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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 11. Development of the Mummers’ Play

The mummers’ plays show another stage of advance. In them, the central incident is still the killing and restoring to life of one of the characters, and there is still enough dancing to show their descent from the sword-dance. First, the characters are introduced in a speech; then comes the drama, in which each personage has his own introductory announcement; and the whole winds up with the entrance of subsidiary characters, more dancing and the inevitable collection—in itself a survival of hoary antiquity. The old grotesques of the village festival are mainly relegated to the third part of the performance; and the principal characters, presented under almost infinite variety of manner and style, are a hero, his chief opponent and the (usually comic) doctor. The hero sometimes kills and sometimes is killed by his opponent; in either case, the doctor comes to restore the dead man to life. The name of the hero is almost always saint, king, or prince George; the chief opponent is divisible into two types: the Turkish knight, who sometimes has a black face, and a kind of capitano or blustering Bobadill. There is also a large variety of subsidiary fighters. The grotesques of the sword-dance, now pushed away into the third part of the performance, include such figures as the fool, or the Beelzebub, who, perhaps, are the same person under different names, the “Bessy” and the Hobby-horse. Sometimes, these figures are allowed a subordinate position in the drama itself.

The presence of St. George (for king and prince George may be regarded as Hanoverian “improvements”) implies the influence of heroic legend and literature. It is very seldom that anything more than a passing reference to the exploits of the saint is found in the mummers’ play; and, though the dragon appears here and there, the contest with him is never the main point of the action. How St. George came into the story at all is a matter of some obscurity. He was, undoubtedly, the patron saint of England. His day, 23 April, was a day on which processions or “ridings” in his honour—in which the representations of his defeat of the dragon had replaced, perhaps, the earlier subject of the victory of summer over winter—were organised by the guilds of St. George in many parts of England. These “ridings,” which lasted even as late as the eighteenth century, were dumb shows or pageants rather than plays; but cases are known of religious dramas on the subject. It is possible that the sword-dance, in its development into the mummers’ play, was influenced by these “ridings” and by the miracle-plays. On the other hand, the name of St. George may have come into them by way of Richard Johnson’s History of the Seven Champions, first published in 1596–7. In either case, the introduction of this character has modified the popular cantilenae which formed the basis of the rude dialogue accompanying the symbolical representation.