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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Mumming Plays in Hardy's Wessex by Jerry Bird

Mumming plays, like several other winter customs, have enjoyed a huge revival in modern times, largely due to the enthusiasm of morris sides. This academic paper, a version of which was read at the Folklore Society conference in April of this year, delves into the mysterious origins of the Christmas mumming play, before examining its extent and importance in the County of Dorset.

Thomas Hardy famously used a mumming play as a dramatic device in his novel Return of the Native, and seems to have had an abiding interest in folk-drama generally; his last published work which was not poetry was The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, billed as a 'play for mummers'. He came from a long line of folk-musicians and his cousins performed in the Puddletown play. Despite this, the play he used in his novel appears not to have a local origin, though his description of the players was accurate, and he later borrowed a genuine Dorset script to write a new version for a stage production of Return in the 1920s, thus inadvertently becoming an early revivalist.

The author has collected together numerous references to mumming plays in Dorset, and the paper is well illustrated with photographs from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and elsewhere. The incident in which the Fordington mummers did battle with the Bockhampton band in Dorchester in 1845 is covered, with contemporary newspaper accounts reproduced here in full for the first time.The author explores the social and economic background to this event in the context of the upheavals of the time amongst the rural workforce, which included rick-burnings and the'Swing riots' as well as the Tolpuddle Martyrs' trial.

The Symondsbury Mummers
The well-known folklorist John Symonds Udal, author of Dorsetshire Folk-lore was an early collector of mumming plays, and fortunately the author was able to have access to his original play scripts and notes. There seems to have been a distinctive character to West Dorset plays in particular, which incorporated other traditions such as the 'hobby horse' and the Dorset Ooser.

The Appendix includes the scripts of ten Dorset plays, including Hardy's own version. These are well annotated with extensive notes, and illustrations, including some musical notation and a photograph of one of Udal's original scripts.

Like most academic offprints, the presentation is somewhat plain, being a straightforward reproduction of pages from the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Proceedings, bound with a plastic clip. Like the Proceedings, however, it is printed to A4 format, and so is equivalent to a paperback with over twice its number of pages, and is some 36,500 words long.

  • Mumming Plays in Hardy's Wessex is available, printed to order, from Merry Meet Magazine at the address below, or from the website www.merrymeetmagazine.co.uk, priced at £ 12.50 inc. UK p&p. The price is the actual cost of production and postage.

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