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About the Mummers' Play
This website is hosted by the Traditional Drama Research Group, an affiliation of informed European and North American scholars and practitioners with a fascination for a particular form of drama. Sometimes called traditional drama, sometimes referred to as the folk play, and known by many as the mummers’ play, the terms cover a range of seasonal performance that almost certainly originated in Britain and Ireland but has a diaspora that encompasses parts of Canada, the Caribbean and the USA.
By the fourteenth century the activity of mumming – a winter perambulation by masked, disguised, non-speaking groups and individuals, seeking admission to private homes to play a form of dice - was a source of concern to civic authorities in England. By the fifteenth century, however, disguising and mumming were also an occasional feature of fashionable life at court. These performative entertainments drew on the frisson of apparently spontaneous (but probably engineered) encounter between those in disguise and those not in disguise, with those who might be strangers and those who might not, around a core of pre-arranged dramatic activity. Closely related popular forms continue to thrive today and are particularly well documented in Newfoundland .
Our website, however, is largely concerned with a later kind of mummers’ play that probably arose out of the creative ferment and popularity of theatre in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century. Our earliest versions of what would one day become known as the folk play are all different from one another but share some likeness of character, plot, action, duration and form. The performances are seasonal (though differently seasonal in different places), they attach themselves to particular localities (in the current phrase they become site-specific) and are given in public and private houses as well as outdoor public spaces. From the late 1700s through to the present day these plays have attracted the attention of antiquarians, folklorists, anthropologists, and local and theatre historians.
Our earliest examples come from the eighteenth century and include printed versions in chapbooks from Newcastle-upon-Tyne; street performances from as far afield as Dublin and Exeter and performances in prestigious private homes such as Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. By the 1880s amateur performances of these plays were being given by men and boys in towns and villages across much of Britain yet contemporary commentators were already implying a decline in the presentations, both qualitatively and numerically. In almost every instance where we have contextual information we know that the performers collected money and that the customary nature of these performances carried a gloss of luck-bringing for many participants. That remains the case today.
Welcome to mumming, to traditional drama, to the folk play as performance, as subject of study and as ever evolving discourse.
Peter Harrop for TDRG
18 May 2017