The morality play, of which Everyman is the best extant example, and the mystery play are the two principal kinds of medieval drama. The mystery play is a dramatic re-creation of a story from the Bible, its aim being the elucidation of the revelation therein. The morality play, by contrast, is an allegorical form, peopled by personified abstractions such as Beauty, Justice, and Fortitude and types such as Everyman, Priest, and King. Here the subject matter is admonitory, particularly concerning death. As Albert Baugh pointed out, it is difficult to discover precise sources for the subject matter or the dramatic method. There are, however, certain parallels with medieval sermons, which often bolstered moral exhortations with allegorical examples. Indeed, allegory is pervasive in medieval literature, as is, for that matter, concern for a happy death. It is not known, however, how these evolved into the particular form of the morality play.
Few morality plays have survived, and only Everyman remained sufficiently well regarded in later times to be dignified with performance. One reason for the unpopularity of the genre is the limitation of dramatic complication resulting from the static nature of the personifications. The characters are of necessity simple, and there is no possibility of change except perhaps in a central protagonist like Everyman. As a result, there can be little psychological insight and little diverse movement that invigorate earlier and later drama.
Like all forms of allegory, the method is essentially intellectual. The active involvement of the spectator is not through emotion so much as it is in the discovery of the meanings of characters and the significance of the configurations in which they are arranged. Allegory engages the mind and Everyman succeeds well in representing a complex, highly specific, theological system at the same time that it generates, by juxtaposition and order, sufficient immediacy to give force to the moral exhortation. The structure is elegant and compact. There is no attempt to catalog the deficiencies of Everyman’s past life; rather, the play focuses on the poignant hour of death and implies what Everyman is and what he ought to be at that critical moment.
Because of the allegorical method, it is easy to trivialize the...
(The entire section is 955 words.)
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