The Harrowing of Hell, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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 one play, The Harrowing of Hell
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.
In July 2016, there will be a unique opportunity to see a live production of the Harrowing of Hell as part of Theatrum Mundi.