One can only speculate as to the reason the late-15th Century play The Summoning of Everyman, or Everyman, is unattributed to any individual. Given the play’s subject matter, however, we can offer a logical reason for the playwright’s anonymity: By omitting his or her name as the author, the universal theme the play pursues is emphasized. No glory accompanies the work of art other than the subject itself: God and the moral life. In a brief prologue, the playwright sets forth the agenda of the production that will follow:
“Here beginneth a treatise how the High Father of Heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world, and is in manner of a moral play.”
One of the play’s main characters is, in fact, God. To be identified in the 15th Century as putting words in the mouth of God would bring down upon oneself not only charges of hubris in the extreme, but threats to the playwright’s physical well-being as well. The decision of the playwright to remain anonymous could be a product of concerns about such accusations as hubris and even blasphemy, although the play’s content is certainly respectful of the Almighty. Weighing the balance of one’s life before God with the risk of being found wanting is the play’s subject, and theme is one of the requisite search for redemption. God speaks early in Everyman, and expresses His concerns regarding the role of His Word in the everyday lives of people:
“Every man liveth so after his own pleasure, And yet of their life they be nothing sure. I see the more that I them forbear, The worse they be from year to year. All that liveth declineth fast, Therefore I will in all haste Have a reckoning of every man's person; For, if I leave the people thus alone In their life and wicked tempests, Verily they will become much worse than beasts;”
In dispatching Death on the mission of retrieving “everyman” – the play opens with a “Messenger” establishing the context: “Calleth Everyman to a general reckoning” – God sets in motion the challenge that ideally shouldn’t be a challenge. When Death encounters “Everyman,” he instructs this representative of humanity on the mission for which he has been selected:
“On thee thou must take a long journey, Therefore thy book of count with thee thou bring, For turn again thou cannot by no way: And look thou be sure of thy reckoning; For before God thou shalt answer and show Thy many bad deeds, and good but a few, How thou hast spent thy life, and in what wise, Before the Chief Lord of Paradise. Have ado that we were in that way, For, wit thou well, thou shalt make none attorney.”
On his journey, Everyman encounters the good and the bad of his fellow man, the latter represented by, among others, “Five Wits,” whose rejection of Everyman’s entreaties exemplifies the spiritual laziness affecting mankind.
The anonymity of the source of Everyman is part of the play’s enduring legacy. The absence of an identified author adds to its mystique and to its gravitas. It is not identified with any particular human being, which only adds to the universality of its theme. A writer felt obligated to put the words of God into a play in the apparent hopes that the message would resonate stronger if the author’s identity were unknown. In that, the anonymous author can be said to have succeeded.