Everyman: Morality Play

Everyman, even though it encompasses the ideas behind Christian faith and Catholic doctrine, is a play that expresses normal human emotions including morality. It was written in a time when dramatic plays first appeared in churches with the introduction of the miracle play. As the popularity of these miracles grew, those producing the plays decided to no longer perform inside the church. Instead, the productions left the church to cater to broader audiences. Performing on the streets and in town squares, the plays evolved to encompass less religious views and biblical teachings for more moral issues.

The play Everyman is classified as a morality play although it contains Christian views of monotheism, salvation and redemption through confession. One example of the religious framework of the play is when Everyman seeks atonement during his confession: “Redempt with heart and full contrition, /For I am commanded a pilgrimage to take/And great accounts before God to make” (Everyman 2133). Not much is known about the author of the play.

Some speculate that Everyman is similar to the Dutch play Elckerlyc. It is possible that one story is a translation of the other. The title Elckerlyc in fact means “everyman” and the plays were both released around 1495 (Cawley 205). Even naming the author of the Dutch play is an elusive task; both the unknown Petrus Diesthemus and the Carthusian monk Petrus Dorlandus are named as possible authors (National). Other speculated authors of the play Everyman include Ernest Rhys’ theory that the author must have been imaginative and was most likely a churchman (Rhys xviii). Quite simply, very little can be learned about the specific genius behind this masterpiece. However, other information regarding the play is available. From studying beyond the play Everyman, readers can observe the development of drama during that time, the types of plays created in that time and various interpretations of contemporary readers.

In medieval Europe, the growth of drama was characterized by three different factors: religion, recreation and commerce. The earliest Christian dramas began as part of festivals celebrating the events in a Christian year. The religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, were acted out and eventually evolved with each year (Wickham, Medieval 11). As the plays began to grow in size and popularity, the play relocated to the churchyard and continued on to the entire town. Plays were performed outdoors and were accessible to anyone who desired to observe. The play Everyman was written in such a way that it could have easily been performed for an outside audience (Lawall 2119). Leisure time has existed since pre-Christian primitive Europe. There existed many festivals to celebrate various seasons and traditions during that time. As towns and time progressed, other forms of leisure activity, or recreation, became necessary. The dramatic plays of the time, much like television today, served as recreational and educational functions. With every new play in production, the characters grew in number and the performances increased in size. As drama became more elaborate, it was apparent that “any serious development of the art is intimately related to questions of money” (Wickham, Medieval 1). Those involved in dramas of that time realized that it takes money to make money.

The evolution of medieval plays can be traced from the church to the play Everyman. The plays that originated in the church are referred to as Miracle plays. Sarah Lawall in The Norton Anthology of World Literature describes miracle plays simply as plays that contain scriptural content (2119). Robert Potter, in The English Morality Play, describes miracle plays to be based upon the lives of the saints. Miracles began with the Christian church dramatizing the events inThe Bible. The Feast of Corpus Christi generated a play of the same name. The Corpus Christi cycle plays depicted Christ’s “Passion” which began at Jerusalem and ended with the resurrection. In 1311, the miracle play became associated with Corpus Christi Day, the year in which the festival was acknowledged (Cawley x). From the expansion of miracle plays out the church and into the towns, individual guilds created Mystery plays. Although Potter describes mystery plays as those based on scripture, both Wickham and Lawall recognize these plays as being acted by craftsmen in order for an occupation to be demonstrated.

Continuing along the evolution of medieval plays is the morality play, of which Everyman is considered one of the most significant of this type. A morality play can best be described as ”based on the struggle between vices and virtues” (Potter 7). The morality play contains a message that can be applied to anyone and are appropriate at any time. The morality play was written with more emphasis on discussion than on recounting a story. The plays were written using vernacular learned by popular education in order for commoners to easily comprehend the story. Everyman, like most morality plays, creates situations and characters that are abstract in the play but represent actual conflicts that humanity faces (Lawall 2120). Ironically, two characteristics of morality plays from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries were exempt from Everyman. These characteristics are personified vices and vulgar humor. Although lacking these two ingredients, the strength of the play lies in the lesson it teaches “that the recognition of one’s mortality forces reconsideration of personal values and a search for salvation” (Homan).

