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.
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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 […]