Is There Any Place for Everyman in the 21st Century?

Everyman provides the perfect example of why allegory must be approached carefully in order to make an impact; a story with a powerful message is very often dependent upon timing. The timing of a play about a devastating plague sweeping across Europe would have had far more impact during the Middle Ages than it would now. Allegorical drama by definition should be less dependent upon timing than dramatic interpretations of specific events situated within a historical context. Stripped down to the very basics—the most elemental of fundamental character—and divorced from any precise historical context, Everyman should be expected to maintain a relatively stable and predictable impact on audiences regardless of whether performed for Medieval audiences, Renaissance audiences or 21st century audiences. What a 21st century introduction to Everyman reveals, however, is that allegory can become just as much a prisoner to context as more direct individualized subjects.

Perhaps, the fault lies not with the creation, but the interpretation. Perhaps a more innovative and artistically daring production aesthetic would be enough to rip Everyman from its natural place in the order as a representative of fundamentalist Catholic theology to make it just as relevant to modern audiences as it would have been to audiences in its first few centuries of existence. This seems highly unlikely, however. The historical record is one that suggests Everyman is the only “morality play” to consistently find audiences even into the modern day. One imagines, of course, that the overwhelming bulk of these modern performances have taken place not inside traditional theaters, but inside churches. Even though Everyman is an allegorical work that could arguably be reinterpreted as one not specifically Christian, it hardly seems likely. Which brings about the question of the extent to which it should be considered allegorical.

Consider more modern source: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not merely symbolic, but allegorical because its plot can be interpreted from both ideological sides of its very definite historical context. One can watch the original black and white film and argue equally well that the body snatchers are allegorical symbols of communists or witch-hunting anti-communists. Everyman, by contrast, aggressively forwards a definite Christian—and a definite pre-Reformation Christian—message. If allegory is supposed to be by definition somewhat ambiguous by virtue of existing primarily within the realm of metaphor, then Everyman fails the test at least on that account. This fact is important because the basis by which it has been determined the experience of reading or watching a performance of Everyman today is a comprehensive failure in terms Aristotelian expectations for entertainment.

Characters named for and personifying abstract concepts like Knowledge, Good Deed, Fellowship and the like are doomed to disappoint audiences raised on Aristotelian expectation of character growth, audience recognition of their own problems and a sense of catharsis. To be sure, these characters that are so one-dimensional and lacking in depth and recognition turn out to be surprisingly humorous. One cannot help but head into a “morality play” with expectations of the humorless tone of a church sermon. A morality play by definition exists solely for one purpose above all else: to teach audiences a lesson—not even to teach them a lesson, really, but to reinforce a lesson already drilled into audience members after years of hearing sermons on the same topic. Since these were not sermons of the modern churches, but medieval sermons from churches far less inclined toward injecting humor, the appearance of comedy in Everyman is somewhat jarring to modern audiences, but most assuredly welcome. Nevertheless, rare would be the modern audience member who isn’t desperately hoping for some sort of jump outside the constrictions of the characters who are handcuffed to the rigidity of allegorical construction.

Emotional involvement in the story that unfolds in Everyman is difficult if not downright impossible. This presents an enormous problem for anyone raised on the heavy emotional engagement of stage drama and novels that have been produced since Everyman was written. Hollywood films have only reinforced this expectation of finding an emotional connection to characters to the point of becoming something of an addiction. The result of this conditioned response by audiences to require stories that allow emotional connections has been a noticeable reduction in the influence of avant-garde entertainment which places intellectual engagement above emotional engagement.

One can well imagine that Everyman represented an example of emotional engagement in the first few centuries of its production history and the irony of its now belonging to the avant-garde requiring a more intellectual connection should not be lost. Regardless, that leap to enjoying Everyman as an exercise in intellectual drama also requires effort on the part of modern audiences because its actual intellectual content is just as lacking in the depth and the potential for multiple interpretations as the characters acting out its central intellectual proposition. Everyman has aged past its ability to provide the emotional engagement mainstream audiences require as a matter of course while also failing in its potential to be reinvented as a postmodernist avant-garde intellectual artistic experiment.

