Everyman and Modern Audiences

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Last Updated on February 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

One of the significant problems with any modern staging of Everyman is that contemporary audiences have trouble appreciating the play on the same level that medieval viewers would have. The play's original audiences understood the role of religion in their lives. They believed in the reality of death, the afterlife, heaven and hell. In a period where the plague was likely to cut short life, where infant mortality was so high that people expected their children to die, and where the church could dictate behavior, the fear of death, of hell, and of Satan assumed a much larger role in life. Those factors are all much more abstract now, and modern audiences would find that fear, which Everyman experiences when faced with an unprepared death, very foreign. But the play has modern appeal, according to several writers who argue that with the correct emphasis, Everyman can transcend 600 years of cultural history to find a modern audience.

A successful contemporary staging of Everyman is possible, according to Ron Tanner in the Philological Quarterly, especially if the production emphasizes the irony that is present in the plot. In his essay, Tanner argued that one important key to appreciating the irony in Everyman is in visualizing the presentation of death. The medieval audience, Tanner noted, would have been horrified at seeing Death's approach on stage, and when Everyman attempts to bargain with or bribe Satan, the audience would have been shocked but also ‘‘tickled’’ at Everyman's nerve. Tanner argued that Everyman's ‘‘gall is almost admirable.’’ When confronted by death, Everyman says, ‘‘thou comest when I had thee least in mind.’’ This bit of irony is common to all humans, and most can appreciate Everyman's next words: ‘‘A thousand pound shalt thou have, / And defer this matter to another day.’’ To bargain with death, to attempt a bribe is what all men would have liked to do but what few would have even considered. When Everyman observes, ‘‘I may say Death giveth no warning,’’ the audience once again can laugh at Everyman's foolishness. Death gives no warning and Death takes no bribes. Every member of the medieval audience would recognize the foolishness of Everyman's words. Tanner pointed out that this irony is more evident in production than in simply reading the text, but even absent a staging, the play's humor is clearly evident in the text.

A second place where irony or humor might be emphasized in production is in the first half of the play when Everyman is searching for someone to accompany him in his journey to meet God. Certainly the play ceases to be humorous once Everyman falls victim to despair and Knowledge enters the play, but while Everyman is seeking the help of Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods, there is humor in their exchanges, humor that a modern audience can appreciate. When Fellowship offers to accompany his good friend, saying that even if ‘‘thou go to hell, /I will not forsake thee,’’ the audience understands the irony in those words.

Fellowship, who easily promises to go ‘‘to hell’’ with his friend, has in mind a more decadent location on earth. Fellowship suggests a more localized hell, one where women and drink occupy their attention. In fact, when he learns of Everyman's true destination, Fellowship admits that he is afraid of having to give an accounting to God. And when reminded by Everyman that he promised to accompany him to hell, Fellowship admits to having made that promise, and says, ‘‘But such pleasures be set aside.’’ The use of ‘‘pleasures’’ makes it clear that Fellowship intended his own definition...

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of hell. As Tanner noted, Fellowship makes seven promises to help, each one equally elaborate, before he learns Everyman's destination.

Everyman's interview with Kindred and Cousin also fails to advance his need for company on his journey. When apprised of the nature of his pilgrimage, Kindred states that he would rather exist only on bread and water for five years than face God. The speed with which he chooses a fast over facing God is humorous, since he wasted no time in making such idle promises. When faced with more pleadings from Everyman, Cousin claims to have a ‘‘cramp in my toe.’’ His evasiveness is funny, although the audience understands that Everyman's plight is very serious. This intermingling of brief humor in the face of tragedy portends the formula that William Shakespeare would later adopt for his tragedies one hundred years later. The audience needs a few brief moments of laughter to recover from the tragedy unfolding on stage.

Another moment of laughter occurs when Everyman seeks help from Goods. By now it is clear to the audience the direction the play is taking, and the only surprise remains the means that Goods will take to avoid helping Everyman. Goods is very direct in his refusal to help; the irony comes near the end of their exchange. Goods, having told Everyman that he should have used his money to help the poor, completes his task by saying that he must be off to deceive another just as he has deceived Everyman. He exits the stage, saying, ‘‘Have good day,’’ as if Everyman was not facing imminent death and final judgment. Since the very next scene is an encounter with Good-Deeds and a shift to more serious ideas, the audience needs this last little ironic reminder from Goods.

