Analysis of the Morality Play Everyman

The great vice of English drama from Kyd to Galsworthy has been its aim of realism was unlimited. In one play, Everyman, and perhaps in that one play only, we have a drama within the limitations of art. . . . It is essential that a work of art should be self-consistent, that an artist should consciously or unconsciously draw a circle beyond which he does not trespass:  on  the  one  hand  actual  life  is  always  the  material,  and  on  the  other  hand  an  abstraction from actual life is a necessary condition to the creation of a work of art.

—T. S. Eliot, “Four Elizabethan Dramatists”

For T. S. Eliot the greatness of Everyman—the most famous medieval drama in English and the best example of the morality play—rests in its totality of vision,  in  its  joining  powerful  spiritual  and  human  insights  with  “ordinary  dramatic interest.” “The religious and the dramatic are not merely combined,” Eliot asserts, “but wholly fused. Everyman is on the one hand the human soul in extremity, and on the other any man in any dangerous position from which we wonder how he is going to escape.” A dramatized parable or allegory of the final judgment of a soul, Everyman achieves its sustaining force by the skill with which it embodies its abstractions in the particular to reach the universal. Everyman accordingly serves as a crucial prototype for Western drama and a key link between classical drama and the extraordinary flowering of Renaissance drama.

Possibly  an  English  translation  of  the  Dutch  work,  Elckerlijc  (or  Elckerlijk),  published  in  1495  and  attributed  to  Petrus  Dorlandus,  Everyman  may  also have been adapted, along with the Dutch play, from an earlier, now-lost common  source.  There  are  no  records  of  actual  performances  of  Everyman but printed versions of the play, first appearing in 1508, were popular through the 16th century, even as religious dramas in England became seditious during  the  Reformation  and  were  banned  when  Elizabeth  I  took  the  throne  in  1558. Although the morality play is an unmistakable influence on Elizabethan drama, Everyman disappeared from view. It would not be reprinted until 1773. In 1901, it became the first medieval play to be revived in a modern production. Directed by William Poel, the revised Everyman was praised for its “naïve simplicity and uncompromising sincerity,” and the play became the sensation of the London theater season. William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw admitted to being influenced by Poel’s successful production. After seeing it German director  Max  Reinhardt  commissioned  Austrian  playwright  Hugo  von Hofmannsthal to write a German adaptation, Jedermann, which was first produced in Berlin in 1911 and, after its debut in 1913 at the Salzburg Cathedral square, would ever after become a featured part of the annual Salzburg Festival.  Echoes  of  Everyman  are  detectable  in  the  existential  plays  of  Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett and in Bertolt Brecht’s expressionistic dramas, and the play continues to be performed around the world, a testimony to its ability to communicate a powerful vision of the human condition that transcends the era and the doctrines of its origin.

