A new AHRC-funded project will uncover the history of early English drama and performance in the North-East. Led by Professor John McKinnell and Professor Barbara Ravelhofer, Records of Early English Drama North-East will provide a critical edition of all surviving records of performance and entertainment in the region from about the ninth century up to 1642. The project will also organise productions and exhibitions of historic drama at the Durham Summer Festival 2016.
Records of Early English Drama North-East forms part of an international project to survey medieval and early-modern performance in Britain. The umbrella Records of Early English Drama (REED) initiative is maintained by an international cast of theatre historians and housed at the University of Toronto. Over the past thirty years, it has revolutionised the study of the history of performance in Britain and Ireland by discovering and publishing a vast wealth of records of performance from almost every part of England and Wales.
So far, much of the work of REED has been concerned with politically important centres such as London and Oxford, or with the untypical cities of York and Newcastle. This new project will for the first time examine the North-East as a whole. As well as publishing newly-discovered material on York and Newcastle, REED North-East will survey the Ridings of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. It will look at the region’s rich traditions of folk performance, descriptions of religious ceremonies and processions, and extensive evidence for illegal recusant drama. Records dating from the 8th or 9th century up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 can be found in archives and libraries throughout the five counties covered by REED North-East.
One major aim of the project is to explore the differences between early drama in the North-East and that taking place elsewhere in England. Removed from the centre of royal and economic power, North-East drama may show intriguing differences in the genres, extent and range of performance. For example, after the Reformation there remained an important recusant (Catholic dissenting) element which enjoyed wide popular support at various social levels.
REED North-East will also resurrect historic, regional plays for a modern, local audience. The York mystery plays and Corpus Christi plays of other north-eastern towns (Beverley, Doncaster, Durham and Newcastle) each had their own distinctive character. The 2016 Durham Summer Festival will engage the public with revivals and readings of civic spectacle, liturgical ceremony and religious drama. The project team will organise the first modern production of what might be the oldest known drama from the British Isles: the Lindisfarne Harrowing of Hell (from the Book of Cerne, c.740, recorded 9th century). Working with local professional companies and student theatre, REED North-East will also stage Lawrence of Durham’s Peregrini (c.1150), as well as one or two later works (15th-17th century).
The project website has recently been launched. The website will publicise the project’s findings, and highlight the public talks, conferences and festival events as they evolve. REED North-East is also currently recruiting for a fully-funded doctoral studentship, jointly hosted by the Department of English Studies and the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.