Another view of the play's adaptability to modern theatre is suggested by Carolynn Van Dyke in Acts of Interpretation, The Texts in Its Contexts 700-1600, who focused on allegory in her argument that Everyman can find an audience in today's students. Van Dyke pointed out that allegory offers opportunities for actors to transcend the time period in which the play is written to create a more modern and more easily appreciated representation of the central characters. She argued that the characters in Everyman are realistic, that ‘‘they behave like familiar individuals.’’

This characterization takes the characters beyond the limitations of pure allegory. Fellowship is not simply an abstract representation of Everyman's friends. He is a real character with whom the audience may identity. Friends often promise what they cannot deliver; students and audiences will recognize that reality. Van Dyke maintained that ‘‘those characters' material forms not only represent but also redefine their names.’’ Each character has a distinct personality or at least has the promise of a distinct personality, if given the opportunity in performance. It is actors who infuse personality into these abstract characters. ‘‘As categories and abstractions,’’ Van Dyke noted, ‘‘they cannot be fully realized by any creature.’’ But, she continued, ‘‘their embodiment in individual actors . . . must call upon the techniques of realistic characterization.’’ With a skillful actor, the relationship between text, ideas, and audience can become clearer. The actor is infused with identity, and the audience has a practical application of the ideas.

Writing in Studies in Philology, Stanton Garner also argued that medieval morality plays must be viewed within their medium to be fully appreciated and that thus far, plays such as Everyman have not been valued as theatre pieces because modern audience fail to understand their correct role within the genre of drama. Although Garner was not focusing on humor, he was arguing that the visualization of characters, such as Death, is crucial to appreciating the play. Garner noted that ‘‘in performance, a stage devil is physically there, in real proximity to the audience, and with every gesture and movement he draws attention to his immediacy. The audience is forced to acknowledge and be aware of Death because he is not an abstract character drawn on the page. Instead, he becomes a personification of the Death that threatens all men.’’

Garner pointed out that this living embodiment of Death helps to suggest a world beyond the limited locations created by the words of the text. Instead of Death as an abstract concept representing a world beyond the audience's imagining, there appears on stage a form that suggests reality. Salvation ceases to be an abstract promise of the church and becomes instead, the ‘‘presence of the here-and-now.’’ Garner made the additional observation that the audience can only understand Everyman's aloneness by seeing the play in performance. The reader understands that Everyman becomes increasingly isolated as Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods abandon him. But the audience actually sees these characters leave the stage never to return, and with each departure, Everyman becomes increasingly isolated.

Although Everyman proved very popular with medieval readers, there is no evidence that it was staged during that period, and records citing performance after 1600 make no mention of the play's staging. There have been, however, a number of successful productions in the twentieth century. In 1901, William Poel's staging of Everyman was so successful that he took it on the road in England, Scotland, and Ireland. He eventually brought the play to the United States. Its United States tour was successful enough that British productions of the play returned several more times in the next thirty years. Today, Everyman is occasionally staged at colleges and universities, as well as by church organizations. But these productions are either academic in nature or focused on religious ideology. Tanner, Van Dyke, and Garner have all argued that this play has value beyond such limited focus. A closer evaluation of the plot and characters would support such a move.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Time and Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3340

In his recent study, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (1958), Professor Bernard Spivack points out two related trends in the development of the English morality play during the sixteenth century: the first a change from a hero who represents all humanity to one who embodies only an aspect of humanity; the second a change from a comic to a tragic ending. Behind these changes lay the general shift from a Catholic to a Protestant theological perspective. One of the chief purposes of the older plays was to demonstrate the possibility of salvation for all humanity: hence the generalized hero and the happy ending. The later plays, on the other hand, were more concerned with the exceptional individual and the dilemmas he must cope with in this life rather than the next.

The various implications of this development may be seen very clearly, I think, in two plays written about a century apart, Everyman and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. A comparison between the two is a natural, even an inevitable one to make, since both plays have as their main theme the eschatological predicament confronting every Christian individual, the choice whether to be damned or saved. Futhermore, both plays are basically concerned with only one character and his spiritual destiny; the other characters either symbolize various facets of the hero's personal conflict or are limited to strictly subsidiary roles. Everyman is undoubtedly the most skillful example of the morality play that has survived. T. S. Eliot claims (in ‘‘Four Elizabethan Dramatists’’) that it is perhaps the one play in which "we have a drama within the limitations of art''— meaning, I gather, that nothing in the play is extraneous to the central homiletic purpose, that all elements of style, structure, and theme are governed by the conventions of allegory. The consistency of the form reflects the perfect clarity and oneness of belief in the playwright and his audience. By comparison, Dr. Faustus is an impure, hybrid play, not merely because of the revisions inflicted on it by later playwrights, but because it is transitional: it both harks back to the older drama in its use of the devices of homiletic allegory, and anticipates the fully developed tragedy of the later Elizabethans, especially in its conception of the hero.

