot.” “George Eliot” was intended initially to keep her fiction writing separate from her criticism and translation work, which she published under the various spellings of her birth name. The pen name was probably also intended to allow her fiction to escape stereotypes then current about what she herself in an 1856 review article called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” She was not addressed as “George” in real life, and in fact took the name “George” from her partner, George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived from 1854 until his death in 1878.

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman
George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans, by the Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade (1804-1886), whose family she lived with while in Switzerland. National Portrait Gallery (UK) NPG 1405. Shared online with an academic license.

[18] One of Mary Ann Evans’s early accomplishments was the first translation to English of Spinoza’s Ethics. Due to a dispute with her publisher it was not published in her lifetime. (Coincidentally, Spinoza himself had died before the original Latin version was published in 1677.) You can find Evans’s translation, first published in 1981, at this link.

[19] This rhyme of “pull out your purse and pay/pull out your sword and play” is an old traditional mummers’ play line.

[20] Spinoza is not a traditional mummers play character. He was a 17th century Dutch philosopher of Portuguese (Sefardic) Jewish heritage. His given name was Baruch, but it was common in those days for Latin-Language authors to have their names translated to Latin, so he was often known as Benedict de Spinoza. In mummers plays, there is typically a role for one of the parents of St. George, who laments after the saint is killed. Because of the connection between George Eliot and Spinoza, we decided to use the philosopher in this role.

[21] This mispronunciation of “wound” is a traditional mummers’ play joke, and we have made it a perennial part of our play. Usually the mistake is made by Father Christmas, but this year we bestowed it upon Spinoza.

Two views of Spinoza from Library of Congress collections. On the left is an undated photoprint by Rideout & Stapp of a bust of Spinoza. On the right is photographic reproduction by Sophus Williams of a painting of Spinoza by E. Hader, 1884. Find the archival versions here.

[22] The Doctor is a traditional mummers’ play character. In fact, some scholars argue that the presence of a quack doctor defines a particular genre of death-and-resurrection folk play—the genre to which ours evidently belongs. Making our doctor Enola Holmes, the character from Nancy Springer’s young adult novel series, was our idea.

[23] The incident with Dr. Watson was recounted in Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes and the Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (2008).

[24] “Memory, Reason, and Imagination” were the principles on which Thomas Jefferson organized his library, which is the historical kernel of the Library of Congress’s collections. Inspired by this, “Memory, Knowledge and Imagination” were keywords in previous iterations of the Library’s Strategic Plan.

[25] Some of the places Enola has traveled are references to Library facilities: the Library maintains an office in Nairobi, Kenya, and NAVCC (pronounced Navsee Sea) is the National AudioVisual Conservation Center, also known as “The Packard Campus,” in Culpeper, Virginia.

[26] The Doctor in mummers’ plays tends to mention a series of nonsensical diseases. We adapt this list each year. (Sorry, catalogers!) My favorite this year is the “Great Hall neck crick from staring at the ceiling,” which is an homage to the beautiful building we’re lucky enough to work and perform in. In some plays, the Doctor has a highfalutin way of speaking, and claims to cure “all other vandorious diseases.” We liked the idea of “librarious diseases,” which is equally nonsensical but more library-related.

Two drawings of traditional characters from mummers plays, St. George and the Doctor.
These drawings of St. George and the Doctor are part of a set of pictures of mummers by George Baker, who gave them to folklorist James Madison Carpenter in the 1930s. They now form part of Carpenter’s collection here at AFC.

[27] I wrote the line “I can cure her if she’s been dead for a digital millennium” to make oblique reference to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Several of our mummers work in copyright, and they had to the idea to exclaim “copyright act” to make the reference more explicit. Soon it caught on with all the mummers!

[28] User centered, data driven, and digitally enabled are components of the Library’s strategic plan.

[29] I based the Doctor’s cure on a collection item, an unbelievable poster for “Doctor George Stuart’s Botanical Syrup and Vegetable Pills, the Greatest Family Medicine in the World.” The diseases allegedly cured by these medicines include “piles, pimples, pustules, fever, ague, chills, blotches, bruises, burns” and many others.

