The Student Mummer’s Play
Part of a series of articles on
Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance
The climactic feature of my student winter solstice performance was a traditional English mummer’s play, featuring students in all of the roles. I first saw mummer’s plays at Christmas Revels productions in New York City in the early 1990s – in fact they are the only mummer’s plays I have seen (performed live) besides the ones I produced with my students. I don’t think that this tradition is very well known in the United States, and I enjoyed introducing it to my students and their families.
Mummer’s Plays – also known in the UK as Guiser’s Plays – are short traditional sketches in rhyme traditionally performed by small groups of men around Christmas (and other festivals). They have been around in some form since the Middle Ages but people didn’t start writing them down until the 18th century. Sometimes the performance of a mummer’s play is associated with sword dancing (a sword dance may be incorporated as part of the play) but it also may not be. Often a group of mummers will bring the play around to pubs or private homes in return for money – or at least for beer. A lot more information about this rich tradition can be found online now than when I first became interested in it (before internets); a great place to start is the Folk Play Research Home Page, and its astounding Historical Database of Folk Play Scripts.
Mummer’s plays performed for the Winter Solstice traditionally center around the theme of death and resurrection, and recount this miraculous event with a strange combination of humor, mystery, and doggerel verse – often through the story of St. George and the Dragon. Characters who people these plays also include heroes of folklore like Robin Hood, Little John, Father Christmas, other saints such as St. Patrick or St. Andrew, as well as colorful stock characters such as a Fool, the Quack Doctor, and the Man/Woman. Sometimes the verse is nonsense and sometimes it is lewd. These plays are meant to be entertaining, but they also point directly to the heart of the matter, in the manner of a King’s fool or jester stating the obvious truth that everyone else fears to articulate through bawdy rhymes and jokes. Life is a miracle! After death, life returns. After winter – spring. The sun will return!
The Fieldston Outdoors Mummer’s Play
In the summers of 1993-1995 I worked at Fieldston Outdoors, a day camp at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, New York. Fieldston Outdoors is a unique program with a special focus on the environment, nature, and the Hudson River, brought to children through traditional arts, music, and folklore by an amazing staff and visiting artists.
In the summer of 1995 I was the camp’s music counselor, and in addition to teaching music classes to campers throughout the day, I was responsible for programming and organizing the music for each day’s “Opening” event and closing “Singalong”. Opening was an all camp event featuring a story or presentation by staff or campers usually relating to the camp’s theme that week, or providing an opportunity for campers to share something special they had prepared, and the Singalong was just that – a half hour concert at the end of the day led by a band of musicians (most were traditional and folk music professionals).
One of the musicians I worked with at Fieldston Outdoors was New York performer, composer, teacher, dance caller, and musical inventor Jody Kruskal. Among Jody’s many gifts, he is one of the most acclaimed Anglo concertina players in the world, and one of several tremendously fortuitous opportunities I had at Fieldston was that for three summers I got the chance to make music with him every day.
One day in the summer of 1995 Jody and I were talking about projects to do with the campers, and somehow came up with the idea of producing a student mummer’s play.
The rest is history. I have a very clear memory of sitting in a garden on the Fieldston campus in the sweltering heat of a Bronx summer, writing the script with Jody that became the basis of the mummer’s plays I produced with my students at intervals over the next twenty years. We simplified and reduced the number of verses, chose characters that avoided stereotypes that may be part of traditional folklore but were not acceptable in a late 20th century educational setting, and in general kept the message and the humor of the play appropriate for children.
We wrote the script quickly – in a day or two – and put on the play with a group of fifth or sixth grade campers towards the end of the summer. In my memory I also taught a morris dance (Ring o’Bells) to a group of campers who didn’t wish to have roles in the play, and they performed the dance at the end of the play, as is traditional – but I’m not sure, it was a long time ago and I did this play with and without morris or sword dances (or without any dance at all) in enough variations and combinations that I am uncertain now.
Over the years I adapted this script to different school settings and produced four versions of it in all:
- Fieldston Outdoors Mummer’s Play (1995)
- Carrollwood Day School Mummer’s Play (1999)
- Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play (2006)
- Nashville School of the Arts Mummer’s Play (2012 – 2014)
The Carrollwood Day School Mummer’s Play was performed at the school’s 1999 Fall Festival by a group of students who became the CDS Morris & Sword Team. This play was nearly the same as the original play that Jody and I wrote – I only changed a couple of particulars – the Fool welcomes “CDS friends and families all” instead of “Fieldston campers all“, and the mummers offer “Two front-row tickets to the CDS Talent Show for a doctor” instead of a Fieldston Outdoors T-shirt. Otherwise the script is identical, and I do not reproduce it here.
The Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play & Lads-A-Bunch’em ~ from The Feast of Stephen, December 8, 2006, Nashville
The Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play was part of a school winter solstice production, The Feast of Stephen, that I produced in 2006. I expanded the original play considerably, adding the character of Father Christmas, changing the role of the mayor to Good King Wenceslas, deleting some lines and adding many more from traditional sources. The mummer’s plays of the Christmas Revels were a major inspiration and source for these additions. The script for this play is included here in the context of the script for the entire The Feast of Stephen.
Finally, changing only a few small particulars again, I adapted the Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play for my high school choir students at Nashville School of the Arts. The annual mummer’s play performed at Tastes & Sounds of the Season on the first Thursday night in December became a traditional element that students looked forward to (and talked about) all year. Casting preference was given to seniors and often several of the more prominent roles were played by students who were also active in the Theatre department at NSA. This script is also included here.
“Such activity as you’ve never seen on stage!”
No sets are needed – the mummer’s play is performed wherever the mummers happen to be. The Fool enters first, calls for attention, and “makes room” for the play to begin. One by one, each character in the play makes an entrance – “In comes I” – and recites a brief monologue. This little speech may not actually have any relevance to the little story about to be told – often it just describes the character through archaic, clichéed, or even bizarre expressions. I’ve always thought the mummers’ stock phrase “We come to show activity” to be a very strange way of stating the obvious. Why say this at all? Why say it in this way? What exactly is meant by activity? Most of the play is spent standing around spouting nonsense, after all.
Once the characters have all entered, what little story there is is acted out. It is usual in mummer’s plays I’ve seen for the Dragon to slay Saint George, and then for the hero to be resurrected either through a ritual sword dance or after some bumbling about by the Quack Doctor. For our student play, Jody had the brilliant idea of resurrecting the Dragon instead – after enduring the Doctor’s silly attempts at a cure – through the miracle of a child’s innocence.
On the night of the show, the mummer’s play was given pride of place: it was presented when almost all of the musical performances had already been sung or played. A dance performance (or festive carol) was given immediately after, followed by the recitation of the poem The Shortest Day and then the closing recessional.
Every year I had the sense that for many who participated and attended our winter solstice productions, those who were witnessing the mummer’s play for the first time found it bewildering and silly, but also somehow special and enthralling. I know that for many students who experienced its return each year, pulling together another performance of this annual spectacle – with a different cast reprising the same foolish characters and ridiculous lines – was a meaningful experience.
I honestly don’t know why this I love this absurd old play so much, but it means so much to me. The laughter and joy I had rehearsing it and watching students perform it over the years are some of the most precious memories of my entire teaching career.
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Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance:
Christmas in July <– START HERE
In Comes I: The Student Mummer’s Play