Lydgate's Mummings and the Aristocratic Resistance to Drama

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In an article in PMLA in October 1998, W. B. Worthen declared "a conceptual crisis in drama studies." (1) Over the last two decades, the field of performance studies has coalesced around assertions of the primacy of temporal performance over the presumed authority of the written text; thus drama studies, from which performance studies emerged, has been left in a critical quandary. The essential problem, Worthen says, is that "the burgeoning of performance studies has not really clarified the relation between dramatic texts and performance." (2)

Also in 1998, Derek Forbes staged Lydgate's Mumming at Hertford at Hertford Castle, the location of its original performance, and then published his adapted text along with an account of the production under the title Lydgate's Disguising at Hertford Castle: The First Secular Comedy in the English Language. (3) The subtitle is erroneous, but Forbes's production was the first stage presentation of this or any of Lydgate's mummings since their original performances in the late 1420s. (4) To accomplish his restaging, however, Forbes had to make numerous alterations to Lydgate's text beyond simply updating the language--including having an actor in the role of King Henry VI, and providing dialogue for players who were originally mute.

Like theater in the twenty-first century, Lydgate's fifteenth-century mummings inhabit the interstices between drama and performance, between performance and text. They have dramatic qualities without seeming to qualify fully as drama. They are performance texts, but the relationship of the text to the performance is deeply vexed. Are they the scripts of a performed work, or do they commemorate a spectacle and therefore belong to that great "other" category of literature, the "occasional" work? But though they exist in a critical twilight, they are significant to theater history, if primarily as textual evidence of rudimentary early drama. (5) To literary criticism, they are virtually invisible. It is axiomatic that literary history is biased toward high art at the expense of popular culture; that it chooses the elite over the demotic; that it favors the secular over the religious; that it prefers the capital to the provinces. Nonetheless, The New History of Early English Drama has index entries neither for "Lydgate" nor for "mumming," while William Tydeman, writing in the recent Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, mentions the mummings only to dismiss them in a single paragraph as associated with the"sterile pageants in aureate verse" that Lydgate produced for ceremonial occasions. (6)

The "mumming" has a complex and often obscure history of shifting generic boundaries. An essential feature, as the name implies, is silence, and a "mumming" most often describes a dumb-show, a performance by nonspeaking actors; as such it is an ancient form that survives today in English Christmas mummings. The courtly entertainments known as mummings constitute the prehistory of the celebrated Stuart masque. (7) Theater historians have hypothesized that they derive from the quete, the ancient custom in which groups of masked individuals would enter noble households for impromptu and often coercive exchanges of gifts,"a practice that lies somewhere between seeking donations and holding people to ransom." (8) This disorderly custom, it is said, was eventually overtaken, stylized, and controlled by the aristocrats themselves. (9)

Lydgate's mummings comprise seven texts that appear exclusively in two manuscripts by John Shirley, six in Cambridge, Trinity College MS. R.3.20, and one in Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 59, part 1. (10) The central and intractable question is the relationship of these texts to the occasions from which they arise. Since they are texts, the designation "mummings" increases the generic confusion, and Shirley's typically loquacious introductions only muddy the water further. …