[30] The Doctor’s cure not working, and the other character quacking in derision, are traditional components of mummers plays.

[31] Engage, Inspire and Inform are keywords in the Library of Congress mission statement included in the Strategic Plan.

Two photos side by side: a man and woman stand in front of a Christmas Tree.
Father Christmas and the Doctor ventured up to the mezzanine to pose with the Christmas Tree. Father Christmas photo by Theadocia Austen. Doctor photo by Stephen Winick.

[32] Live! At the Library is the Library’s Thursday night series of public events.

[33] Spinoza’s Ethics includes sections on the nature and origins of the mind.

[34] The idea of the Scarecrow needing a brain comes from L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which you can read here. The song, of course, comes from the movie The Wizard of Oz, which was among the very first class of films inducted onto the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989. Read about the film at the registry pages. The Library of Congress maintains an online exhibit about Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Find the online exhibit here!

[35] Dr. Frankenstein is not a traditional mummers play character. We imported the character from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Read the novel and related books at this link. We needed someone to promise AI a brain transplant, and we already had Frankenstein’s monster as a character! The look of our monster draws from the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which we inducted into the National Film Registry in 1991. The registry has also inducted sequels and spin-offs such as The Bride of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Young Frankenstein. Find resources such as essays on the films at the registry pages.

[36] R.L. Stine has visited the Library of Congress several times, most recently in October 2022 for a Halloween event.

A woman and a man pose together for a photo
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden with “Goosebumps” series author R.L. Stine, October 3, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

[37] “The Chicken Dance” was composed by Swiss accordionist Werner Thomas in the early 1950s, when he was working as a restaurant musician in Davos. It was originally titled “Der Ententanz,” or “The Duck Dance.” According to News 23 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “The Duck Dance” became “The Chicken Dance” at the 1981 Tulsa Oktoberfest, when organizers could not find a duck costume in time for the festivities and used a classic chicken suit instead. We’re not sure why several of the mummers disapprove of “The Chicken Dance,” except that our accordion player wanted to play it and make it into a gag for the play.

[38] “Lilliburlero” is a tune first published in John Playford’s 1686 music tutor “The Delightful Companion.” Many believe it was composed by Henry Purcell, but scholars are not certain as no manuscript survives. It became the tune for a popular satirical song about Ireland in the 17th century, and was used by John Gay in “The Beggar’s Opera” in the 18th century. By the 19th century it was popular as both a song melody and a dance tune.

Four men, one of them wearing an animal mask.
In this photo from AFC’s James Madison Carpenter collection, four Gloucestershire wassailers prepare for wassailing. The man on the right holds what is apparently a wassail bowl decorated with a Christmas tree. The man on the left holds a wassail bowl in the form of a small barrel. The man second from left is in disguise as a character called The Tetbury Bull.

[39] “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a song sung by rural farmworkers in Gloucestershire, England, while visiting and toasting the inhabitants of nearby farms and houses. The words to the song were first published in 1813. One hundred and twenty years later, James Madison Carpenter photographed Gloucestershire wassailers and recorded their song.  His recordings, photos of the wassailers, and manuscripts of the song, are preserved in the AFC archive and now online at this link from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in England. The song proposes Christmas toasts to the inhabitants of a local farm, including the owners (referred to as Master and Mistress), some of the workers, and most importantly the farm animals! The version we sing is derived from various published texts, but such names as “Whitefoot” and “Old Broad,” which were names for farm animals, have been replaced with more generic descriptors such as “the milk cow” and “the ox,” which makes the song more comprehensible to non-farming folk. The Wassailing Bowl was usually a wooden bowl, and was frequently heavily decorated with garlands and other Christmas decorations. See the photo at the beginning of the notes section for an example.

Comments (2)

  1. Wonderful! Thank you and congratulations to all that created and performed this year’s mummery play.

  2. Are there still Morris Dancers working at LOC? There used to be overlap in the early days of listservs (I mean before WWW and Netscape!)

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