Wadard Mummers

Around the season of Yuletide the gentlemen of the Wadard Morris assume slightly different personae. They become: The Wadard Mummers.

Each house is swept the day before
And windows stuck with evergreens,
The snow is besomed from the door
And comfort crowds the cottage scenes.
The sing waits, a merry throng,
At early morn with simple skill
Yet imitate the Angel's song
And chant their Christmas ditty still

When this past, a merry crew,
Bedeck'd in masks and ribbons gay,
The "Morris Dance", their sport renew,
And act their winter evening play.
And oft for pence and spicy ale,
With winter nosegays pinn'd before,
The wassail singer tells her tale,
And chants her Christmas Carol o'er.

From "The Shepherd's Calendar" by John Clare - 1827

In happier days, before the advent of television and other sophisticated forms of mass entertainment, troupes of Mummers, rustic actors wearing outrageous disguises, travelled about the parish performing their plays for rich and poor alike at Yuletide. At village taverns and the homes of the gentry the same characters acted out their roles year by year; the dialogue handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, unchanged lest the magic fade.

The significance of the plot, its meanings and morals, was largely lost on the players who used the drama as a means of raising a modest handout from more affluent onlookers. Over the years the dialogue itself became corrupted and the characters encouraged to engage in absurd slapstick to hold the attention of the audience who had seen it all before.

Mumming Plays are popularly believed to be a harmless remnant of what was once a potent pre-Christian ritual performed at the darkest time of the year when life appeared to have departed from the fields and orchards upon which primitive rural communities depended for their survival. The prosperity of the community depended upon supplicating and placating the Gods of Earth, Weather and Hearth.

The ceremony, probably carried out at a sacred place, would be conducted by the local Shaman with a picked group of acolytes, heavily disguised to enable them to step into their roles more easily. There would be a portrayal of the earliest animist Gods (Jack-in-the-Green or John Barleycorn) under one or other of their many titles, and he would be put to death as a kind of sacrifice to the forces controlling the cycle of the seasons. Then, using the Magic he had inherited, the Shaman would cause the victim to be reborn with as much vigour as he had had before. Thus would the land be regenerated, the corn grow, the trees become fruitful and the livestock increase; wealth and prosperity would be guaranteed for the coming year as long as the ritual was maintained.

With the coming of Christianity it is likely that, in deeply superstitious rural communities, the abandonment of the Old Gods was a slow process and that both religions ran side by side as an insurance against ill-fortune. Yet, as time went by and anything that smacked of witchcraft or heresy began to be vigorously persecuted, the rituals of the Old Religion began to change, for their very survival, into what became harmless pastoral entertainments: something archaic, oddities, tainted with impropriety, quaint ( but,best of all, preserved).

To be tolerated by the Church, which became all-powerful in the ordering of society in the Middle Ages, the vestiges of the old rituals began to include characters such as St. George, as a hero of Christendom, and the Saracen, or Turkish Knight, as a villain upholding Paganism. It can be imagined that the effect of such enforced compromise came to diminish the mysticism and potency of the ritual. "'t were never done loike that in moi day! In moi day, 't were done proper".

The play performed every Yuletide by the Wadard Troupe was collected by a local antiquarian from an original source in the village of Sutton-at-Hone in the valley of the river Darent in northwest Kent. It features just 5 performers and a musician or Master of Ceremonies who animates the audience and supplies percussion emphasis to some of the action.

The play is begun, and also completed, by a song and the marching in and out by the players in a circle, clockwise. Next, Old Grandfather Christmas, a crusty, hoary old character in robes of green introduces himself. Then the Turkish Knight, clad in black from head to foot issues his boastful challenge to Bold George, who appears in spotless white, to fight and eventually slay his opponent. With remorse, George calls upon a Doctor, a burlesque charlatan who, using his unlikely skills (about which he is far from modest), revives the villain. The fight resumes but is halted by Old Grandfather Christmas who reconciles them by telling them that they might fight again another day! Lastly, Johnny-Jack, epitomising the common man, steps in to importune the onlookers and conclude the drama.

Keith Ford (Master of Ceremonies for the Wadard Mummers)

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