Mummers were once found in nearly every village in England. Together with mystery and miracle plays they are survivors of folk drama. The purpose of the performance is a familiar one the world over - to ask for a blessing on spring crops and livestock after the cold winter and to celebrate the long dark days of winter gradually shortening as spring approaches.
A Mummers' Play is a story of combat, death and revival - in which one of the combatants is stricken down, but lives to fight another day, symbolising autumn and winter bursting to life again in the spring, then summer. Traditionally the players blackened their faces or wore other disguises so as not to be recognised. The mediaeval word "mummer" comes from the Old French "momer" meaning to put on a disguise.
The play was never performed on a formal stage, so it opens with a character asking for room for the players, sweeping clear an area for the performers to use. The main characters are two combatants (usually a national hero and a foreigner), and a quack doctor who tries to effect a cure. Since the beginning of the 15th century St. George has been a favourite as one of the heroes. In our play today he comes up against a cunning Turkish Knight. The local version of the Mummers' Play now revived by Dartington Morris was known to have been performed some 120 years ago by "The Christmas Boys" of Dartington. It would have been lost had not Willie Martin of Longcause persuaded Albert Hodge, whose family came from Harberton, to write down all he could remember of the play from his memory of going out performing with other choirboys around the 1870s.
The script that Willie and Albert wrote down was deposited in the library of Cecil Sharp House (the London home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) in 1948 but unfortunately was removed from the files there. Fortunately someone who was collecting folk plays had written it down in his notebook and eventually it made its way back to Dartington and you can see the Dartington Christmas Mummer's Play Script here. There is also a version of the Mummers play for times other than Christmas.