Argument in the Medieval Morality Plays

Compare and contrast the use made of argument and dramaticirony in some morality plays.By allegorising the redemption of mankind and the principles of Christian aretaics, morality plays, in the words of Robert Potter, “celebrate the permanent truth of Christianity as a theology, a theory of history, and an explanation of the human condition.” Dramatic irony, as an identifiable contrast between the knowledge possessed by characters in a play and the audience observing it, is a fairly constant factor in most morality dramas. This is because the morality plays emphasised religious truths that were already expressed in scripture, contemporary sermons, and the Christian liturgy, and consequently the audience would have had strong preconceptions of what the characters on stage should and should not know. Furthermore, the allegorised names of the characters, such as ‘Wisdom,’ ‘Mischief,’ and ‘Mercy’ allow the audience an insight into the moral and symbolic structures of the play, to which the ‘everyman’ figure is, at least initially, oblivious. An integral part of the ‘celebration’ that Potter describes is the juxtaposition of the Christian soteriological message and ‘the world, the flesh and the devil,’ which leads to the dialectical and polemical exposition of that very message. The argumentative and ironic aspects of morality plays are not disparate in configuration, but rather combine to emphasise the dynamic involvement of the audience in the play, principally as the active recipients of prescriptive moral teaching.Although generally there are literary and doctrinal models into which dramatic argument and irony can be fitted, the application of these techniques will vary in specific cases, in intention as well as in effect. According to Robert Potter, the spiritual confusion of the human predicament, “both in a theatrical and a theological sense, creates the morality play’s plot and distinctive structure.” The convention that the everyman figure should descend into sin and then rise to gracious redemption may appear to bind the plays’ devices and topoi to the corruptibility of mankind. However, the individual man’s innocence is usually depicted in contrast to a negative notion of worldliness, such as in the insincere character of Fellowship in Everyman, and the vice-peddling World in The Castle of Perseverance. A close analysis of key passages will be necessary to observe the similarities, subtleties, and distinguishing characteristics of the dramas and to construct a wider understanding of dramatic irony and argument within the literary mode.By far the most famous and genre-defining English medieval morality play is Everyman–a piece so simple in its structural composition and so candid in its message that it almost takes on the character of a fable. Fables are often associated with the symbolic education of moral principles in small children because they present examples of specific points and invite a basic level of analysis. Everyman’s sequential meetings with and betrayals by various allegorical characters on his pilgrimage to God imply, in a very accessible format, that the spiritual life is necessary to obtain ‘that peace which the world cannot bring.’ His meeting with Goods reveals the moral degradation that is incurred through ignorance of the divine and of virtuous behaviour, notably when Everyman says:”…all my life I have had joy and pleasure in thee:Therefore I pray thee go with me,For, peradventure, thou mayst before God AlmightyMy reckoning help to clean and purify.For it is ever said amongThat money maketh all right that is wrong.Goods:Nay, Everyman, I sing another song:I follow no man in such voyages.” Although the extract incorporates some argument about the nature of wealth, it primarily demonstrates the irony of Everyman’s misplaced belief in worldly goods and the permeation of this misapprehension into his spoken communication. Everyman’s exclamation that “money maketh all right that is wrong” is uttered epigrammatically, which heightens the dramatic impact of Goods’ flat contradiction. The contrast between Everyman’s and Goods’ views of the situation is further emphasised by the juxtaposition of “ever” and “Nay,” and Everyman and “no man,” which stresses Everyman’s ignorance and the audience’s comparatively enlightened state. No man can also imply an abandonment of men in general, implying perhaps that man is not defined by physical things but by ‘every gift that cometh out of the mouth of the Lord.’ However, the irony comes from the immediate recognition that the notion espoused by Everyman is, within the context of Christian morality, wholly risible. Ignorance of Christian value is lightly satirised and sternly admonished, but with the implicit caveat that everyman and any man is capable of it. Everyman’s belief that Goods will help to “clean and purify” his reckoning before Almighty God is especially poor Christian logic, especially as it diametrically opposes Jesus’ contention that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”–a text which fifteenth-century audiences would have been very familiar with. Unsurprisingly, the passage seems to be written with a didactic intention; the audience is reassured in their recognition of a non-Christian value system and is made aware of their superior moral awareness. The scene in Wisdom in which Lucifer is disguised as a knight serves as an excellent parallel because the audience is party to the deception and sees the irony of the line “[t]he Dewyll hath acumberyde yow expres” and experiences at first hand the ease with which virtue can be devalued. Everyman’s meeting with Goods is loaded with further confusions, all of which seem expressive of Everyman’s moral quandary and which contribute to and reinforce the dramatic irony. The use of the phrase “all right,” with its phonic similarity to ‘alright,’ could be understood to create an unusual tension at this point because of the cognitive difference between everything being morally righteous and things being unexceptional or adequate. However, word division was not standardised at this point. This is amplified by the juxtaposition of “wrong” and “purify,” implying that money can either be seen as the means by which things are made good or the means by which things are forgotten to be wrong. Similarly, the name ‘Goods’ (as opposed to something like Bunyan’s Mr. Money-Love or Mr. Worldly-Wiseman) generates a further level of ambiguity because it can either refer to constituents of the ‘good-life,’ abstracted moral values, or material commodities. Good is momentarily redefined as something over than Godliness, which in the Christian moral framework is absurd. If the authorial intentions behind the play