Mummer’s plays are traditional folk-plays that were once prevalent in Britain, dating back to Medieval times, although most of the early evidence we have for them only dates back to the 18th century. Generally they were passed down orally through generations, and were performed at key points of the year (such as Christmas, Easter, Plough Monday, and All Soul’s Day) in pubs and public spaces. The main theme of these plays is a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and the killing and resurrecting of the main protagonist, who is usually Saint/King George. The actors would collect money at the end of the show. There are a lot of similarities in these plays, but each village tended to have its own variation. They were extremely popular in the 19th century, and Thomas Hardy features a depiction of one in his novel, The return of the Native (1878), but many died away with the advent of the World wars. In the later half of the 20th century/beginning of 21st century there has been a limited revival of these performances by various folk groups.
In our Private Press collection we have a copy of a Mummer’s play printed by St. Dominic’s Press. In this example, the play was collected in Sussex in 1921, and features the traditional characters of Father Christmas, Twin Twan, King George, Turkish Knight, Valiant Soldier, Doctor and Musicians. Costume suggestions are given, for example Father Christmas should be in a white umpire’s coat or old smock, a top hat with Christmas cards stuck in the band, and carrying a long staff with a bunch of holly on top. King George should wear a suit of ‘cretonne’ (printed cotton cloth) with baggy breeches, gaudy stockings and a round black hat decorated with feathers and gold braid, and carrying a sword. As we can see from these descriptions, the costumes are stylised and not quite how we would probably dress those characters today.
This copy also includes instructions for performers who are told they must “keep to the traditional methods in costume, declamation and action. The actors should almost chant their words in a monotonous sing-song voice with little or no expression. Action must be of the very simplest…actors march on stage…[and] then form a semi-circle, facing the audience, each as his turn comes marching forward three paces to deliver his oration, finally returning to his original station.”
Within this pamphlet a few bars of music have been added to give a tune to the lines that are sung.
According to Schneidman’s exhibition catalogue for Eric Gill (1882-1940) as Printmaker, Artist, Typographer, Writer & Book Designer (30 March-25 April 2009), this book is “very rare in any edition”