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Mummers can be found across the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities. They entertain at feasts and at tournaments, or give street performances, and some even operate at permanent playhouses. "Mummers" is a broad term, and there are in fact many sub-types of mummers which produce a wide range of entertainments: some act out short comedic skits, others give acrobatic performances or juggling tricks, many are musicians, and some act out full-length plays.
- "Mummers" is a pre-modern term used in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels for "actors". To avoid confusion for a modern audience, the Game of Thrones TV series has consistently just used the term "actors" instead.
- This article is nonetheless titled "Mummers" for two reasons. First, "mummers" in the novels is actually a broad term which covers a wider range of activities than just "acting" in plays - from acrobats to musicians to street performers - so that "entertainers" or "performers" are terms closer to the intended meaning. The second and more practical reason is that due to Game of Thrones Wiki focusing on the TV series adaptation, having an article titled "Actors" might have led to some confusion with the production articles about real-life actors who play characters in the TV series.
Mummers in Westeros
The novels make it fairly clear that the kind of full-length, scripted stage plays that are performed in dedicated theater buildings do not exist in the Seven Kingdoms. Westeros is primarily an agricultural society, with only five settlements large enough to be called "cities": King's Landing, Oldtown, Lannisport, Gulltown, and White Harbor. In contrast, the Free Cities have highly urbanized and sophisticated cultures, which do produce theatrical plays - Westeros is considered an unsophisticated backwater compared to them.
Specifically, in the fourth novel, Samwell Tarly and Gilly are traveling to Oldtown by sea, and along the way they stop in Braavos to change ships (this was omitted from the TV series). As they are heading to Braavos, Samwell tries to encourage Gilly by telling her about the city (which he has read about in books), and he remarks that "Their mummers play out written stories instead of just making up the usual farces." (Samwell II, A Feast for Crows). This would seem to confirm that full-length scripted plays aren't really found in Westeros, though they are in the Free Cities.
Therefore, "mummers" in the Seven Kingdoms are a simpler form of entertainers. Many are acrobats, jugglers, and other kings of street performers. The performers hired for Joffrey Baratheon's wedding in Season 4's "The Lion and the Rose" are a good example of this: these "mummers" were not "actors", but various jugglers, stilt-walkers, and fire-breathers. Most notable of all was the troupe of dwarfs that were hired to give a mock reenactment of the War of the Five Kings, dressed up as the different kings from the conflict: they weren't acting out an actual "script", but running around farcically while shouting out several jokes at the expense of the persons they were satirizing.
Another point from the novels is that many believe that every good mummers' troupe must have a dwarf in it. With pre-modern standards of "political correctness", crowds in Westeros think it is hilarious to see dwarfs running around on stage, as if their very existence is the joke (for that matter, it is also felt that mummers' troupes in the Free Cities must have an amusing dwarf in every cast, but at least they are full-fledged "actors" who give large amounts of scripted dialogue).
Some mummers in the Seven Kingdoms actually do give "acting" performances, but they are very short, a combination of short unscripted skits they have memorized and improvisational theatre, the kind encountered as short side-entertainments at tournaments and fairs. There is some evidence that at least a few mummers troupes in the Seven Kingdoms actually operate out of permanent structures, though only in the five major cities, but even this is a pale shadow of the full theater scene in the Free Cities: Davos Seaworth mentions that there is a mummers' hall in White Harbor where bawdy entertainments can be had for a few pennies. Given that White Harbor is the smallest and plainest of the five cities in Westeros, such basic mummers' halls probably also exist in the other four, including King's Landing.
These mummers' halls are not true "theaters", and at best give basic sketch shows, like real-life vaudeville follies and classic Burlesque variety shows. In terms of real life Classical Theater, the few mummers' halls in the Seven Kingdoms don't put on sophisticated full-length Tragedy or Comedy productions (in the manner of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, or Seneca), but short comedic skits in the style of Roman satyr plays.