are didactic then it is unsurprising that dramatic irony should be such a prominent device. By empowering the audience and making disagreement with (or ignorance of) the play’s theological position a subject for ridicule the audience is drawn to support the sentiments espoused–especially if the viewers of the drama are already sympathetic to its cause. The fact that Everyman is unable to surmount this confusion by distinguishing between goodness, which ‘maketh all right that is wrong,’ and goods, which are a road to damnation, achieves marked dramatic irony because the comparative ignorance of the protagonist audience. However, the audience’s amusement depends on their ability to distinguish between ‘goods’ and ‘goodness’ in the first place. Consequently their knowledge of Christian ethics is reinforced and, in a sense, rewarded.Structurally, Everyman is very simple because characters generally enter the play, talk to Everyman, and then leave while he progresses on his journey towards God. Contrastingly, The Castle of Perseverance has a large rambling plot, with many characters and a complicated system of symbolism. It seems that the larger plot, the distinct scenes and the greater number of actors on stage all help to reinforce the chaotic aspects of dramatic argument. The simpler Everyman, however, lends itself well to dramatic irony because the relationship between the protagonist and the audience is always perfectly clear. Also, Everyman never confuses the audience, meaning that their understanding consistently exceeds that of the characters on stage. Dramaturgically. Castle of Perseverance was probably more complicated as well. The original plan for the staging of the play is still extant and seems to depict a circular construction with various scaffolds around a centrally placed audience. Writing in The Tournament Tradition and Staging The Castle of Perseverance, Steven I. Pederson describes the problem that “[w]hile many have been enticed by the plan and the play and have sought definitive answers to the puzzle they present, for every issue of agreement, there are numerous points of disagreement.” The contrasting positions in any argument and their sway over the protagonist would be constantly reflected in the staging as characters moved around the scaffolds, but the complexity could inhibit the audience’s feeling of superior information, which is crucial for dramatic irony. Alternatively, the pageant-like surroundings of the circular stage could give the audience a feeling of being inside the drama and could bring about a stronger ‘esprit de cor’ than in a more modern theater. It should also be recognised that Everyman could have been performed in a similar dramatic space, although the stage directions do not indicate that this was so. The Castle of Perseverance uses formal argument extensively and the physical contest between the virtues and vices at the castle itself is clearly emblematic of the abstract correlation between opposing human character traits. This violence emphasises the polemic contest between the virtues and vices in a very direct fashion, whereas in Everyman the irony seems to operate more intuitively and with greater linguistic subtlety. Action briefly replaces argument because although physical drama can indicate the existence of an altercation true argument is about logical and semantic relations between words and propositions. There are grounds for humour in both cases, however, because although the vices are comprehensively defeated at the castle siege, Mankind then capriciously chooses “to don what he wyl do” and leave the castle. This is demonstrative of the fallenness of Mankind and the inherent evils of freewill, while, elsewhere in the morality drama tradition, man is contrasted with worldly transgressions and evil requires very cunning trickery to deceive his essentially good instincts. In Mankind, for example, the vices are chased away by Mankind with his spade and it is only after Tittivillus intervenes by burying a plank in ‘Mankind’s’ field that any corruption can take place. This scene uses an overtly comic brand of dramatic irony because when ‘Mankind’ exclaims “[t]hys londe ys si harde yt makyth wnlusty and yrke. I xall sow my corn at winter and lett God werke,” the audience knows that the unsuccessful agriculture (and theology) is attributable to some very elementary deceptions. Furthermore, the success of Titivillus’s scheme to cultivate Mankind’s weak spirit is dependent on and demonstrative of Mankind’s predictability, which is carried through spectacularly by Mankind’s absurd suggestion that he will wait for God to do the work. The argument and the dramatic irony correspond to the same theological superstructure and are similarly predictable as a result. However, some sections function didactically, discreetly and almost intuitively, like the passage from Everyman quoted above; whereas other extracts, such as the siege scene from The Castle of Perseverance, are more heuristically directed at eliciting an intellectual response from the crowd. After an assault by Wrath, Patience replies:”fro thi dowte, Crist me shelethis Iche day, & al mankynde!Thou wrecchyd wrechë, wood & wylde,Pacyens schal thee schende!….For Marys sonë, meke & mylde,Rent thee up, rote & rynde,whanne he stod meker thane a chylde,& lete boyes hym betyn & bynde” This argument refutes the vices’ pseudo-logical rhetoric from earlier in the play and forms part of a series of polemic exchanges between the sins and the virtues, in which all the positive arguments rest on an exemplary interpretation of the crucifixion. The strong rhyme in this section is reinforced by the assonance of ‘y’ sounds and the very heavily accented alliteration of “wrecchyd wrechë, wood & wydke” which leads to a serious, emphatic reading. The pathetic tautology of “wrecchyd wrechë” also contributes to the verbal drama because limited vocabulary can indicate strong emotion. Although this intense emotion could have comic affect, such humour would be incompatible with the visceral references to the Passion. In this sense the argumentative sections of the morality plays can be partly differentiated from the ironic ones through the use of humor. Because Patience makes this speech in the defence of mankind, it has clear instructive value for the audience, but the link being made between Christ’s Passion and an conceptual personification of wrath is not blatant or univocal. Although there is a basic interpretation in which Christ’s passivity in death is contrasted with abstract wrathfulness, there is also the implication that the violence of the crucifixion committed against God by “boyes” renders all subsequent acts of violence unnecessary. The individual moments of violence