One of the most curious traditions in England must be the performance of the mummer’s play, usually performed at Christmas time by a group of men dressed in tatter coats and with blackened faces.

Each town’s mummer play would be slightly different to everyone else’s – perhaps some local famous or infamous figure would be included among the cast list; the village of Penn for example has a mummer’s play that includes Dr Dodd, a vicar who was hanged for forgery. Although the scripts vary throughout the country they all follow the same basic theme: a hero and villain fight and one of them is killed; a doctor is called and the dead man is miraculously revived. It may be that the plays are a memory of a much older ritual evoking the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. The script is usually only a few minutes long, more doggerel than art, and performed by village locals going from house to house or pub to pub. It has largely died out today but the plays may still be performed by folklore enthusiasts. The mummer’s play for Thame is particularly interesting: there are two scripts.

Both are quite different and it is curious that both should have been performed in such a small town. Were there two rival sides? Did one play supercede the other? Or could it be, as one folklore expert hints, that one of the plays is a fake?

One of the plays was first written down in 1936 by a James Carpenter. He was told it by an Edward Charles Newitt who explained it had been passed down from generation to generation. (This is logged in the Vaughan Williams Library.)

The second, and more colourful play, was written down by a Revd. Frederick Lee of Lambeth who says he saw it acted in the Hall of the Old Vicarage at Thame in the year 1839 (Source: Notes and Queries, 5th series, Vol II, Dec 26th 1874, p 503 -505).

He sent it for publication in Notes and Queries magazine of December 26, 1874. He writes as an introduction:

“The text of the play was taken down by myself from the lips of one of the performers in 1853. I first saw it enacted in the Hall of Old Vicarage House at Thame in the year 1839, by those whose custom it had been from time immemorial to perform it at the houses of the gentle-people of that neighbourhood at Christmas between St Thomas’s Day (December 21st) and Old Christmas Eve (January 5th).

“These performers – now long succeeded and all dead but one, as I am informed – claimed to be ‘true and legitimate successors’ of the members who in previous centuries, constantly performed at the Whitsun and Christmas Church Ales, records of which are found on almost every page of the Stewards and Churchwardens Book of the Prebendal Church of Our Blessed Lady of Thame.

“In Mr Lupton’s History of Thame, some account of these performances is given while in the Address prefacing his privately printed and curious tract, Extracts from the Accounts of the Proctors and Stewards &c; of that town, he refers to the exceeding great popularity of the mumming for many years. In Lord Wenman’s time (1790) the performance were annually given at Thame Park and at The Baronial Hall of Brill, about 1808-14, the entertainment was attended by the nobility and gentry for miles round, as is reported to have been produced on a scale of considerable magnificence.

“The man from whom I took down the following in my notebook had performed at Brill in 1807 and his father had done the same at Thame Park in the previous century. I do not profess to be able to explain the text of the play, nor can I quite admire all its points. Its coarseness too is not to my taste. Least of all can I comprehend its purport. Its anachronisms will be patent to all. But at least its action is vigorous and, when I was a boy, I confess that I thought the performance was most colourful and impressive.

“As the late Mr Lupton informed me of so much that is here set forth, I may add that he, at the same time, expressed his conviction that my version of the play is most probably the only one that had ever been committed to paper, for the dialogue was purely traditional and handed down from father to son. Nothing whatsoever has been altered or added by myself. I have only ventured to put the directions in italics and in a little more concise, intelligible language than that in which they were dictating to me.”

Admiral that the introduction is, it may be that the Revd. Lee was lying.

Stephen Roud of the Traditional Drama Research Group writes:

“Although Lee states that he recorded the words form one of the performers, the text he gives is so very untypical of mummers from Oxfordshire (or anywhere else for that matter) as to invite suspicion of its authenticity. The text given by Carpenter is much more typical” (Source: Stephen Roud, Mumming plays in Oxfordshire: an interim checklist. University of Sheffield, The Traditional Drama Research Group, 1984).

Stephen expounded further his suspicions in a letter to us in October 1986:

“The main reason, of course, is that it is abnormal. I don’t know if you’ve read or heard many traditional mummers’ texts, but of the several hundred in my collection (and hundreds of others in friends’ files) there are one or two which are so different that they stick out like sore thumbs.

” The Lee text is one of them. When you compare text after text and find that there are remarkable similarities (although there are, of course, always differences as is the nature of folklore), when one comes up which is so very very different it must cause a question mark to be placed against it. In Lee’s text there are only two or three lines which are to be found elsewhere, the whole feel of the rhythm of the speeches is odd, and there are character names which appear to be unique. All this adds up to something very odd indeed. Against this we have to balance Lee’s quite clear assertion that he noted the play from the lips of one of the performers. However, mid-19th century antiquarians are not noted for their accuracy or their honesty, and it is not inconceivable that Lee really did tamper with the text (or that someone ‘educated’ had done so before him). The inclusion of a dragon in Lee’s play puts one very big question mark over the text. There are probably only 15 mummer plays with dragons in them throughout the hundreds in this country. It is possible that the traditional Thame mummers had preserved a type of text which had long since disappeared elsewhere (there is some evidence that in former times mummers performed a wider range of plays than we now realise). It is equally possible that some local worthy (clergyman, schoolmaster etc) rewrote the local play to improve it, if so, he did a pretty bad job. We also can’t discount the possibility that Lee lied, or at least stretched the truth somewhat.

” There is one further possibility. Lee does not actually say who the mummers were. It is not unknown (although usually at a much later date) for local gentry with antiquarian tastes to get up mummers plays to amuse themselves and their guests. If something like this had happened, and had been performed for a few years, then Lee’s claims could be quite genuine, as far as his knowledge was concerned. It is quite possible that we’ll never know.”

The rewriting of mummer plays by antiquarians happened in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where the original play (which included a hobby horse) was rewritten by famed author G K Chesterton.

If Lee didn’t lie he was certainly sloppy. He says Lupton gives some account of these performances (of the play) in his History of Thame. But Lupton does not. He says Lupton refers in his pamphlet Extracts from the Accounts of the Proctors and Stewards that mumming had been popular for many years. Lupton does not. In that pamphlet he does refer to the popularity for many years of morris dancing. Since Lee mistakenly headlines the mummer play as a miracle play, it may be that Lee didn’t really have any idea of the difference between any of these very different traditions.

One wonders if this is the standard of Lee’s work, whether we can continue to accept his other texts such as The History & Antiquities of the Prebendal Church of St Mary’s, Thame.

The other main objection to Lee’s mummer play is the existence of another play recorded in 1936 from an Edward Charles Newitt who claimed it had been performed for generations. Arguing against the Newitt version is the ambiguous phrase on the top of the transcript ‘came from Yorkshire’.

So it may be the Newitt version was imported into Thame by the Newitts and succeeded the original, Lee, version. We may never know the truth although we can be reasonably sure that a mummers play of some description was performed during the last century in Thame.

It probably died out at the turn of the 20th century and undoubtedly the town has been poorer for its loss. It is worth considering that the rhyme commonly told about James Figg, the celebrated swordsman from Thame who died in 1734, has much of the sound of a mummer’s play about it. The rhyme goes:

“Here I am
Jemmy Figg from Thame,
I will fight any man in England”

It may be Figg was incorporated into Thame’s mummer play during his life time.