Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

There is no record of Everyman being produced on stage during the medieval period. The title page refers to the work as a treatise, and occasionally such works were fashioned as dialogues between characters. This was especially true when the author intended the work to provide a moral lesson. Whether Everyman was ever performed or not, it proved popular among readers, achieving four reprintings in the first years following its publication. But with the move to a Protestant religion in England—and the development of the more sophisticated Elizabethan theatre—the morality plays of the medieval period were forgotten. Everyman was not reprinted again until 1773 and was then regarded as an artifact of the ancient past. However, by the nineteenth century, medieval drama became an important topic of study, and eventually interest in Everyman surged enough to warrant a production in 1901.

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In William Poel's 1901 staging in Canterbury, England, Everyman achieved dramatic success, according to a critic writing for the Athenaeum, because the play's ‘‘naive simplicity and uncompromising sincerity'' had modern appeal. Although the reviewer referred to the play as primitive drama, he also found that this drama, ‘‘which seems so dull and didactic, may well have passioned our forefathers—this is, indeed, capable of passioning us.’’ This acknowledgment of the play's strength after 500 years of dormancy must have been gratifying for the director.

Everyman, claimed the critic, had the possibility of becoming a sensation during the 1901 London theatre season. The review in the Athenaeum recognized that the play's focus on religion and salvation might appear quaint or dated, but the critic said that "Temptations to ridicule presented themselves, and the smile rose occasionally to the lips. It died there, and sank before the absolute sincerity of the whole. Amusement never degenerated into mockery.'' Accordingly, the ideas depicted in Everyman may have interest and application in a more modern world. Of the staging, this critic noted that Everyman was "admirably played by a woman,'' although the role of God was more traditionally cast as an elderly man. Interestingly, the role of Death was played without the traditional scythe.

A review of a 1902, Manchester, England, performance cited the ‘‘amazing ingenuity, judgment and care'' of the production. C. E. Montague, writing for the Manchester Guardian, described in detail the stage settings, which more closely approximated fifteenth-century Italian design, rather than fifteenth-century English work. Montague opined that the staging more closely reflects the ideas that Englishmen have about the fifteenth century, rather than the reality. One area deserving of praise, according to Montague, were the performances. It was a ‘‘seriousness and simplicity of method’’ that made the cast stand out. In dealing with such a serious topic, the cast was able to achieve "the right tragic effect of outward expression’’ so necessary to play the parts. Calling attention to one actor's performance, Montague noted that"the set and immobile face, level delivery, and almost unchanged position of Death were curiously effective in enhancing the solemnity of his first message to Everyman.’’

One negative observation in the Guardian review concerned the performance of Good Deeds, who Montague felt had a ‘‘rather overdone plaintiveness'' and whose dialogue was sometimes not audible. In summary, however, Montague declared that the stage management was "masterly."

A New York production was also the subject of positive reviews in 1903. Elizabeth Luther Cary, writing for the Critic, acknowledged American audiences might be confused by a play so removed from traditional drama, but she stated that the play ‘‘seems to have aroused among its audiences a feeling in which admiration, interest, curiosity, and bewilderment are more or less evenly blended.’’ Cary found that this production of Everyman was ‘‘so consistent, so simple, so genuine, so moving, and so entirely outside the bounds of modern convention [that it] is disturbing unless the tradition to which it conforms is clearly in mind.'' Cary pointed out that audiences must understand the play within its literary tradition.

In appraising the performances, it was the role of Everyman that earned the greatest praise from Cary. Of the actress who assumed the role, Cary said, ‘‘her interpretation is the fire of life to the naive little play which, with all its qualities, could very easily be made an affair of external and merely archaeological interest. Subtle feeling for the psychological situation raises her performance to a very high level of modern dramatic art, while the simplicity and frankness of the allegory are not sacrificed in the least degree.’’ In the end, stated Cary, the "power and charm of the acting'' dominate the performance.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Everyman has achieved a level of popularity as a subject for study, particularly as interest in England' s medieval period has increased. Often cited as the best representation of morality plays and of medieval drama in general, Everyman appears in many anthologies of drama. The play continues to be taught in college English courses and occasional productions can be found at universities.

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