and the pacifism enshrined in the crucifixion can be understood to have a decidedly metaphysical and almost spiritual relationship, a fact partly evident in the unqualified “for” in the extract. This underpins the belief that many of the distinctively argumentative sections of morality plays are, in fact, less didactic and more heuristic than the identifiably ironic passages. It may even be possibly to argue that the use of the pseudonym “Marys sonë,” as opposed to a more direct title and besides evoking pity, has a thought-provoking function because it requires awareness of a small amount of background knowledge and the recognition of a relationship to be fully understood. The dramatic use of argument not only tells the audience what to think, but demonstrates the sort of proof that is required and the logic of both sides, whereas the ironic and humourous devices in Everyman can be easily read as direct ethical prescriptions. The arguments proposed by the virtues against sin in The Castle of Perseverance function individually, but also combine to create a broad theory of salvation and atonement in the Passion narrative. The argumentative theme is continued in The Castle of Perseverance when, near the end, the daughters of God debate whether Mankind should be saved and await a divine judgement. Truth asks:”whov schuld Mankynde be savude,Syn he dyed in dedly synne,& all thi comaundementis he depravyde,& of fals covetyse he wolde neuere blyne?” But is contradicted by Mercy who later replies,”lat Mankynde cum to thi blys,as thou art Kynge of Heuene!For werdly veyn-gloryHe hath ben ful sory,Punchyd in purgatory.For all the synnys seuene” There is a degree of irony here because the bickering continues after the exit of the sins, perhaps satirising the arguments of learned and religious men. It is almost certain, however, that this debate attempts to show the dependence of everything on God, echoing Robert Potter’s reading of the plays as a celebration of Christian truth. When Mercy is attacking Truth (rather mercilessly) she exclaims, “as thou art Kynge of Heuene!” which draws an analogy between the veracity of God’s existence and the veracity of his grace. Christian theology has traditionally accepted that God is indivisible from his grace, but the rhetoric use of such a comparison, and especially with an exclamation mark, is enormously thought-provoking, because although God is gracious, hell none-the-less exists as the abode of the damned. Furthermore, the speech patterns of the daughters of God seem very colloquial which makes the debate accessible and fierce, but also reinforces a light heated reading–there are no references to grisly technicalities as there are earlier. Truth asks a question and then follows it with “Syn he dyed in dedly synne,” which indicates that the question is a rhetorical one rather than an admission of ignorance. The context that Truth provides to frame the question in fact consists of possible answers to it, all of which argue for damnation. The two lines beginning with ‘&’ also give a sense of vitriolic temper, and reiteration, which is emphasised by a strong, definite rhyme and some short lines, when Truth says:”We schal fulfyllethin hestis, as resun & skylle,Fro зone gost grille,Mankynde to brynge thee tylle” The argument at the end of The Castle of Perseverance is difficult to read because on one level it seems like a wry parody of academic dispute or an extrapolation of scholastic intellectual pedantry. At the same time, the metre, accentuation and speech patterns are all reminiscent of children squabbling in a playground. The second level of symbolism considers the theological content of the debate. The salvation of man and the definition of God are discussed and some quite erudite ideas transferred to the audience. It must be remembered that the grace of God is meant to be inexplicable so although the play is certain that God is characterised by love for humanity, the debate need not itself conclusive. The ideas voiced may stimulate reflection in the listener and encourage scholarly interpretation of religious texts. However, the fact that the characters involved in the mild farce are abstract personifications of personal virtues leads to a very strange dramatic irony in which the audience seem aware of who the characters are meant to be when they themselves are not. When it is also considered that the outcome of the argument is never in question, the whole thing becomes fantastically perplexing. When God finally passes judgement when he proclaims:”My mercy, Mankynde, зeue I theeCum, syt at my ryth honde!Ful wel haue I louyed thee,Unkynde thow I thee fonde.” This is the expected response of a God who is defined by mercy and love, a fact never occluded by the preceding debate. The lines have to be delivered (or read) independently because of the metre and the rhyme, which gives the judgement a structural as well as contextual sense of gravity. It is a perplexing judgement, however, because Truth was in the wrong and even goes to join the Bad angel, as we see in the stage direction, “tunc ascendent ad Malum Angelum omnes paritores; & dicat.” This can be understood to make a lucid distinction between human epistemic standards and those of God, but it also seems indicative of the profound difference between modern philosophical and medieval theological understandings of epistemology.In surveying the extant English morality plays the application of simple allegorical for the attainment of a didactic, conceptually reiterative objective is the salient feature. Dramatic irony and argument both contribute to this through the stimulation of reflection in the audience and the emphatic celebration of Christian values. Dramatic irony is frequently humourous, as misinterpretation of the Christian message is gradually made tantamount to stupidity or pedantic bigotry. Dramatic irony tends to work subconsciously because the collective tendency to derive an analysed amusement from a dramatic spectacle is so strong whereas the argumentative scenes in the morality plays are often subtly balanced. The conclusion of the arguments is rarely unpredictable, but the various means by which a conclusion can be validly drawn in the Christian epistemic system is a major doctrinal point. Dramatic irony and argument are also often coexistent in the same phrase so although they may have discretely identifiable implications they are be textually almost indivisible. The morality plays may appear simply in their persistent use of allegorised characters and their conventional soteriological plot but within these perimeters the layering of meanings and devices, and the tension between linguistic ambiguities and theological absolutes is extraordinary.3206 words

