Could Everyman Survive 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.
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