In Telemachus and again in Scylla and Charybdis Mulligan calls Stephen "A lovely mummer! . . . Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all!"; "O, you peerless mummer!" Mummers were (and, in some places, still are) impromptu comic actors who performed in the streets, in inns and public houses, and in visits to private houses (just as carolers and trick-or-treaters do). Their performances typically revolved around a story of death and resurrection: the young hero is killed, and a quack doctor revives him.
Mumming derived from secular folk plays in the Middle Ages, related to other carnival rites like morris dances but distinct from church-sponsored theatrical events like mystery plays. Begging was often involved: performers would visit great houses, usually just before or just after Christmas, expecting to receive handouts. Masking too played a part: cognates of “mummer” in various medieval languages (Middle English, Middle Dutch, Early New High German, Old French) carried the principal meaning of wearing a mask or disguise. These comic performances were still going strong in the British Isles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though the tradition has weakened since then.
Mulligan feels an affinity for these impromptu clowners. In Scylla and Charybdis he declares that "I have conceived a play for the mummers," and launches into the very funny title page of a lewd skit. The spirit of mummery informs his comic performances in Telemachus (the transubstantiation of soap, the melting of candles, the water-making of Mother Grogan and Mary Ann, the ballad of the Joking Jesus, the disquisition on Celtic antiquities) and Oxen of the Sun (the fertilizing farm). It is not so clear, however, why he would call Stephen a lovely mummer. For most of the book Stephen is painfully serious. Even the wry telegram that makes Mulligan call him "peerless" shows little of Mulligan's genius for comic improvisation. The flashes of humor that periodically break through the dark clouds of Stephen's rumination are typically wry and ironic—hardly the stuff to please a crowd.
With the onset of drunkenness in Oxen of the Sun, however, Stephen becomes funnier, and he taps the same comic veins that Mulligan enjoys: blasphemous mockery of religion, and crude celebrations of carnality. His wild ramblings in this episode are quite cerebral (his audience is learned), and we hear them filtered through the medium of the episode’s ornate prose narration. But Circe gives us something closer to his words as he performs a little skit for Lynch and the whores. After Bella objects to some lewd jokes, Lynch says, “Let him alone. He’s back from Paris,” and Zoe, “O go on! Give us some parleyvoo.” “Stephen claps hat on head and leaps over to the fireplace, where he stands with shrugged shoulders, finny hands outspread, a painted smile on his face,” and performs a very funny imitation of a Parisian hawker enticing passersby to enter an establishment and see a sex show.
This lewd performance may not correspond to any dialogue ever heard in a holiday play, but it does display Stephen in a fit of brilliant comic improvisation that might justify Mulligan’s judgment that he is “a lovely mummer!” And, intriguingly, Circe reaches its climax in a series of events that reproduce the central action of many mummers’ plays: the death and resurrection of the hero. Stephen is knocked flat on his back by a British soldier. As action swirls over his prostrate body, the funeral home worker Corny Kelleher, “weepers round his hat, a death wreath in his hand, appears among the bystanders” and offers to carry Stephen on the cart in which he has just ferried two lechers to Nighttown. It appears finally that his assistance will be unnecessary: “Ah, well, he’ll get over it. No bones broken. Well, I’ll shove along. (He laughs) I’ve a rendezvous in the morning. Burying the dead. Safe home!" Stephen, then, escapes the honor of being ferried to Glasnevin cemetery by Corny, as Paddy Dignam was on the morning of June 16.In an unpublished doctoral dissertation (Purdue University, 1989) titled James Joyce: “The loveliest mummer of them all,” Frances Jeanette Fitch pursues a different interpretation, suggesting that Stephen’s mumming is displayed in his Shakespeare talk in Scylla and Charybdis. She also connects the tradition to Stephen’s name, observing that December 26, the most common day for mummery in Ireland, is not called Boxing Day in that country but . . . St. Stephen’s Day.