Spirituality and the trappings of the material world in medieval morality plays

‘Some religious texts seem to find it relatively easy to disengage from the material world. Many more, however, derive their dynamism from the difficulty of doing so.’

‘Behold not the earth, but lift your eye up’, [30] Mercy sermonizes in the opening of Mankind, one play amongst a corpus of Medieval morality plays dealing with spiritual crises in figures representative of mankind. Mercy’s line expresses succinctly the morality play’s didactic purpose; encouraging an audience to see and think beyond the distractions of the material world and, in Richard Proudfoot’s words, ‘persist in virtue till death’, that is, be loyal to that which is immaterial such as God and heaven. If we consider the ‘material world’ to be all that is immediately tangible, including the body, it becomes easy to see how difficult any religious text could entirely escape engaging with this and focus solely on the immaterial concepts of virtue, hell, heaven and God. However, the Morality plays acknowledge this impossibility and, I would argue, dramatize the way in which the material world can act as a barrier to mankind’s salvation. The problem of disengagement thus becomes one not of the text’s but of the protagonist’s. The dynamism of these plays derives exactly from this struggle of the protagonist, as the texts demonstrate how easy and pleasing total absorption in the material world can be, blinding mankind to the more important spiritual world. In addition to this, if we are to take ‘dynamism’ in the sense of movement, it is generally the allegorical enemies of mankind (such as ‘mischief’ in Mankind or ‘goods’ in Everyman) who are directed to be the most physically dynamic, and thus most exciting, on stage, serving the morality play’s purpose in their demonstration of how attractive sin can be. Indeed, if these texts were to simply mediate on heaven, hell, God, and spirituality, the play would be closer to a sermon, and indeed the moral figures in these plays are often described as sermonising in their speech. What makes the morality play both more dynamic and didactically effective than this is its active engagement with the various trappings of the material world in order to realise through this the superior importance of God and Christian faith.

‘Material world’ is a broad and expansive term with the plasticity to be applied to literally anything of matter on the planet. However, placed in a semi-antithesis to the immaterial realm of heaven and its surrounding concepts, Everyman and Mankind are interested in depicting the aspects of the material world that are negative and hindering. One of the most obvious material concerns in Everyman in particular, though present in both, is wealth and worldly possessions as diversions from, or even replacements for, God. Everyman brings this to the forefront of the play where the actor playing God expresses: ‘’In worldly riches is all their mind;/They fear not my righteousness, the sharp rod’.[27-8] Here, the syntactical arrangement here of ‘worldly riches’ on one line and God’s ‘righteousness’ separated onto another causes pause in speech, expressing both the incompatibility of worldliness and holiness as well as the distance material wealth creates between God and mankind. G.A Lester suggests in his introduction to the play that ‘Everyman’s dissolute lie is reflected in the people and the possessions he has held dear and to whom he first turns in necessity’, pointing out the need, established from the very outset, for Everyman to abandon his love of material wealth and possession in order to be absolved before death. There follows an interesting structure in the play, where the more Everyman loses, the more tightly he clings to his possessions. Faced with the prospect of death, wealth is both Everyman’s first and last port of call. He attempts initially to bribe death, then being also refused by Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, turns to Goods for accompaniment to the grave, who in reply retorts: ‘what, weenest thou that I am thine?’[437] It is clear instantly that Everyman has made a mistake. Instead of accepting his solitary journey, he clings to figures of progressively closer bond to him, from Fellowship to Goods; the latter of which he believes he is the owner of. Goods, however, points out what death earlier has – that all Everyman’s prosperity and wealth is merely lent to him by God. The nature of theatre then allows Goods to physically disappear in his following exit, dramatizing through this movement the transitory nature of material wealth where Everyman believed it to be stable. This direction shows a forced disengagement with the material world as the audience sees it gradually disappear around Everyman before he finally comes to understand through his losses that he must face death with only his good deeds beside him.

