Thus begins many a mummers play. Upon the stage
stand five figurestheir names vary, but their roles are ancient.
Room, or the Fool, clears the way, calls us to listen to their
tale and introduces the next of the dramatis personae, Father Christmas.
This figure, recognizable always by his beard, tells us how he comes,
welcome or welcome not and is clearly a personification of
the season itself. Next we meet his son the gallant knight,
often called St. George or St. Patrick, but he has as many names as there
are saints and heroes. Last comes the fearsome foe, usually portrayed
as a worm or dragon, although at times a corrupt Sherriff
or a Saracen warrior will fill this role.
The setup varies, but inevitably, hero and worm duke it out; and amazingly,
wins. In a reversal of todays tales of knights errant
(complete with multimillion dollar exploding helicopter scenes) our hero
simply and poignantly sinks to the ground, dead. A Doctor attempts to
revive the hero, but usually it is the Fool, keeper of the ancient secrets,
who brings him back to life. A final message of life and death is sung,
followed by a song wishing the general populace and audience good health
and a happy New Year. And until the year dies once again, all remains
as it is, the sun has been killed and reborn and we will see spring once
This is not the only version of this rite in existencemany and varied
are the forms it takes all over Europe and the UK. Straw Men, Mummers,
Mystery Playsthey all stem from the same simple need, the need to
see the sun rise again from the ashes of the old year.
The use of masks, or other disguises (mummers are also known as guisers
or guyzers in many parts of Europe) is older than the content
of the plays and may well represent one of the oldest known forms of theurgy
in existence. Indigenous cultures don masks of animals and other spirits
to draw into themselves the powers and skills of those animals, to gain
blessings from those spirits. The Ancient Greeks used masks to represent
qualities of character as expressed by the masks, as do Japanese Kabuki
performers. In this way even a largely ill-educated audience will know
who plays what role and what to expect of them. This is not only a feature
of early (or primitive) drama, but of liturgy as well. When a man dons
his priestly garments, he is no longer Bill, the man next door, but Father
Simms, a representative of his God and a magic worker in his own right.
Even the word mummer has a context outside speech itself.
We use mum as keeping silent and the word is etymologically
related to mime, as well. In a mummers play, a mimes
performance, or a guizers dance, each role is indicated not by the
words, but by the masks and clothing that are worn. Instantly the person
in the straw costume, or rags, or motley, ceases to be the neighbor and
takes on a more timeless role, whether it be evil personified as the Worm
or Beelzebub, or the heroic victim, or the mourning father or incompetent
The celebration of Mummers plays continues unabated in many forms.
Throughout Europe, the aforementioned Mystery Plays and Mummers
Plays may be seen at almost any small town during the Christmas season.
Here in America, the Revels (a holiday performance troupe that now has
groups in 11 cities) incorporates a mumming into every holiday show. And
of course, there are the famous Mummers who gather in Philadelphia, with
their fantasias of feathers and music.
When you recognize a Fool by his motley and bells, or groan at the sight
of a mime fighting his way into an invisible headwind, you are bridging
the ages: participating in an act that pulled communities together in
the dark of the year, performances that brought back the light. In the
words of the Mummers themselves:
We bid you all, both great and small, a happy, healthy New Year!
POETRY & STORIES