Bringing a truly ancient drama to life

Heptonstall Players Pace Egg Play at Weavers Square, Heptonstall.'Bold Slasher Jim Green, right, fights St George Stuart Hought in last year's production
Heptonstall Players Pace Egg Play at Weavers Square, Heptonstall.'Bold Slasher Jim Green, right, fights St George Stuart Hought in last year's production

What and why is Pace Egg? What’s in a name?

“Pace Egg” is remarkably similar to “Pesach” (Hebrew) and “Pascha” (Latin) or “Passover”, the Hebrew exodus and rebirth after persecution in Egypt.

Words in Mediterranean languages for Passover and Easter are similar: Pásha (Greek), Pascua (Spanish), Pasqua (Italian) and Pâques (French).

The Christian “Easter” celebration of death and resurrection dates back only to the Middle Ages, rather than the time of Christ; previously, Christians followed Pesach or other Middle Eastern traditions. The St Thomas Christian churches of Syria and India have continued to celebrate Pesach till modern times.

So, while purists mock claims that “Pace Egg is one of the oldest dramas in the world, dating back to Ancient Egypt and Syria”, linguistic connections give such claims modest legitimacy.

Scholars think Easter may have “pagan” origins, based on “Isthar”, the Levantine Spring goddess, or “Eostre”, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn. Christian, Hebrew and multi-theistic traditions are intertwined; and mediaeval mummers’ plays, in which tradition Pace Egg sits, draw from all.

Folklore academics claim that modern English Pace Egg and similar “hero-combat” mummer plays have their origin largely during urbanisation of the 17th to 19th centuries, with words passed on by oral tradition. Plays similar to the Heptonstall and Midgley “hero/combat” versions occur on both sides of the South Pennines and further afield.

Alternative “sword-dance”, “plough”, “multiple wooing” and “recruitment sergeant” plays are traditional across England. In times of hardship, while begging was frowned on, and in war illegal, groups of workers would perform the plays to raise cash, especially for festivities; thus the Heptonstall players’ quest “to tek our bonnie lasses to Todmorden Fair.”

Pace Egg brings together a hotchpotch of themes. The central figure is St George, seemingly representing Crusading England, fighting “Bold Slasher” (thought to be Saracen), who is slain but then reborn through the mysterious “nip-nap” administered by the quack doctor - a reprise of both Christian and pre-Christian death and resurrection traditions.

Other characters - Black Prince of Paradise, the King of Egypt and his knight Hector - all fall victim to George. But this is followed by a call to hold up one’s arms and swords, for “peace and joy - we shall have it all”.

Finally a local, timeless, drunk, Tosspot, chases young women with kisses and gives out Easter eggs for fertility and new birth. Fact aped fiction a couple of years ago when two kissed lasses produced babies in the following year!

Pace Egg faded out in the 1930s with the advent of cinema. The tradition was re-established for a dozen years in the 50s/60s by Heptonstall School.

The play was then relaunched again in 1979 by former pupil, David Burnop, at the suggestion of his mother, Muriel, the school secretary, to mark its centenary. Thirty five years later, the ever-youthful David still plays the doctor.

In the 80s other village locals dropped out to be replaced by incomers, mostly associated with Hebden Bridge Little Theatre - Roger Munday (George), Jay Jones (Slasher), Bill Cort (King) and Allen Johnson (Tosspot).

I joined as the King in 1986, so this is my 28th year. Village postmaster David Parish was a memorable Tosspot for many years, till he, like both Allen Johnson and Steven Bailey before him, died tragically young. He was replaced by Dean Gash, who plays the part in similar, hilarious vein. The cast has remained remarkably constant, with Ray Riches playing a triumphant George for 20 or more years till 2012 and replaced then by Stuart Hought, who had been a serenading Hector for as many years before.

Jimmy Green took over from Karl Williams as Slasher in 2002, both of them staging falls in the most dramatic ways. Neil Collins has been a juggling ringmaster since 1991. And Andy Carter, who has been a cavorting Black Prince since the 90s, is now joined by his son, Rowan, as the new Hector.

The cast has been wholly male, except for a brief period when Norah Gibbins played Slasher and a year when I was ill and Sue Riches played a regal Queen of Egypt.

Historically, Pace Egg was all-male and the Maypole dance all-female. So it is appropriate that today in Heptonstall play performances are interspersed by brilliant dances by the Hebden Bridge Hill Millies.

The Midgley version is thought to be older than Heptonstall’s, though both have changed over the years. The Midgley play has been kept alive by pupils of Calder High School, including Rowan Carter, so the cast varies from year to year.

It is performed at different spots around the Calder Valley, but in recent years has always finished up in Heptonstall prior to the old-timers’ last rendition.

Then, audiences can appreciate the two versions head to tail.

While jingoistic lines are worrying to the modern ear, one would not bow to political correctness here anymore than in Othello or the Merchant of Venice. Equating one side with good and the other with evil is more worrying though and might be rethought.

But it is a mistake to take any of it too seriously. The performances make for a right rollicking Good Friday afternoon.

The Heptonstall play will be performed in Weavers’ Square at 11.15am, 12.30pm, 2pm and 4pm on April 18, with the Midgley pupils at 3pm.