Mankind engages with material wealth as an exciting commodity which has the power to make things happen, but as in Mankind, turns out to be an insubstantial distraction from God. When Mischief, Newguise and Nowadays fail to bring about the fall of Mankind, they decide to call in Titivillus, who they believe will have more luck. The three figures ask for money from the audience, ‘We intend to gather money, if it please your negligence,/For a man with a head that is of great omnipotence’, [460-1] remaining vague about whom they are calling on stage. Whether the audience actually parted with their money or not, the direction ‘They take a collection’ [466] implies that the actors would pretend as though they did nonetheless. Such a collection, I would argue, has two ramifications. Firstly, it is not totally clear who the audience are funding to appear, and when it is Titivillus who enters, the play draws a clear parallel between money and evil, showing how trusting too much in it is foolish. Secondly, in a much more roundabout way, it is this collection which drives the plot forward to Mankind’s abandonment of work and rejection of Mercy, as it is their money that enables Titivillus to succeed in leading Mankind astray. Making the audience engage with their own material wealth and complicit in the direction of the plot demonstrates here how easily deceived one can be by trusting too much in money rather than in God.

Both plays also conceive of corporeality as a cumbersome fact of the material world which acts as another barrier to the end goal of unity with God. Indeed, it is this conflict between the body and spirituality that drives much of the action and dynamism in Mankind in particular as Mankind grapples with the difficulty of living a holy life trapped in an inherently sinful body, whilst Nowadays, Naught, and Newguise exploit the foul aspects of corporeality for comic excitement as a distraction from Mercy’s sermonizing on the spiritual and immaterial. Indeed, G. A. Lester affirms the location of dynamism in Mankind in his introduction to the play, suggesting that ‘Mankind […] instructs by example. Mercy preaches, and the wild debauchery of the comic scenes provides the living text’. The three evil figures are far more immediately accessible to an audience than Mercy; they invoke corporeal processes for humour and in the process appear more human than Mercy who’s ‘body is full of English Latin!’[124] The play is crafted deliberately so, in another theatrical demonstration of how easy it is to stray from good and allow the material to cloud one’s sight of spirituality and god: ‘I have eaten a dishful of curds,/And I have shitten your mouth full of turds.’[131-2] In a particularly crude line, Nowadays imagines defecating in Mercy’s mouth, an image significant when one considers that the play’s discussion of God and the soul has been coming out of Mercy’s mouth. This image expresses in a somewhat jarring fashion how easily God and holiness can be forgotten as they are not immediately tangible. This impression is furthered later in the play when Nought invites the audience to join in with a song about defecating: ‘He that shitteth with his hole, he that shitteth with his hole’,[338] as the audience become swept away in the bawdy comedy of corporeality, which while superficially may seem harmless, inverts the language of Christian ritual: ‘Holyke, Holyke’.[343] In the context of the song about defecation, ‘holyk’ is likely supposed to sound like ‘hole lick’, yet depending on the way the actor voiced it, is also a distortion of ‘holy’. We see then that the play engages with this corporeal humour but condemns it through such language distortions, presenting the audience’s engagement with it as a disengagement from God and holiness.

Because Newguise, Nowadays and Nought all draw attention to the more vulgar aspects of corporeality, it becomes difficult to separate these from the corporeality of Mankind, so his body is not just coded as a barrier to spirituality, but also as something inherently bad in itself. Whilst material goods can, with concerted effort, be removed from the morality play, the body is the last material barrier to spirituality. Mankind engages with this difficulty through its protagonist who by falling into the sinful trappings of the body comes to understand that whilst on earth he cannot achieve spirituality because of his sinful body, but must wage war against it and perpetually ask for God’s mercy: ‘Beware of Titivillus with his net, and of all his envious will,/Of your sinful delectation that grieveth your ghostly substance./Your body is your enemy; let him not have his will’. The playwright here affirms that Mankind’s ‘delight’ earlier in the play has been sinful because it has been disengaged from God, and the impossibility of escaping the sinful body whilst on earth is made clear is acknowledged. Instead, the solution is that the body must continuously be renewed through confession.

The material world is a distraction that cannot be ignored in Everyman and Mankind, as the tangible is often more easy to place faith in, or be distracted by, whilst the intangible can be forgotten or submerged. In a morality play, as opposed to a written religious text, the material world is necessarily produced on stage as the play is presenting a protagonist representative of mankind. This set up, rather than just being a mediation on earthly sin, is a mode through which the material can be shown physically (through entrances and exits) to give way to the power of God and faith. The dynamism of the two plays does not stem from its difficulty to disengage with the material world but in the acknowledged conflict between the lure of the material world and the holiness of the spiritual world outside of it.

