We air now aiming to give a dumb show for to pleasure the Little Teacher

Posted by | December 16, 2013

I thought no more of old time play acting in the mountain country till on Christmas Eve in 1930 some of the men and boys at Gander [KY] presented for me an old mummers’ play. Later two of the men gave me a fairly complete text for the play.

…All of the contributors were old people, and the play presented at Christmas time in 1930 was almost as new for the young people who belonged to the community as it was for me. Thirty or more years had passed since its last performance, and the play will not be presented again by this community because the two men who knew the text are both dead.

–Marie Campbell
Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1938

Mummer’s plays in Appalachia are direct descendants of the British custom of Christmas masking, or “mumming,” which can be traced to the English court as early as the reign of Edward III. Mummers (Merriam Webster’s— “one who goes merrymaking in disguise during festivals”) probably got the name from the German word ‘Vermummung,’ or disguise. The actors should be disguised, goes the thinking, for the magic of light overcoming darkness to be effective.

mummer drawingLong before radio or TV, mummer’s plays were put on by local people who walked from house to house and recited a play out loud. Mumming’s origin in European folk-custom seems to have been the coming of a band of worshippers clad in beasts’ heads and skins to bring good luck to a house. The most direct English survival is found in the village mummers who still call themselves “guisers” or “geese-dancers” and claim the right to enter every house. Sometimes they merely dance, sing, and feast, but commonly they perform a rude drama.

That rude drama is a ritual drama, probably of Saxon origin, where, in its simplest form, three characters act out the drama. The plays typically revolved around death and rebirth, like the seasons. Two heroes – usually including St. George (as Prince or King George) – enact a battle in which one is killed, then a doctor resurrects the fallen hero. Other stock characters include a Devil, a Dragon, and a Princess.

The mummer’s play that Marie Campbell witnessed in Gander KY in 1930 included a Presenter, Father Christmas, Dame Dorothy, Old Bet, The Bessie, Little Devil Doubt, Pickle Herring, and Doctor Good.

Campbell’s transcription of the play begins:

{After a huge bonfire has been made to give heat and light}

Presenter:

We air now aiming to give a dumb show
for to pleasure the Little Teacher
for not going off to the level country
to keep Christmas with her kin.
Hit ain’t noways perfect the way we act out this here dumb show,
but hit ain’t been acted out amongst our settlement
for uppards of twenty or thirty year, maybe more.
I reckon folks all knows hit air bad luck
to talk with the dumb show folks or guess who they air.
Now then we aim to start.

Read the full text of the play here.

Sources: www.folkplay.info/Texts/93–kycm.htm
www.tartanplace.com/christmas/12th/britishtwelve.html
www.gutenberg.org/files/19098/19098-h/19098-h.htm

Journal+of+American+Folklore mummers Gander+KY Marie+Campbell appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

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