Mummers in the Free Cities
In contrast to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the Free Cities are more urbane and have a sophisticated theater culture. The heart of this seems to be Braavos, with its relatively free and egalitarian society. Braavos is home to multiple rival theaters which put on full-length stage productions, scripted out beforehand, and given in permanent structures (compared to mummers in Westeros who just wander from one tournament field to the next). These theater productions in Braavos can include relatively elaborate set design, costumes, and pit musicians to match the action on stage.
The Free Cities also do have the simpler kind of "mummers" who act out short skits or perform juggling tricks, wandering mummers' troupes that travel from one city to the next looking for venues. Varys mentions in both the books and TV series that when he was a boy he was a slave that belonged to a troupe of wandering mummers, until one day when they were in Myr his owner sold him to a sorcerer who castrated him. In the TV series, Lady Crane similarly says that her acting troupe in Braavos is going to be traveling to Pentos soon, which would seem to imply that full scale theaters exist in the other Free Cities as well (at least in the TV continuity). The novels actually haven't specified if the large theatrical scene in Braavos is actually exclusive to that city, as the other eight Free Cities haven't been explicitly mentioned as having theaters. Many of them probably do, though Braavos does seem to have the most prominent and developed theater culture.
The novels mention the theatrical productions that mummers put on in Braavos are allowed to satirize the powerful and wealthy elites in the city, without fear of reprisal. One play that Arya sees was attended by the Sealord of Braavos, and during the play an actor satirically dressed up as the Sealord got his head "pooped" on by a fake prop bird - everyone in the crowd including the actual Sealord himself thought this was hilarious. In contrast, in Westeros it is more of a custom that jesters are allowed to make what jokes and japes they want about the powerful, but it is not a formal protection. In his youth, Tywin had a jester who mocked his father whipped, without legal reprisal - albeit Tywin's action was widely seen as very inappropriate.
So far in the novels, mummers and stage plays have only really been mentioned in the context of the Free Cities and the Seven Kingdoms. Some cultures such as the Free Folk beyond the Wall or the Dothraki near-certainly don't seem to have anything like wandering mummers, much less plays. Nothing is mentioned about mummers and plays in Slaver's Bay or Qarth; for all we know Yi Ti and other lands around the Jade Sea might have a thriving theatrical tradition.
Bards are musicians, who perform music for money, either with instruments or their voices or both. Some have permanent positions, others wander about from one town to the next looking for feasts, weddings, or tourneys to work at.
Many mummers have at least some skill at singing and musical instruments, and many bards act out musical ballads, so there is a considerable degree of overlap between the two. Large-scale theatrical groups in the Free Cities will typically have bards in dedicated positions separate from the stage actors - the bards perform in a musicians' pit or in balconies above the main stage.
Strictly speaking Fools and court jesters are not "mummers", as they permanently belong to a noble's court in Westeros instead of working for money. Often, however, they do work in association with passing mummers' troupes.
There can be a wide variety of fools. Some are ribald court jesters, trained in singing and musical instruments, and can actually be quite witty. At the other extreme, fools are literally mentally handicapped lackwits who are paraded around for the amusement of the audience.
It is traditional for jesters to wear motley (patchwork), and a large number of jesters are also dwarfs.
Some mummers in Westeros and the Free Cities even perform puppet shows. In most of Westeros these are at least basic Punch and Judy- style skits done with hand puppets. At the other extreme, Tanselle's troupe from Dorne in the Tales of Dunk and Egg prequels used complex marionettes and seemed more sophisticated, acting out actual full-length plots - albeit relatively straightforward stories such as the romance of Florian and Jonquil. These are more akin to sophisticated real-life classic puppet theater such as Japanese bunraku or Italian opera dei pupi. It is unclear how common such marionette shows are across Westeros: it may be exclusive to Dorne, a holdover from when their ancestors (the Rhoynar) lived in urbane city-states in the region of the modern Free Cities before they migrated to Westeros a thousand years ago.
Known Mummers, Bards, and Fools
- The Bloody Hand - produced and shown in Braavos by Izembaro's troupe