Morality Plays or Mortality Plays: Religion in ‘Everyman’ and ‘The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac’

Religion has long been a source of inspiration for the performing arts. This influence can be seen at all levels of performance throughout history, from church basement productions of the birth of Jesus to the fist of God casting itself down at the end of Cats, to the morality plays. In the plays of Everyman and The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac, a very clear and specific interpretation of Christianity is presented, and in many ways both of these performances tell the same tale. The portrayals of God and the duties He places on Christians paint a detailed image of how religion was internalized in fifteenth century England. While religion remains a strong source of inspiration, it is evident that Christianity has morphed and changed over the centuries.

The first and most evident similarity between these two works of art is that they are both morality plays, religious dramas that have their main characters overcome some obstacle to portray a lesson in piety and morality under the grace of God. In both the play of Everyman and The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac, their opening scenes hold a distinct trait often seen in morality plays. Both, after a brief prelude, have none other than God Himself enter to center stage. While it is impossible to know with certainty how this character was portrayed, due to no image or description of the performances remaining in any collection, it is known that this Almighty could only have ever been played by a mere mortal actor. The mind’s eye creates a character with an older, bearded visage, and a loud booming voice, but of course this is just speculation. Each recreation of these plays most likely took artistic liberties, but the scenes more or less remain the same. A man, claiming the title of God, enters center stage and proceeds to execute a monologue, the God of Everyman cries, “I proffered the people a great multitude of mercy/ And few there be that asketh heartily/ They be so cumbered by their worldly riches/ That needs on them I must do justice.”(Everyman, l. 57-61), just as the God of Abraham and Isaac says, “Abraham’s heart now will I assay/ Whether that he be steadfast or no.”(Brome, l. 35-36). Each God holds a different sentiment when talking of man, the one in Everyman speaks of them with frustration, aghast at their apathy towards their Creator, while the one in The Brome Play sounds more contemplative, aware of Abraham’s love of his son and interested to see how it stands in comparison to his love of his Father. In the end, both the God of Everyman and the God of Abraham and Isaac require of their creations a trial, a test of their devotion, and a desire to make of these individuals an example for all mankind to gaze upon and learn from. In other words, “I shall assay now his good will,/ Whether he loveth better his child or me./ All men shall take example him be/ by My commandments how they shall fulfill.”(Brome, l. 43-46). In fifteenth century England, these artists saw their God as a man looking for confirmation of the piety of His subjects, a higher power testing the bounds of mankind, their capacity to believe in, and to love, the Almighty Lord.

The fact that both plays hold such similar depictions of God is not inherently mystifying, upon reading only a small selection of the genre of morality plays, most readers would be able to recognise many repeating patterns, characters, and plot devices. What makes these opening scenes fascinating to the modern reader is the mere fact that God is presented in any form besides the abstract. In contemporary and modern art, it is considered sacrilegious to attempt to personify God in any way, especially in as mundane a form as an actor on a stage. Christianity has changed over the ages, and in turn God has become more distant from his creations than He was seen at the time these productions were written.

While the God of Everyman and of The Brome Play are both played on stage by a man, and significantly closer to man than what is seen in the modern era, both plays still hold a parallel that keeps mankind from interacting with God directly, both plays have a messenger. For Everyman this messenger is Death, and for Abraham it is an Angel, but in both God calls upon these characters to send a message to their respective mortals from God, and each must explain the need for death to the men below. God tells his servants they must travel to earth to bear the news, “Mine angel, fast hie thee thy way,/ And unto middle-earth anon thou go.” (Brome, l. 33-34), this not only distances Him from His experiments, but also illustrates the positions these men hold. Everyman and Abraham are no prophets, they receive no burning bushes, but rather the writers portray them as examples, messages to be sent to all of humanity, a lesson in devotion. This facet of the plays is not nearly so surprising as the previous inclusion of God, messengers of holy word have consistently been commonplace characters in many forms of performance, and the idea of a mission from God is a tried and true plot device still used today.

It is a common device among biblical stories to have God create a test that man must pass to prove their sanctity. The tales of Joshua and Gideon, amongst others, show that when man places their trust in God, they receive peace and compensation, and both these plays hold true to that theme. Everyman must die to complete his pilgrimage with “a sure reckoning”(Everyman, l. 70), and Isaac must be sacrificed by his father to prove that the love for the Lord is stronger than the love for the son. The writers of these plays bring to light the idea that the religious man of the fifteenth century must prove himself worthy of the gifts God has granted. The three men all have to sacrifice the life which they hold most dear, must overcome all fears and longings in a test of will, in the name of God. These grand trials speak not only to the perceived duties of mankind at the time, but also to the involvement God had in the lives of His creations. In both cases, God has taken a vested interest in how mankind is behaving and how they will react to His wishes. When in Everyman, God exclaims, “Of ghostly sight the people be so blind/ Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God”(Everyman, l. 25-26), He is clearly displeased with the apathy and greed of His subjects, but this disappointment is proof that He cares deeply towards the feelings and thoughts of man, a strong indicator that in the era of these plays, it was assumed that God was looking on, invested in, the daily actions of humanity. This is a sentiment that is not so widely assumed in today’s culture. Looking at current performance art, a common trait held by many characters is the perception that while there may be an omnipotent God, He either no longer cares about the fates of His creations or He has outright abandoned ship. There are always exceptions to the rules in art, in comedic performances such as Dogma and Bruce Almighty, God is presented as a man, or woman, but these performances do not hold any form of religious merit, and in fact often poke fun at established religion. No longer is it a standard belief that the Almighty sits so close to his subjects, that He watches earnestly for our reactions, or cares how mankind feels towards Him. Once again, where God was close at hand in the fifteenth century, He is a distant abstract today.