The play Everyman was written without alluding to specific situations. The play can be just as easily applied to modern readers as it was to the audiences in the townspeople of 1495. In London in 1901, William Poel, founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society, discovered the play Everyman and decided to begin production on it. At that time, it was against the law to present God as a character in a play. The show, however, did go on. According to Robert Potter, “the reviews were enthusiastic, numerous, and unanimously glowing” (2). This example is evidence of the applicability of this play to many different audiences.

In an article in the Journal of Popular Film & Television, Richard Homan wrote about the appearance of Everyman in modern cinema. It was interesting to read how Homan compared the play to various characters in movies such as “Ghost,” “Regarding Henry,” and “Switch.” Homan includes in his article a list of seven scenarios of Everyman that modern films must achieve in order to be compared to the medieval original. The first scenario includes a depiction of the troubled life Everyman leads. The play Everyman reads, “They use the seven deadly sins damnable, /As pride, coveitise, wrath, and lechery/Now in the world be made commendable” (Everyman 2122). In modern cinema, this poor lifestyle has been portrayed with unethical lawyers, sexually exploitative womanizers, or greedy snobs. The second scenario involves Everyman unexpectedly encountering death or a near-death experience. In Everyman, the protagonist is preparing for his death. The third scenario includes disillusionment of what matters in life. Everyman cherished his Goods in life, only for them to betray him in death. In the movies observed, the protagonists have placed too high a value on money and possessions.

Everyman, as portrayed then and now, wounded their Good Deeds with inattention and inaction. The fourth scenario relates to Good Deeds. This scenario features recognizing an unacknowledged partner. Whether Good Deeds or a devoted wife, these partners have been neglected by Everyman. The fifth scenario includes introduction of a guide to aid Everyman in his journey. In Everyman the protagonist turns inward to his knowledge for guidance. In modern depictions, the guide has come in many forms including mentors and strangers. In the sixth scenario, Everyman begins to amend his life. In Everyman, the protagonist goes to confession to heal his soul:

O glorious fountain that all uncleanness doth clarify,
Wash from me the spots of vice unclean,
That on me no sin may be seen.
I come with Knowledge for my redemption (2133, 545-548).

The modern Everyman characters seek to correct the errors of their lives in business dealings and personal relationships. The seventh scenario is a culmination of all the events of the story in a celebration of Everyman’s renewed life along with his partner. In Everyman, the protagonist faces his death with his life in order accompanied by Knowledge and Good Deeds. The modern comparisons of Everyman all have similar joyful endings.

Although centuries have passed and drama has taken on new venues, from the stage, to radio, to the big screen, the creation of Everyman is an everlasting masterpiece. The unknown author created a story that could entertain an audience while teaching a moral lesson. The play was written with a vernacular that could relate to common townspeople of medieval times but could also relate to modern, twenty-first century theatre and movie patrons. In a time when the Christian Church is no longer a stronghold in society and freedom from religious persecution is a right afforded in most countries across the globe, a play of this religious nature can still be enjoyed by many people. The religious tones of the story aid in teaching an important moral lesson without becoming overbearing. Regardless of religious affiliation, all men and women are to be held accountable for their lives. The test will come when worldly goods are worthless and companions are treacherous. When that time is presented only the knowledge possessed and the good deeds accomplished can determine the fate of a human. The play Everyman reads, “And he that hath his account whole and sound, /High in heaven he shall be crowned” (Everyman 2141). The story of Everyman is an all-encompassing play that could very well be an abstract of humanity.

Works Cited

Cawley, A.C. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. New York: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1970.

Everyman. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume B. 2nd ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York. Norton, 1984. 2121-2141.

Homan, Richard L. “The Everyman Movie, Circa 1991.” Journal of Popular Film & Television. March 1, 1997. Communication & Mass Media Complete.

Lawall, Sarah. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1984. 2119-2120.

National Library of the Netherlands. “Elckerlijc – A Hundred Highlights.” Koninklijke Bibliotheek. 29 Elckerlijc.

Potter, Robert. The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Rhys, Ernest. Everyman’s Library. New York: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1909.

Wickham, Glynne. Early English Stages. Volume One 1300 to 1660. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

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