Among the most curious of British Christmas traditions must be the mummers play. Almost certainly the survivors of a pre-Christian custom, mummers and their plays were once to be found all over the country. Mummer Brian Ross discusses this ancient tradition as it applies to Buckinghamshire.
The mummers play has been performed in High Wycombe and the surrounding areas as long as anywhere in the country. Four versions - those performed at Wooburn Green, Penn, Wheeler End and Beaconsfield - have been recorded and there are references to others, now lost.
The Wooburn Green and Penn plays were recorded by Alfred Cocks in Records of Bucks, volumes nine and ten. The Wheeler End play, taken from the last surviving member of the Wheeler End mummers, Abel Collins, was published in Sketches of the Bucks Countryside by H Harman, and the Beaconsfield play, taken from Jack Norris, and published in Allison Utley's Buckinghamshire.
The evidence seemed to suggest that the mummers groups had gradually died out during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, following a story about the mummers by Amanda Putland, a reporter on The Wycombe and South Bucks Star, one of the last surviving members of the Beaconsfield Mummers came forward to say that the play was being performed as late as 1954. At Christmas 1979, and then unaware of the local versions of the play, four members of High Wycombe Folk Club got together to perform a mummers' play at the club. It was successful enough for them to decide to constitute themselves into something more permanent so that regular performances could be given. In 1980 the original quartet was swelled to eight. Its present members are: Brian Ross, John Cross, Charlie Pritchard, Dave Coates, Dave Willmott, Dave Atkins, Dave Waddle, Martin Watson, Richard Lloyd, Andy Harrison and Steve Finn. At the time of their foundation one problem was finding a name. Being High Wycombe based they wanted one with local connections and, in the end, settled for the Bodger Mummers. Woodcraftsmen who used to work in the woods around High Wycombe were called bodgers.
The make-up used by the Bodger Mummers consists of blackened faces and their costume ragged coats. The wearing of old clothes is in keeping with tradition and Gertrude Prokosch Kurath, the author of the article on mummers in Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore and Legend suggests it may be a relic of the animal skins worn during the medieval carnivals. Despite regional variations, mummers scripts everywhere follow a basic formula; hero and villain fight until one or other of them is killed. A doctor is summoned and, through his ministrations, the dead man is miraculously revived. In the Penn script, it is the villain who dies, though more often it was the hero, thus enabling him to overcome the forces of evil personified by the villain. The fight sequence is repeated until the villain finally succumbs or is beyond the aid of the doctor. A typical performance would begin with the arrival wherever the performance was to take place of a character who acted as an announcer and would call on the assembly to make room for the entertainment. Locally he is known as Hey Down Derry or Don Derry or, sometimes as Roomer, on account of his function or as Broom after the broom with which he pretends to push bystanders aside to clear a space. But in most other versions he is the Fool and in a few even Father Christmas. To audience cheers, the hero then enters. In most versions he is St George of Cappadocia, the English patron saint, mounted on a hobby horse and flourishing a wooden sword. In other surviving versions, however, he is called King George, the change form George Spiritual to George Temporal possibly having been made in honour of one of the monarchs of the Hanoverian dynasty. Often the hero will be given the name of a well-known hero, such as Robin Hood or Nelson. In one local version he is the Duke of Cumberland. This may seem something of a strange choice, the duke being known to history as 'Butcher Cumberland' after the slaughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Highlanders which took place after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. It must be remembered that to contemporaries, knowing nothing of the atrocity committed in his name, hew as the saviour who had averted an invasion of the wild Northmen. The hero boasts of his fame and victories in battle and issues a general challenge.
To jeers the villain enters to take it up. Usually he comes in the guise of the Turkish Knight, bearing a name like Bull Slasher or Bold Slasher. In the plays from some areas the challenge is taken up by the king of Egypt who will bring in his champion or son to do battle with the hero. The fight ensues and one of the combatants is killed. A doctor is called and after some bargaining a fee is settled. He may have a name such as Doctor Brown but usually is just called the doctor. The Penn version includes an interesting variation by calling him Dr Dodd, an historical personage who was not a doctor of medicine but the vicar of Wing. He was hanged for forgery in 1777. The doctor, recognised by all as a quack, pronounces the victim dead but then performs a miraculous cure by giving a pill or medicine (often alcoholic) or even pulling a tooth. When the fallen victim revives, the fight may begin again, or the hero may have to face a new challenge, the death and resurrection being repeated. Sometime the second one is performed by a new character, Jack Finney, who may be the Doctor in disguise, but this is not usual.