While in many ways the reactions of God and men in art differ greatly between then and now, one aspect that has held strong over the millennium is mankind’s resilience to the challenges thrust upon them by higher powers. In both Everyman and The Brome Play, the men struggle with the weight of their actions, Everyman moans, “O gracious God in the high seat celestial/ Have mercy on me in this most need!”(Everyman, l. 153-154), just as Abraham cries, “A, Lord of heaven, thy grace let sink,/ For my heart was never half so sore”(Brome, l. 159-160). Both do not wish to follow through with this call from on high, yet both manage to eventually cast aside their selfish desires in the name of the high power, and both continue to follow through with their trials. It is important to note that many men shy away from this glorious purpose, as seen by how quickly Fellowship abandons Everyman and the doctor at the end of The Brome Play states, “Trow ye, sirs, and God sent an angel think / And commanded you your child to slain, /By your truth, is there any of you/ That either would grouch or strive theragain?”(Brome, l. 443-446). The majority of humanity is not up to task, cannot prove the worth of Mankind, but the resilient few, the chosen ones, take on God’s challenge with grace and dignity. Now, the Chosen One archetype remains extremely prevalent to this day, almost all popular performances, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hamilton, Camelot, Les Miserables, et cetera, center the entirety of their plots around this archetype. Man has always desired to be the hero, to stand out from the masses and create of themselves something magnificent, something memorable, and the plays of old validate this ideal. The image of God and his role may have transformed as time has gone by, but the belief that man is strong and can rise above all obstacles, that has always remained steadfast.

This case for the fortitude of man allows for a variety of emotions to occur within the audiences of these works. In many ways, it gives the audience hope, as they see in the end The Brome Play that God is merciful and good, allowing Isaac to continue to live, to kiss his mother and spread his good nature to all he meets, and in Everyman, as Good Deeds remains at his side even as Everyman sacrifices himself for the sins of all. These show that good Christians are rewarded, that God is omnipotent yet kind. But along with this hope comes shame, shame that they, the audience member, may not be strong enough, may not be holy enough, to carry through with these great deeds, that though they connect and sympathise with Everyman, they may more closely mirror Fellowship or Cousin. In many ways, the Gods calling out their frustrations and their needs for love on stage are chastising the audience as much as the characters in the plays. This shame serves to show that God is not impressed with mere observers, that work must be put into faith in order to gain entrance into the halls of greatness, in order to gain peace and respect, as a good christian. This shame then turns into a call to arms of the audience, it is motivation to better their lives, to prove their worth to the church and to the world and to God.

These manipulations of emotion show that in the fifteenth century, there was still a perceived need to try and better the actions of man, that despite the prevalence of religion at the time, men were still not rising up to humbly accept the tests presented by God, that mankind could do more, could be more. The audience was made to internalise the lessons presented by these two plays, much as the audiences of sermons and the news and the Hunger Games are supposed to internalise the lessons presented today. In the end, art is made in an attempt not just to entertain, but to improve upon, those who take the time to study it.

The morality plays of Everyman and of Abraham and Isaac hold many similarities, both tell tales of God, in need of mankind’s validation, sending a messenger to tell a single person they must face a trial that involves a man dying, and the journey is long and filled with woe but in the end both the men appease God. In His mercy and His knowledge mankind finds peace and prosperity, but these findings cannot be maintained without the dutiful following of God’s word and a willingness to sacrifice in His name. At the time the performing arts showed, through the recurring presence of God, that man was looking for an investment from on high, that the people of this era were wishing for a physical sign of interest, be it judgement or praise, from the Father they had loved for so long. In certain aspects these tales from the fifteenth century, and the values of the writers and audience held at the time, differ greatly from those held dear today; no longer is man allowed to create God for the stage, no more are great tests of will presented to mankind by God, and in performance the Almighty does not often hold the same fascination and curiosity towards His subjects as He once did. Yet, despite all this, it cannot be ignored that even after all this time, the artists of the world still believe that mankind will accept all challenges, will conquer all trials, and, after a little tragedy, that sliver of hope will bloom into a story where everything turns out all right for man in the end.