Socially-engaged collective creation and alternative and experimental theatre company, founded in 1973 in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador by Christopher Brookes, Lynne Lunde, and John Doyle. Choosing topical and controversial subjects, the troupe performed in shopping malls and union halls, city buses and airports. It was initially funded by the Canada Council, until deemed too uncomfortably political and not sufficiently aesthetic.
Its name derives from its first presentation, a revival in 1974 of the Mummers play of King George, which originated in British community rituals, and was traditionally performed door-to-door in Newfoundland during the Christmas season. (The Newfoundland Mummers are graphically evoked in the etchings of David Blackwood.) The play typically involves a combat between King George and the Turkish knight, and subliminally references pre-Christian fertility and resurrection rituals. Christopher Brookes saw in this medieval expression of popular culture a carnivalesque response to political and social authority – and “the commodified bourgeois culture that has suppressed and displaced indigeneity” (Filewod) – the “authentic” culture of Newfoundland.
The Mummers Troupe worked with unions and other politicized groups to script their plays. They also utilized the anarchic satiric style of the “Punch and Judy” puppet show, and the minstrel show. Between 1972 and 1983 they produced ten Mummers plays, four of which were directed by Christopher Brookes. In Gros Mourn (1973) the Mummers critically examined the relocation of residents of the village of Sally’s Cove on the west coast of Newfoundland by Parks Canada for the development of a national park, named Gros Morne. They employed the documentary, collective style of the early Theatre Passe Muraille productions, interviewing local people, and dramatizing their idioms and customs.
Other collective creations include: Buchans/Company Town (1974); Dying Hard (1975); IWA Loggers Strike (1975); Stars in the Sky Morning (written by women about Newfoundland women's experience, 1978); What's That Got to Do With the Price of Fish? (an Oxfam commissioned play, 1976), Silakepat Kissiane/Weather Permitting (about life in Nain, Labrador, 1977}; and They Club Seals, Don’t They?, which toured across Canada in 1978, and incited considerable controversy, since it sympathetically presented the viewpoint of the sealers and was funded by the Newfoundland government. A central monologue spoken by a woman remembering her father who died on the ice while sealing, and which encodes a heroic/survivalist Newfoundland mythology, was written by Michael Cook.
As Alan Filewod recounts in “Dissent on Ice: The Mummers Enact the Public Sphere”:
[They Club Seals, Don’t They?] incited protests and radio call-in shows, questions in Parliament, and passionate invective. More than any other play of the past several decades, it evoked the kind of public response that the vision of a national theatre culture projected. Here was a play that was rooted in a sense of community, that expressed regional particularity, that provoked audiences with bravado and passion.
In 1978, a group of actors, including Donna Butt, left the Mummers Troupe to form Rising Tide Theatre. Brookes resigned in 1980 after controversy over his management, and the Mummers disbanded two years later.
Further reading: Chris Brookes. A Public Nuisance: A History of the Mummers Troupe, 1988.
Alan Filewod. Performing Canada: The Nation Enacted in the Imagined Theatre, 2002.
Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University
Last updated 2018-01-11