The mummer’s play does not attempt the detailed imitation of reality; it is an imagistic theatre whose effect lies in holding real and unreal worlds in a precarious balance.
We are now upon the threshold of the Great Sabbat of Beltane. This is an ancient celebration of flowering, when the Romans celebrated the Floralia, and since ancient times, the Japanese have observed the sacred renewal of Springtime, called Golden Week.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Earth-centered practitioners are preparing for rites of fertility and lusty renewal, and the mirth and merry-making that our ancestors enjoyed. In the lands below the Equator, our contemporaries prepare for the opposite holiday on the Wheel of the Year, the Great Sabbat of Samhain.
As Raven Grimassi points out in his book, Beltane: Springtime Rituals, Lore and Celebration, one of the most pervasive themes of this joyful time revolves around mummery.
The Mummers Play has been described as a folk play, especially popular in England in various forms. The roots of the Mummers Play are intertwined with Morris Dancing, another activity prevalent at this time. The word mummers refers to a person who is mumming, and perhaps came from the Greek word “Mommo”, meaning the wearing of a mask. It is in dispute whether the actual Mummers Play as it is now performed around England does in fact come from Pagan roots, but certainly plays and performances, especially in exchange for hospitality, are as old as humanity itself.
Most mumming is a form of morality play, usually with a trickster twist or two. Since ancient times, there has been a form of mumming in China, and the Bahamian “Junkanoo” has deep roots in African cultures. We know that as far back as in ancient Greece, there are stories of players and performers who would roam the countryside, putting on entertainments in exchange for food and drink. From Greece, to Rome, to the lands of the Celts that once stretched from Ireland to Turkey, these traditions continued, with mummers engaging in wild antics during festivals and at holidays, encouraging others to join in.
Eventually, some evolved into more formal Mummers Plays. Some historians feel the more formal plays were an attempt by the Church to supercede the Pagan stories of the sacrificial God and His resurrection with their religion’s version.
The English Mummers Play now follows an ancient prescribed order:
* A clown figure leads a musical, acrobatic parade of the characters and enters to clear the space, making contact with the audience and sets the tone with pratfalls and silliness.
* Beginning with the clown, the characters would introduce themselves to the audience through a boast about how brave, strong, beautiful, desirable, skillful, etc. they are. The hero then woos the heroine.
* The hero and the villain fight. One is slain. The characters reveal that additional disaster is imminent because of the death.
* The doctor is called and through some device revitalizes the dead.
*The day is saved, money is gathered for the good luck of the year, there is a final blessing and they all parade away with music.
Stories of Robin Hood, St. George and the Turkish knight, and folk tales and faerie stories of all sorts may be intertwined to spellbind the crowd. But most important, the observers are made participants in the chaos and silliness.
So, in the spirit of Beltane, let us all get off the sidelines and join the magical play before us. Let us dare to be dorky and step boldly into the limelight!