The Llantwit Major mummers' play
Collectors: Rhodri Jones and Steve Hyde
Taplas, June/July 2008: By Mick Tems
One of the fascinations about uncovering long-lost Welsh mummers’ plays is that the actors don’t know it’s a mummers’ play until you suggest it. You know the one about Father Christmas, Robin Hood, Johnny Funny, Doctor Brown and Happy Jack, where all the participants sweep in, proclaiming: “In steps I?” – that’s a mummers’ play and it comes from Llantwit Major, for sure.
The mummers of this Vale of Glamorgan village - children who dressed in a red dressing gown, a sack and turned their school uniforms inside out – have been blessed by not one, but two collectors. Rhodri Jones, librarian of the Welsh Folk Dance Society and one of the stalwarts of Cwmni Caerdydd, the Cardiff dancers, was the first to record this mysterious play in the early 1970s when the vicar of Llantwit Major showed him a half-remembered text. The TV age had just started, and the play died out in the 1950s - just one of the victims of the fledgling goggle-box.
Last year, social worker Steve Hyde, of West Aberthaw , was giving talks to a group of pensioners about old customs, Morris dancing and traditional music for Vale of Glamorgan Council’s series of Lunchtime Lectures. So the pensioners would understand what a mummers’ play was, he quoted a few lines from the Llantwit Major play. However, he was contacted by a woman who recognised the play. She told Steve that her father went round with the play, around 1938 or 1939. Local children called it The Father Christmas Gang.
Steve followed up the research and met Desmond Johnson, one of the mummers in the play. Desmond, of Seaview Place, Llantwit Major, was in his eighties. As a child, Desmond would go out in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. He did not know what a mummers’ play was, but he was adamant that it had come from Somerset.
“He couldn’t remember how he had learned the lines,” said Steve. “The play was passed on by children, who passed it down to other children. Desmond played Father Christmas - he was the only one with a red dressing gown, and the white beard was home-made. Robin Hood wore a costume made out of a sack, and the others simply turned their school uniforms inside out and put mud or blacking on their faces, so they would look different.
“They would go to pubs where they had asked the landlord, just to raise a few pence. The Father Christmas Gang had to watch out for other rival gangs, and the Mari Lwyd, too. The Mari party, groups of men, would chase them down the street and beat them, give them a thick ear.
“That’s interesting, on two points: the men didn’t like the mummers, who they saw as pinching the change out of the pubs, and it was a cultural rivalry as well – Welsh versus English. Llantwit Major was influenced by the English language – it’s only 12 miles to Somerset. There’s a fault line running from the Blue Anchor inn, Aberthaw, to Blue Anchor in Somerset, consisting of blue clay. Ships would be harboured, and the first thing crews would notice was the blue anchor.
“Here in Wales, it’s unfortunate that these English-language customs aren’t really researched. For me, it represents the authentic voice of ordinary working people.”
The text Steve has was written by another elderly person, who does not wish to be named. He said: “Desmond has seen the text and confirms that it is correct, but he thinks there are some lines and other characters missing. I think that the Llantwit Major mummers’ play is accurate, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“Rhodri’s group tried to act it out, to pad up the text, and it would be great if this were to happen in Llantwit Major again. I’m more interested in why people did it, rather than the ancient origins – if there are any. For instance, two acedemics, Baskerville and Chambers in the 1920s and 1930s, thought mummers’ plays were traces of literary works, but people like Fraser thought they were pre-Christian fertility rites.
“One fascinating thing is that mummers’ plays bind all the people together, whether they be from Wales , Ireland , Scotland or England . They are a very British pastime, which I rather like.”
Texts produced by the mummers say the play came from Somerset – but, very mysteriously, the trail stops here. Steve has researched the Somerset plays in detail, but the unusual form and characters of the Llantwit Major play represent a poser. He is certain that no play came from the West Country – but there are certain similarities among the Crwmpyn John play of the upper Swansea Valley and the Llwynypia play.
Steve said: “Desmond was called up in 1945, and he thinks this war, like the one before it, had a devastating effect on the Welsh way of life.
“He is happy to be associated with the play. He was astonished that someone took an interest - to him, it was a half-remembered pastime from his childhood.”
The Father Christmas Gang: Steve Hyde's text
Father Christmas: In steps I old Father Christmas, short hair and long whiskers
I welcome you in as I welcome you out,
I wish you all a Merry Christmas.
Happy Jack: In steps I old Happy Jack, wife and children on my back,
One in the Union , two at home and one in the corner a-chewing a bone.
Robin Hood: In steps I Old Robin Rood, my father lived in the woods,
For forty years I killed a thousand men, and I mean to do the same again.
Now look here, Happy Jack. I thought last night you said you’d knock my giblets out and make my buttons fly. So pull out your purse and pay, or pull out your sword and fight.
(Robin Hood and Happy Jack draw their swords and fight. Happy Jack falls dead upon the floor.)
Dr Brown: In steps I old Dr Brown, the best old doctor in the town.
Robin Hood: What are your travels?
Dr Brown: England , Scotland , France and Spain . Now I return to dear old England again.
Robin Hood: What can you cure?
Dr Brown: A dead man. (Produces a bottle out of his case and pours something down Happy Jack’s throat. Happy Jack recovers and gets up.)
All sing: Happy Jack’s Alive again! Happy Jack’s Alive again! (repeat five times)
He’ll never fight no more
He’ll be the kind of brother that never was before.
Johnny Funny: In steps I old Johnny Funny, I’m the man to collect the money. Money I want and money I’ll have. If I don’t have money I’m sure to starve.
Gower animal head customs: Mumbles
Last updated 08 March 2010 . Copyright © 1999 Celfyddydau Mari Arts.
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