Everyman serves as well as an essential text for illustrating the evolution of drama in western Europe in the period between the classical age and the Renaissance. What is most striking in considering the reemergence of drama in the Middle Ages is the role played by the Christian Church both in halting the classical dramatic tradition and in fostering the conditions for drama’s revival. The number of theaters and performances of Roman drama reached a high point in the fourth century before significantly waning. Drama’s decline to near extinction was precipitated both by the breakup of the Roman Empire and the bur-geoning Christian Church’s opposition to an art form with distinctively pagan roots. Theologians regarded drama as an illusionist art allied to idolatry, magic, and  devilry.  Church  authorities  actively  dissuaded  Christians  from  attending  performances, threatening excommunication of anyone who went to the theater rather than to church on holy days. Actors were forbidden the sacraments unless they foreswore their profession. The last recorded dramatic performance in the classical  tradition  occurred  in  Rome  in  549,  and  for  almost  a  half-millennia  organized  theatrical  performances  effectively  disappeared  in  western  Europe,  with the remnants of an acting tradition fitfully maintained by traveling entertainers. Ironically the church, which had played such a decisive role in closing the  theaters  and  halting  a  literary  dramatic  tradition,  returned  drama  to  the  similar initial conditions preceeding the emergence of formal drama in Greece in the sixth century b.c. As classical comedy and tragedy originated from religious celebrations and rituals, Western drama would be restored in the Middle Ages from a comparable spiritual foundation to serve a parallel religious need. Antiphonal  songs,  sung  responses  or  dialogues,  like  the  dithyramb  in  Greek  protodrama,  were  eventually  incorporated  into  celebrations  from  the  liturgical calendar, such as Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter. Short illustrative scenes evolved to vivify worship for a congregation that did not understand Latin, the liturgical language. First performed in the monasteries and churches around the 10th century, with clergymen or choir boys as actors, liturgical dramas would by the 13th century grow far too elaborate—with multiple scenes, actors, and stage effects—for proper staging indoors. Performances moved outdoors with nonclerical actors and secular organizations such as trade guilds producing vernacular mystery plays, scriptural dramas representing scenes from the Old and New Testament; miracle plays, dramatizing incidents from the lives of the saints; and morality plays, enacting the allegorical spiritual struggle of an average individual.  Like  Attic  Greek  plays,  medieval  drama  therefore  evolved  out  of  religious observances, was supported by wealthy citizens or organizations to serve both a civic and religious function, and, just as the Greek choral performances in honor of Dionysus were expanded to enact the stories of multiple gods and heroes,  medieval  drama  gradually  became  more  secularized  by  incorporating  aspects  of  familiar  life  and  recognizable  situations  and  characters  in  its  performances. Enacted episodes from the liturgical calendar were joined to form complete cycles of biblical plays in increasingly more complicated productions involving  realistic  stage  effects.  Religious  dramas  became  all-purpose  moral  entertainments  combining  serious  devotional  and  didactic  purposes  with  low  comic, often bawdy farce. By the 15th century religious drama had established a strong, robust theatrical tradition in western Europe that would be combined with  the  rediscovery  of  the  classical  dramatic  tradition  in  the  Renaissance  to  create the greatest explosion of dramatic achievement in history.

Everyman is the best-known example of the morality play, the late-developing medieval dramatic genre that is the essential bridge between religious and secular drama. If mystery plays treated the divine as revealed in the Bible, and miracle plays, the saintly, morality plays took for their subject the spiritual struggles of representative and recognizable mixed human characters. Morality  plays,  which  flourished  between  1400  and  1550,  are  didactic  allegories  enacting the combat between Vice and Virtue for the possession of a human soul. Examples in English include Pride of Life (c. 1410), Castle of Perserverance (c.1425),  and Mankind  (c.  1475).  Everyman  is  actually  atypical  of  the  form  due  to  its  restricted  scope.  Instead of  covering  the  temptations  of  an  entire  life, as do most morality plays, Everyman achieves its unity and intensity by concentrating only on the preparation for death, on the last act in the story of salvation or damnation. The usual enacted battle between Vice and Virtue for possession of an individual soul is over at the play’s outset. Everyman is a confirmed sinner who is to be shocked into a reevaluation of his life and values. As the play opens, God, disappointed in humankind’s sinfulness, in which “Every man liveth so after his own pleasure,” ignoring their inevitable end and purpose on earth, proclaims a final reckoning. He orders Death to summon Everyman to “A pilgrimage he must on him take, / Which he in no wise may escape.” Everyman greets this news with a range of psychologically believable reactions from incredulousness, delusion, and self-pity to rationalization that it might not be as bad as he fears, even attempting to bribe Death to “defer this matter till another day.” Death is implacable but agrees to allow Everyman to gather whomever he can persuade to accompany him on his journey to the grave.

Having lost his initial battle with Death to avoid his reckoning, Everyman is next reduced to helpless, isolated despair as one by one his expected faithful and steadfast companions—Fellowship, Kindred, and Cousin—abandon him. Forced  to  forego  human  companionship  from  friends  and  relatives  on  his  journey, Everyman next turns to his Goods, which he had valued most of all, for support. Convinced that money is all powerful, Everyman is corrected by Goods, who says that love for him is “contrary to love everlasting”:

A season thou hast had me in prosperity.
My condition is man’s soul to kill;
If I save one, a thousand I do spill.
Weenest though that I will follow thee?
Nay, not from this world, verily.

