Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Mummer

The night before Christmas Eve I heard a burst of musical voices so close
that they might as well have been inside the house instead of just outside;
so I asked them inside, hoping that they might then seem farther away.
Then I realised that they were the Christmas Mummers, who come every year
in country parts to enact the rather rigid fragments of the old Christmas
play of St. George, the Turkish Knight, and the Very Venal Doctor. I will
not describe it; it is indescribable; but I will describe my parallel
sentiments as it passed.

One could see something of that half-failure that haunts our artistic
revivals of mediaeval dances, carols, or Bethlehem Plays. There are
elements in all that has come to us from the more morally simple society
of the Middle Ages: elements which moderns, even when they are
mediaevalists, find it hard to understand and harder to imitate. The
first is the primary idea of Mummery itself. If you will observe a child
just able to walk, you will see that his first idea is not to dress up as
anybody--but to dress up. Afterwards, of course, the idea of being the
King or Uncle William will leap to his lips. But it is generally
suggested by the hat he has already let fall over his nose, from far
deeper motives. Tommy does not assume the hat primarily because it is
Uncle William's hat, but because it is not Tommy's hat. It is a ritual
investiture; and is akin to those Gorgon masks that stiffened the dances
of Greece or those towering mitres that came from the mysteries of Persia.
For the essence of such ritual is a profound paradox: the concealment of
the personality combined with the exaggeration of the person. The man
performing a rite seeks to be at once invisible and conspicuous. It is
part of that divine madness which all other creatures wonder at in Man,
that he alone parades this pomp of obliteration and anonymity. Man is not,
perhaps, the only creature who dresses himself, but he is the only
creature who disguises himself. Beasts and birds do indeed take the
colours of their environment; but that is not in order to be watched, but
in order not to be watched; it is not the formalism of rejoicing, but the
formlessness of fear. It is not so with men, whose nature is the
unnatural. Ancient Britons did not stain themselves blue because they
lived in blue forests; nor did Georgian beaux and belles powder their hair
to match an Arctic landscape; the Britons were not dressing up as
kingfishers nor the beaux pretending to be polar bears. Nay, even when
modern ladies paint their faces a bright mauve, it is doubted by some
naturalists whether they do it with the idea of escaping notice. So
merry-makers (or Mummers) adopt their costume to heighten and exaggerate
their own bodily presence and identity; not to sink it, primarily speaking,
in another identity. It is not Acting--that comparatively low
profession-comparatively I mean. It is Mummery; and, as Mr. Kensit would
truly say, all elaborate religious ritual is Mummery. That is, it is the
noble conception of making Man something other and more than himself when
he stands at the limit of human things. It is only careful faddists and
feeble German philosophers who want to wear no clothes; and be "natural"
in their Dionysian revels. Natural men, really vigorous and exultant men,
want to wear more and more clothes when they are revelling. They want
worlds of waistcoats and forests of trousers and pagodas of tall hats
toppling up to the stars.

Thus it is with the lingering Mummers at Christmas in the country. If our
more refined revivers of Miracle Plays or Morrice Dances tried to
reconstruct the old Mummers' Play of St. George and the Turkish Knight (I
do not know why they do not) they would think at once of picturesque and
appropriate dresses. St. George's panoply would be pictured from the best
books of armour and blazonry: the Turkish Knight's arms and ornaments
would be traced from the finest Saracenic arabesques. When my garden door
opened on Christmas Eve and St. George of England entered, the appearance
of that champion was slightly different. His face was energetically
blacked all over with soot, above which he wore an aged and very tall top
hat; he wore his shirt outside his coat like a surplice, and he flourished
a thick umbrella. Now do not, I beg you, talk about "ignorance"; or
suppose that the Mummer in question (he is a very pleasant Ratcatcher,
with a tenor voice) did this because he knew no better. Try to realise
that even a Ratcatcher knows St. George of England was not black, and did
not kill the Dragon with an umbrella. The Rat-catcher is not under this
delusion; any more than Paul Veronese thought that very good men have
luminous rings round their heads; any more than the Pope thinks that
Christ washed the feet of the twelve in a Cathedral; any more than the
Duke of Norfolk thinks the lions on a tabard are like the lions at the Zoo.
These things are denaturalised because they are symbols; because the
extraordinary occasion must hide or even disfigure the ordinary people.
Black faces were to mediaeval mummeries what carved masks were to Greek
plays: it was called being "vizarded." My Rat-catcher is not sufficiently
arrogant to suppose for a moment that he looks like St. George. But he is
sufficiently humble to be convinced that if he looks as little like
himself as he can, he will be on the right road.

This is the soul of Mumming; the ostentatious secrecy of men in disguise.
There are, of course, other mediaeval elements in it which are also
difficult to explain to the fastidious mediaevalists of to-day. There is,
for instance, a certain output of violence into the void. It can best be
defined as a raging thirst to knock men down without the faintest desire
to hurt them. All the rhymes with the old ring have the trick of turning
on everything in which the rhymsters most sincerely believed, merely for
the pleasure of blowing off steam in startling yet careless phrases. When
Tennyson says that King Arthur "drew all the petty princedoms under him,"
and "made a realm and ruled," his grave Royalism is quite modern. Many
mediaevals, outside the mediaeval republics, believed in monarchy as
solemnly as Tennyson. But that older verse

When good King Arthur ruled this land
He was a goodly King--
He stole three pecks of barley-meal
To make a bag-pudding.

is far more Arthurian than anything in The Idylls of the King. There are
other elements; especially that sacred thing that can perhaps be called
Anachronism. All that to us is Anachronism was to mediaevals merely
Eternity. But the main excellence of the Mumming Play lies still, I think,
in its uproarious secrecy. If we cannot hide our hearts in healthy
darkness, at least we can hide our faces in healthy blacking. If you
cannot escape like a philosopher into a forest, at least you can carry the
forest with you, like a Jack-in-the-Green. It is well to walk under
universal ensigns; and there is an old tale of a tyrant to whom a walking
forest was the witness of doom. That, indeed, is the very intensity of
the notion: a masked man is ominous; but who shall face a mob of masks?

Gilbert Keith Chesterton