From Masks to Mimes : The ancient art of Mumming

by Erica Friedman

“Room, room, brave gallants all,
Pray give us room to rhyme!
We come to show you activity
This merry Christmas time.
Activity of youth, activity of age;
I will show you such activity

that was never acted upon a common stage.

”Thus begins many a mummer’s play. Upon the stage stand five figures—their names vary, but their roles are ancient. “Room,” or the Fool, clears the way, calls us to listen to their tale and introduces the next of the dramatis personae, Father Christmas. This figure, recognizable always by his beard, tells us how he comes, “welcome or welcome not” and is clearly a personification of the season itself. Next we meet his “son” the gallant knight, often called St. George or St. Patrick, but he has as many names as there are saints and heroes. Last comes the fearsome foe, usually portrayed as a “worm” or dragon, although at times a corrupt Sherriff or a Saracen warrior will fill this role.

The setup varies, but inevitably, hero and worm duke it out; and amazingly, the worm…wins. In a reversal of today’s tales of knights errant (complete with multimillion dollar exploding helicopter scenes) our hero simply and poignantly sinks to the ground, dead. A Doctor attempts to revive the hero, but usually it is the Fool, keeper of the ancient secrets, who brings him back to life. A final message of life and death is sung, followed by a song wishing the general populace and audience good health and a happy New Year. And until the year dies once again, all remains as it is, the sun has been killed and reborn and we will see spring once more.

This is not the only version of this rite in existence—many and varied are the forms it takes all over Europe and the UK. Straw Men, Mummers, Mystery Plays—they all stem from the same simple need, the need to see the sun rise again from the ashes of the old year.

The use of masks, or other disguises (mummers are also known as “guisers” or “guyzers” in many parts of Europe) is older than the content of the plays and may well represent one of the oldest known forms of theurgy in existence. Indigenous cultures don masks of animals and other spirits to draw into themselves the powers and skills of those animals, to gain blessings from those spirits. The Ancient Greeks used masks to represent qualities of character as expressed by the masks, as do Japanese Kabuki performers. In this way even a largely ill-educated audience will know who plays what role and what to expect of them. This is not only a feature of early (or primitive) drama, but of liturgy as well. When a man dons his priestly garments, he is no longer Bill, the man next door, but Father Simms, a representative of his God and a magic worker in his own right.

Even the word “mummer” has a context outside speech itself. We use “mum” as “keeping silent” and the word is etymologically related to “mime,” as well. In a mummer’s play, a mime’s performance, or a guizer’s dance, each role is indicated not by the words, but by the masks and clothing that are worn. Instantly the person in the straw costume, or rags, or motley, ceases to be the neighbor and takes on a more timeless role, whether it be evil personified as the Worm or Beelzebub, or the heroic victim, or the mourning father or incompetent doctor.

The celebration of Mummer’s plays continues unabated in many forms. Throughout Europe, the aforementioned Mystery Plays and Mummer’s Plays may be seen at almost any small town during the Christmas season. Here in America, the Revels (a holiday performance troupe that now has groups in 11 cities) incorporates a mumming into every holiday show. And of course, there are the famous Mummers who gather in Philadelphia, with their fantasias of feathers and music.
When you recognize a Fool by his motley and bells, or groan at the sight of a mime fighting his way into an invisible headwind, you are bridging the ages: participating in an act that pulled communities together in the dark of the year, performances that brought back the light. In the words of the Mummers themselves:

“We bid you all, both great and small, a happy, healthy New Year!”