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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Marshfield Mummers, Gloucestershire

Mummer plays survive, or at least have been revived, all over the country (though there is a dearth of them in East Anglia for some reason), performed mainly at Christmas and Easter (which is one of several reasons for doubting suggestions that this is an ancient pagan tradition).
Three different types of mummer play can be found all over: the combat; the love play, and the sword-dance, the first of these being the most commonly encountered. There are elements found in each local version of these that indicate a common origin, again pushing us towards the idea that they may have been created since printing began.
Mummers perform in pubs, in the open, and at private houses - this is not a dramatic tradition in any way associated with the stage. In times past troupes were said to walk twenty miles and more in a day, giving performances wherever they knew there was payment or a pint in it. The style of acting itself is equally un-stagy, the players standing largely still, their gestures stylised, their voices natural (though modern versions often go against this, hamming things up, and playing the whole thing for laughs rather than as is traditional just certain snippets).
Many of the original plays died out at the end of the nineteenth century, though a handful continued. Perhaps one of the central aspects of the thing didn't appeal to the staid Victorians - it was almost begging, and much drinking was associated with the tradition, performances at pubs paid in beer being very much a part of it.
The play at Marshfield is part traditional, part re-imagining: it had ceased to be performed there in about 1880, but by happy chance the vicar in the village in 1931 was the brother of folklorist Violet Alford. He happened to hear his gardener saying some of the opening lines from a mummer play, and things took off from there, with the first revival performances at Christmas 1932.
Sadly, though she was a historian of folk traditions, Violet Alford could not resist 'improving' the play, changing things a little from what elderly residents recalled very well about the original script and characters. The traditional St George became King William in her adaptation, for example, and Father Christmas was added (though in her favour he is traditional elsewhere).
Otherwise the Marshfield version is very traditional, a version of the combat play (where one character kills another and the dead man is brought back to life by a quack doctor). The actors in Marshfield present their drama seriously, resisting the temptation to play to the crowds. The players wear costumes with strips of coloured paper or wallpaper hanging from their clothes, said by some to be a link with ancient players who dressed in leaves in some fertility rite, and seen elsewhere in the country. These costumes give the troupe its alternative name: the Marshfield Paper Boys.
The antiquity of the Marshfield play itself is claimed by some to date to the twelfth century. In Marshfield too it is a local custom, kept local, with roles passed to family members of those already in the troupe, and a requirement that players have a genuine Marshfield accent.
The Marshfield Mummers play on Boxing Day, and draw large crowds to witness their performances.

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