If  the  material  fails  him,  Everyman  next  turns  to  his  virtuous  accomplishments on earth, to Good Deeds, who is willing to accompanying him but is constrained by Everyman’s sins, and the pilgrim is sent to Good Deeds’s sister, Knowledge, to learn what he must do. At this point in the drama Everyman’s spiritual  journey  has  forced  him  to  look  from  exterior  support  to  internal  resources. Knowledge provides the key to Everyman’s salvation, leading him to Confession and Penance that releases Good Deeds to accompany him to his  reckoning.  The  play  thus  embodies  essential  Christian  doctrine—that  a  person’s life on earth is fl eeting and deceptive, that all must face death alone, and that good deeds are worthless without self-knowledge, faith, contrition, and absolution—in understandable human terms that invite audience identification. The play’s message is delivered not through direct statement but in the interaction of a psychologically understandable Everyman with the personified and magnified abstractions that underscore a universal meaning.

No  longer  reluctant  and  despairing,  with  a  renewed  faith  and  self-understanding,  Everyman  now  feels  comforted  and  confident  to  undertake  his  journey, summoning Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits to join Good Deeds as his companions. Doctrinally the play seems to have reached a secure moral conclusion. Everyman is no longer deceived about the world or himself and is now ready to face his final reckoning aided by worthy intrinsic companions. The play, however, delivers a surprising dramatic reversal. The companions that Everyman has counted on one by one fall away as he comes closer and closer to his journey’s end at the grave. The allegory here captures an entire life in miniature in which a person’s essential attributes eventually are defeated by time along life’s journey: the beauty of youth fades, the strength of manhood weakens, mental acuity in maturity declines, and the senses of old age fail. In a neat, structural parallel the excuses of Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods not to accompanying Everyman on his journey are matched by the regrets of Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits for failing to complete the pilgrim-age. Once again Everyman is stripped of support to face death alone, forced to give up his dependence not only on the externals of life but the internal faculties and attributes as well. Everyman reaches an existential moment of dreadful isolation that prompts his cry, “O Jesu, help! All hath forsaken me.” But he is consoled by Good Deeds, who alone will stay with him to the end:

All earthly things is but vanity:
Beauty, Strength, and Discretion do man forsake,
Foolish friends, and kinsmen, that fair spake—
All fleeth save Good Deeds, and that am I.
. . .
Fear not; I will speak for thee.

Good  Deeds  will  make  the  case  for  Everyman’s  salvation,  and  the  pilgrim  seeking God’s mercy is shown sinking into his grave. An Angel is heard welcoming his soul to his heavenly reward:

Now shalt thou into the heavenly sphere,
Unto the which all ye shall come
That liveth well before the day of doom.

Everyman  converts  the  theological  doctrine  of  a  soul’s  recovery  and  redemption into a series of strikingly dramatic conflicts, each pushing Every-man  to  a  greater  understanding  of  the  world  and  himself.  What  contrasts  Everyman from other morality plays in which Vice and Virtue contend for the possession of a man’s soul is that the forces that essentially divide Everyman and imperil his salvation reside within him, personified both in the external aspects of a man’s life and his inherent attributes. The play takes its audience deeply  into  a  moral  and  psychological  arena  that  will  increasingly  form  the  theater to follow as religious drama gives way to the secular. Dramatic allegory is to be dressed in the costumes and traits of the particular and the individual. Notably, Everyman  puts  an  average,  representative  man  at  center  stage  for  one  of  the  first  times  in  theatrical  history  and  considers  his  self-knowledge  and salvation as its central issue. Neither a divinity nor a paragon, Everyman is  made  recognizable  to  every  member  of  the  audience—noble  and  peasant  alike—and psychological realism, even in an allegory of contending abstractions, makes a powerful theatrical debut. Everyman proves triumphantly that the sufferings of someone like the rest of us can engage us emotionally and intellectually while supplying a crucial lesson on how the real, the symbolic, and insights into human nature and human existence—the key components of all drama—can be effectively combined.

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature

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