The play ends after the entrance of supernumerary characters such as Fly, Big Head, Beelzebub and Father Christmas. In some areas such names may be attached to one or more characters, in other places they may not appear at all, or be replaced by others. There may also be a female character such as Miss Fly in the Wheeler End play, but the main parts are played by men. In essence the whole thing is fairly brief. Performed as written, the Penn play would have lasted only a matter of minutes and the same goes for the others. This was due, less to any failure of the dramatic muse, than to the fact that, since the original mummers were probably largely illiterate, the learning of lengthy scripts was probably beyond them. In any case, as one of their main objects must have been to raise money to buy the Christmas goose and other fare, they would have given as many performances as possible on any one evening, visiting pubs and private homes, particularly those of the better off, then passing the hat round. But it is also likely that the play was extended by free ad-libbing on the part of the performers and by the introduction of 'business' which included a great deal of slapstick comedy and horseplay in some of which the audience would be involved. Plainly many of the elements of the British pantomime can be made out in the mummers play and it may well have been the coming of the pantomime in Victorian times which led to the demise of the mummers. A group of rustic amateurs must have found it very hard to compete with the professional actors who, with all the facilities of a theatre at their disposal were able to mount dazzlingly spectacular transformation scenes.
The plays are undoubtedly old. References to mummers go back at least to the thirteenth century, but records of what they did, its form and origin are matters for speculation. Though usually regarded as typically English items of folklore, mummers performing similar stories are to be found in Portugal and Thrace. For all their brevity, the plays offer us a number of clues to their origin. The fact that the villain is invariably of Middle Eastern provenance brings to mind the Crusades and this is supported by two other elements. St George of Cappadocia, best known for his slaughter of the lake-dragon had also taken a prominent part in the crusades - it was this that took him Sylene in Libya where the dragon was terrorising the populace, a detail well-known to the audiences of earlier epochs. There is also the miracle-working doctor. One side-effect of the crusades was to bring westerners in contact with Arab medicine, vastly more advanced than their own. Many of the Arab doctors - in practice, often Jews - who chanced to fall into the hands of the Crusaders were taken into the employment of wealthy families. Their skill was in such demand that they were often able to dictate their salaries - hence the fee-bargaining which one finds in the mummer plays. They took with them, for medicinal use, many of the herbs which now grow in our gardens and give flavour to our food. The Middle Eastern overtones would, of course, have found an echo among audiences down the centuries, for even in high Renaissance times the armies of Ottoman Turkey were advancing through Europe, a progress unstemmed until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
But other traces in the plays hint at even more archaic origins. St George is primarily the dragon-slayer. The slaughter of a dragon-like monster is a recurrent mythological motif and, like most of such motifs, is a statement encoded but amenable to decipherment once you have the key. Usually the slaughter of a serpent or dragon stands for the supplanting of a feminine by a masculine deity. The most famous case is that of Apollo killing the Python at Delphi and appropriating to himself the sanctuary of the Earth Mother. This substitution invariably diminishes the importance of the female in religious practice, a state of affairs to be seen in most of the major religions. In the light of this it may well be significant that the casts of the mummers players are overwhelmingly male. The hobby horse, which is the hero's steed, recalls those associated with other folk customs such as the Padstow Obby Oss and a hobby horse also features in customs found in some parts of rural Wales. Undoubtedly this derives from our Celtic ancestors who venerated the horse. There are also Celtic overtones in the hero's boasting and throwing out of his challenge, as in the motif of the resuscitation of a dead warrior. Instances are to be found in the Mabinogion story of Branwen.
In any case, stripped to essentials, the theme of all versions is the death and rebirth of a hero. Of all mythological motifs, this - the commemoration of the agricultural cycle - is the most constant and among the most archaic going back thousands of years until its lineaments finally become blurred as time's mists enfold it. Confirmation that this lies behind the mummers play comes from the fact that many plays end with the entire cast doing a springing dance in which they make sunwise circles. In other words the Bodgers, and all other mummers, were not so much performing a play as enacting an ancient ritual. And that such a ritual should continue to be enacted by predominantly rural and agricultural communities, dependent on the earth, should not perhaps entirely surprise us.