The Oldest Play From Britain?

The Harrowing of Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Harrowing of Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We’re counting down an ‘advent’ calendar of highlights from the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Discovering Festive Traditions in the North East of England, which launches on 19th April. This exhibition celebrates some of the forgotten folk traditions, religious rituals, performance history, and plays from the region.

The North East has produced some fabulous modern dramatists, such as Lee Hall (creator of Billy Elliot) or Alan Plater. However, the region may also lay claim to have produced the ‘oldest play from Britain.’ Many early plays were really part of Christian worship (liturgy) rather than independent dramas, so we cannot be sure about dates. However, a Latin fragment of this play survives in the ninth-century Book of Cerne, and was probably composed in the eighth century, possibly at Lindisfarne.

The action, based on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, tells how, after his death on the Cross, Christ descended to Hell to redeem the virtuous souls who had lived and died before his time. The play is in Latin and incomplete, but luckily a more complete version survives in Old English, featuring a lively prologue in which the devils lament Christ’s arrival in Hell.

You can find out more about this, and other plays from the period produced in the North East, at the exhibition. In July 2016, there will be a unique opportunity to see a live production of the Harrowing of Hell as part of Theatrum Mundi.

Plays, Processions and Parchment runs from 19th April to 22nd May in the Chapel of Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Entry is free. Visit the website for more details, and to see the accompanying programme of weekly talks. The exhibition is curated by Records of Early English Drama North East

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