is a ritual play that is well over a thousand years
old. Whilst it is traditionally associated with the
Christmas period (Midwinter Solstice),
it is said to be linked with pagan rites showing the
triumph of life over death (death and resurrection).
Indeed, in other parts of the country they are even
performed at Easter and All Souls Day (near Samhain).
The word 'Mummer' comes from the German 'Mummerspiel', meaning 'Masked Play' or Masquerade. The principal issues of birth, death, resurrection are pre-Christian and possibly pre-civilization. The principal characters can be traced back through recorded history.
In their present form the plays probably date from the middle ages although nothing was written down (as with any folk traditions), and there are no recorded references before 18thC. They were common in 18/19thC with numerous villages hosting a version of the standard format. The words and theme were learnt verbally (and sometimes kept within families), hence changes to characters through mishearing/misunderstanding (Turkey Snite = Turkish Knight, Jack Finney = Jack Vinney, etc.).
The absence of formal script meant much ad libbing and working in of topical events. Maintaining anonymity of the players seemed to be a key feature and the costumes frequently covered the performers faces or they wore blacking. This may have been to preserve the mystique of the performance or to give the players more freedom of expression. Whatever the origins, villagers thought it bad luck if they could identify a performer.
Links are suggested with the touring groups of players (strolling theatrical companies) popular in Tudor times who invariably performed a play around the legend of St. George fighting and triumphing over evil (symbolised by the dragon). Similar plays exist in other parts of Europe (e.g. Balkans, Romania, etc.).
For the Wantage Mummers, the principal characters are as follows:
- Molly (Man/woman) – Whiffler or sweeper – is sometimes Father Xmas
- King Alfred – Possibly originally St. George, then King George, then localised
- French Officer - Beau Slasher – in other places Turkish Knight probably older – the traditional Christian enemy – the nearest Muslim country Turkey. St George / Muslim conflict, in the Crusades. French Officer – based on Napoleon, a 'more recent' enemy?
- Dr. Good – a quack doctor or faith healer? Now called Dr. Squires
- Jack Vinney – based on Jean Vianney, the French catholic priest – a mystic from Spain (mistaken for France?)
- Happy Jack – the beggar collecting the money for the performance
- Old Father Beelzebub – the name derives from a powerful evil sprit but is probably used here in an ironic sense for a kind of soothsayer role.
The play involves a fight scene in which
first King Alfred is 'killed' by Beau Slasher. After
being brought back to life by the The Noble Dr Good,
the two fight again. This time it is the turn
of Beau Slasher to die. He too is brought back to life.
The play finishes with a dance between the ex-combatants
and a monologue by Old Father Beelzebub who comments on the
issues of the day.
We have performed the Wantage Mummers Play since 1977, which is based on an old tradition from the nearby village of Steventon that was rediscovered
Williams, an Old Boy of The Side.
We perform our play on December 26th. The Icknield Way Morris Men sponsor the Wantage Mummers.
There is now a new web site for the Wantage Mummers: