An Introduction from the Unconvention.
The paper is an introduction to some of the major questions we might ask about mumming. What is the relationship between the texts of mummers’ plays and texts contained in popular chapbooks from the late 18th Century? Secondly, what is the relationship between mummers’ plays and both ‘pantomimes’ (created by John Rich and others in the early part of the 18th century) and the Italian Comedy? Thirdly, is it possible to trace a multiple historical dissemination of mumming both around Britain and following migrations and trade routes to Newfoundland, the Caribbean and further afield? Fourthly, what antecedents may lie with localised variants of house visiting associated with performative calendar customs? Fifthly, what can we learn from the consideration of contemporary mumming performances? The paper will relate these larger questions to the presentation at the 2011 and 2012 Unconventions.
‘Death and resurrection’ in the English Folk Play and Italian Commedia
A common theme that runs through both the English folk play and many of the stories of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte is that of death and resurrection. In the latter, this generally involves the character or ‘mask’ of Pulcinella/Punchinello, who is frequently killed through misadventure or executed as a result of some misdemeanor, but revived through some intervention, usually magical or demonic. In the English Folk Play (or ‘Mummers’ play) this theme is even more central to the basic story: the hero kills (or gets killed by) his rival, usually as a result of conflict over a woman, but all is resolved when the ‘doctor’ steps in to revive the fallen champion.
Whether there is any direct link between these two theatrical forms is rather difficult to determine, although various hypotheses might be made. At some point in the late 17th or 18th century the Italian character Punchinello becomes the ‘Mr Punch’ of the English ‘Punch & Judy’ show – presumably through the introduction of travelling puppet theatre versions of Italian commedia (initially) or later as versions of the English pantomime, as a cost-effective way of bringing such entertainments to the general populace. It is a relatively short step from there to seeing Punch as a sort of ‘everyman’ hero able to escape from any threatened execution or be revived from death at the hands of an opponent. Of course, the character must live on if only to ensure the continuation of the drama. The St George of the Folk Play as the embodiment of Mr Punch (though without the wife-beating aspect!) is an easy transition to make.
This is not our real interest here, however. ‘Death and resurrection’ is a primary theme of many religions and ‘world-views’, not only of Christianity, and it is this aspect of the popular drama that we wish to explore. In many ways the Italian Commedia dell’Arte has addressed this with rather more sophistication (and certainly with greater variety) than has the English Folk Play. By looking at the ways in which commedia has dealt with it, and the range of underlying interpretations, we may gain a better insight into its possible significance within the Folk Play context.
In particular, we may consider the interpretation given to this theme by the Venetian painter Domenico Tiepolo. Towards the end of the 18th century – at a time when the Grand Tour was at its height – this artist created a vast series of illustrations featuring Punchinello, including several showing the death and resurrection of this character. These and similar works may well have influenced a sophisticated English audience and created an awareness of the deeper layers of meaning to be found within even such rustic productions as the Folk Play.
Mumming in New England
My experience of “real” mumming in England gave me a great deal of food for thought. I’d like to speak this year about the contemporary revival of mumming in the United States. It has come to be so strongly associated with the WInter Solstice in this country that’s it’s taken on quite a life of its own. I’m certain there are some strict revivalists who might look upon what the American cousins have been up to with horror. (After meeting so many of you, I think the mummers at the convention might be inclined to amusement.) At any rate, I think I could come up with something interesting. This year I will be prepared with a proper powerpoint presentation. (Last year, as you might remember, New England was hit by a major blizzard on Hallowe’en and we were without power for nearly two weeks, so I came to the convention empty handed.)
Lost in Transportation: Mumming and Australia
Transportation, the movement of prisoners from British jails and hulks to penal colonies in Australia, occurred from 1787 through 1867 when the last convict ship sailed from Britain. 1787 was also the beginning of the transportation of free men from Britain to Australia for the purposes of settlement. Both these groups faced the same problems which included a radically different climate and geography, new flora and fauna, ongoing often conflict-laden contact with indigenous peoples, shortage or absence of pertinent skills and knowledge for survival, and the problems associated with Britain being a 6 month one-way journey by sailing ship. While settlers were left to engage the new circumstances virtually on their own, the ability of convicts to respond to the new circumstances were constrained by naval and colonial powers that controlled both their activities and their movement on the land. Neither group, settlers or convicts, engaged in mumming in Australia although mumming was prevalent in Britain at the time. By contrast, the same population of peoples, predominantly English and Irish peasant and working class, were settling Newfoundland Canada during the same time period and did continue with mumming in their new communities. This paper addresses a number of issues which conspired to stunt the development of mumming in Australia.
Teaching Mummers plays in schools
The paper draws on personal experience of working in schools – mostly with the primary age group on and with mummers plays and associated materials. Central to the papers are special considerations for staging with reference to age range and rehearsal; music, song and choral components; the adaptation of local scripts; costumes and properties.
The Making of a Mummers Opera
This paper is concerned with how and why the opera ‘Make Room for Mummers’ was created and performed. It describes the relationship between the opera and the Widcombe Mummers and their St Georges Day play. It also examines how the opera differs from classical opera and its links to folk music. It explores the compositional methods used and particular technical challenges entailed in transferring the mummers play to the opera stage. The debut performances at a folk festival and an arts festival are considered, as are the different reactions from these audiences.
Case study – Mumming and Peterborough Folk Club
In 1968 a member of the Peterborough Folk Club put together a mummers play using several sources from the local area. The play was performed by members of the club a number of times in the city over the winter. A super-8 film was also made of the performance and both this film and the script were deposited with the city archives in January 1969. Over two decades later, the play began to be performed again, this time by a group of English Civil War re-enactors wanting something to do during the winter. The performance was so successful that this group have continued to take the play to numerous pubs and events in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, including the Straw Bear Festival, every winter since. They also state that they have raised over £10,000 for charity during this time. At some point, the play has acquired an alternative history. This history and the popularity of the play will be explored within the paper, which will also seek to pose some interesting questions…
Case study: Coventry Mummers
Ron Shuttleworth conceived and founded Coventry Mummers in 1966 and has been a member ever since, with responsibility for the organisation, scripts, costumes and properties. As far as Ron knows Coventry Mummers were the first revival team to exist solely for purposes of Mumming, with a fixed membership and regular meetings throughout the year. Ron will share his reminiscences and observations.
Nottingham’s Owd Oss mummers and their scrapbooks
Nottingham’s Owd Oss Mummers were formed in the late 1960s as an offshoot of the Nottingham Traditional Music Club, and continued into the 1980s. They have not totally disappeared, although they are now in new guises. The author joined them shortly after their formation, and after going to college performed with them in the late 1970s. For nearly all the time they existed, the Owd Oss Mummers maintained scrap books in which they lodged tour reports, photographs, press cuttings and other ephemera. The scrapbooks are now showing the ravages of time, with items becoming unstuck, bindings disintegrating, and so forth. This talk will outline the history of the group, illustrated with excerpts from the scrapbooks and personal reminiscences. It will also explore some of the issues regarding the long term conservation and preservation of such scrapbooks.
Case study: Wassail all over the place
Wassailing, like Mummers, is often a Christmas custom. In Gloucestershire, both were Christmas to New Year customs. Much is known about Mummers plays in Gloucestershire and also much is known about the wassailing tradition. To what extent were these 2 traditions combined, considering that they were both carried out at the same time of year and sometimes by the same families. Gwilym Davies examines the symbiosis between these 2 traditions, calling on his extensive research over many years, with audio and video examples on Powerpoint. He then goes on to detail the current situation on these 2 customs.