It has become traditional for us to dance at lunchtime on Boxing Day in the village of Shenstone, south of Lichfield, and perform our Mummers Play. We normally dance at two pubs and a collection is made, the proceeds of which go to St Giles Hospice at Whittington near Lichfield.
The play was written by one of our ex-members, Dick Hodges, but sometimes the words bear only a slight resemblance to the original writing! The Mummers Play follows the story of other similar plays but this one contains references to the various Lichfield dances for which our side is the custodian.
The play starts with the entrance of The Green Man, representing our Morris dancing side, saying, "Dear friends of Lichfield, hear my call. Please pay attention one and all. This fiery creature before your eyes, Is but a neighbour in unusual guise, And beneath this awesome mask and coat of green, A kinder and more generous heart has never been." He introduces the Sheriff who enters on a horse, reflecting St. George of other plays but here appearing as the Sheriff of Lichfield City commemorating the Sheriff's Ride, a traditional event of the city and one of our Lichfield dances. He recounts, "Of true and noble birth am I, A gallant knight, both brave and strong, I'll give my life if I am wrong."
Vandals arrive to start a fight with the Sheriff. Representing evil, they recall the Lichfield dance, The Vandals of Hammerwich, possibly named for the group of arsonists who torched The King's Wood west of Lichfield where the town of Burntwood now stands. After a period of taunting, "Vandals are we two, Who have come to put an end to you. Thou art a varlet and a schemer, Who shall be hanged for your demeanours," a fight ensues and the Sheriff is mortally wounded.
The Fool, Nuts in May, enters. Named after another Lichfield Dance he recounts, "In comes I, young sporting Sam. Don't you think I'm a funny young man? There is no Lichfield Dance that has a fool, So I'm called Nuts in May to keep the rule." He also reminds us of another Lichfield Dance, this one named after the Iron-Age Hill Fort on Cannock Chase, close to Lichfield, "I often walk near the Castle Ring." He trips over the prone Sheriff and utters, "Someone has dead-ed him, oh crikey, corks, A doctor, a doctor is there a doctor in the house?"
This attracts a player in dark clothing representing The Barefooted Quaker, named after another Lichfield dance and reflecting an event of 1651 when Dr. George Fox, a leading Quaker of the time who had just been released from jail, entered the City of Lichfield on a market day and was moved to shout, "Woe to thee, thou bloody city." Asked by Nuts if he can cure the dead Sheriff, the Quaker admits that he can only pray for him.
Following a further call for a doctor, one finally enters, replying to the customary, "What can you cure?" with, "The ipsy, pipsy, palsy, gout, Pains within and pains without, All aches and ills from top to toe, My fee, a hundred guineas, though." There then follows a period of variable length and content in which the doctor takes items from his case and administers them to the still-prone Sheriff. Although the Sheriff's body responds in various ways to the application of the items, no cure can be found. In recent versions of the play the Sheriff is then miraculously revived following a kiss from a young lady in the audience. The doctor calls for his payment but later agrees to waive his fee reminding us of Milley's Bequest, another Lichfield dance, named after a womens' almshouse near Lichfield Cathedral and known as Dr. Milley's hospital. Established around 1424 it was reendowed around 1502 by Thomas Milley, a canon of the cathedral.
In some earlier versions of the play, the Sheriff, Green Man and doctor then perform the Lichfield 3-Man Jig and then the company performs a rapper sword dance introduced with a traditional "Calling-on" song. Today, a longsword dance is performed based on a tradition from the north east of England. The crowning glory and end of the piece is the formation of the six-sided swordlock which leads the players off. The Quaker concludes, saying, "In the distance I can hear, Ring O' Bells both loud and clear. Now dear friends, it's time to go. We trust you have enjoyed our show. This is the spot in which you join. Come, fill my hat with silver coin." The Ring O' Bells is another Lichfield dance, named after a peal of bells from the Cathedral or perhaps after a pub in the City.
The full text of the original play is here but some minor revisions are pending.
Some information, photographs and the words of the Boxing Day play performed previously in Bromsgrove can be found here.