Into the Mouth of Hell

Durham Medieval Theatre's 1998 production of the Doomsday pageant.

Durham Medieval Theatre’s 1998 production of the Doomsday pageant.

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.

Much of the evidence of performance that the Records of Early English Drama North East project uncovers is partial. A note about a costume here, a record of a payment made to an actor there: these are the clues that allow researchers to piece together a picture of what early drama may have been like.

York is one place in the region from which there are unusually comprehensive records. One parchment manuscript of 1433, which belongs to the York Company of Merchant Adventurers, details the set, props and costumes for their Last Judgement (‘Doomsday’) pageant – a short play performed on a wagon stage.

Plays from this period, now known as ‘mystery plays,’ dramatised the story of the relationship between humanity and God using sources from the Bible. A 1998 production by Durham Medieval Theatre was designed using evidence from the Merchants’ document, and shows the model angels ‘in the heaven’ on the roof of the wagon as well as the Hell-mouth below into which the devil scooped the wicked after their final judgement.

The exhibition showcases how researchers piece together the puzzle of early drama from what few documents remain, and then use live performance as a way of testing out their ideas in practice. There will be a chance to see two of the York plays, including the doomsday play, at the Theatrum Mundi festival in July 2016.

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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