It is in their protagonists that the two plays differ, perhaps, most obviously. Since Everyman is supposed to represent all humanity he is given no social or political identity, no attributes which would suggest that his predicament is more common to one class of humanity than another. (The only political references in the play occur in the repeated designation of God as "Heuen Kynge'' or "Chefe Lorde of paradyse,'' the implication being that all men, whatever their earthly status, are democratically equal before the one true monarch of the universe.) This is not to say that Everyman is merely an abstract figure, a type. He is, rather, a complete individual whose feelings as he faces death and yearns for salvation are to be understood as those of any human being caught in the same universal situation. In Everyman the soul, or that which unites the hero with the rest of his kind, is treated as incomparably more significant than character, or that which sets him apart. In Dr. Faustus, on the other hand, these two aspects of the hero receive a more equal emphasis, and as the play develops a growing tension may be observed between them. As early as the opening chorus Faustus is presented as an individual set apart by the circumstances of his birth, education, and scholarly career. As he shows so clearly in his initial monologue, he is one who craves uniqueness, who longs to "gain a deity'' and "reign sole king of all the Provinces.’’ But whatever Faustus eventually gains in distinction as a character he loses as a soul, for however cavalierly he tries to dismiss it at first he cannot escape the predicament of Everyman. All the high honor he receives for his learning and necromantic skill is ironically replaced in the end by the terrifying isolation of the final hour, when under the pressure of imminent damnation he yearns to lose all identity whatsoever and become as indistinguishable as waterdrops blended with the ocean.

The fact that Everyman, the representative individual, is saved, and Faustus, the exceptional individualist, is damned, has significant theological implications. Between the two plays falls the Reformation. Despite its several severe warnings, Everyman is essentially reassuring in its estimation of man's chances for salvation. Its purpose is not to terrify but to edify. ‘‘This mater is wonderous precyous,’’ says the Prologue; "But the entent of it is more gracyous, and swete to bere awaye.’’ God at the beginning speaks ruefully of His love for mankind, the sacrifice He made for them in the Crucifixion (‘‘I coude do no more than I dyde, truely’’), and His original intention that they should all be saved and share His glory. It is only because mankind is ‘‘Drowned in synne’’ that God is obliged to command Death to summon Everyman to his final reckoning. Once Everyman appears, however, he hardly bears the marks of a deep-dyed sinner. He is more like the anxious, baffled, and painfully well-intentioned hero of modern existentialist fiction. Except for the momentary truculence he shows at the outset when he asks Death what God wants with him, he never betrays any sign of wishing to resist God or question His ways, let alone aspire to a Faustian divinity. Once he realizes his spiritual danger, his faith, his will to be saved, is beyond question; and after he turns to Good Deeds and is joined by Knowledge the way to his salvation is clear.

One reason the process of redemption for Everyman seems relatively easy is that positive evil does not appear as a serious impediment. Unlike most of the other mortality plays, the world of Everyman is not invaded by the Devil and his ministers, the personified vices. The only obstacle to the hero's redemption is his own blindness to the true good, represented by his over-reliance on Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods. These are not vices but mutable goods, dangerous only when their value is overestimated. (As Goods explains to Everyman, had he loved his possessions moderately and distributed alms his spiritual prospects would have been much brighter.) Death, too, is depicted as God's dignified and business-like subordinate—not the sadistic antic of the medieval danse macabre. The universe of Everyman in general is one thoroughly under the control of a benevolent deity who sees to it that the normal, repentant sinner has more than a fair chance to save himself: a universe in which the demonic is kept at a thoroughly safe distance.

Moving to Dr. Faustus, we are immediately impressed by the remoteness of the divine, the omnipresence of the demonic. Not only does God's benevolent protection fail to show itself as a visible reality (even the impeccably virtuous Old Man is tormented by the fiends), but God's representatives, the Good Angel and the Old Man, are heavily outnumbered by Mephistophilis, Lucifer, the Bad Angel, the Seven Deadly Sins, and an indefinite number of minor devils. The magnitude of evil represented in Faustus is far greater than it is in Everyman, for Faustus consciously wills to surmount his human limitations and rival God. This deep concern with the demonic makes Marlowe's play seem at once more primitive and more sophisticated than Everyman: more primitive in that it reflects that original fear of darkness and chaos which is at the core of the tragic experience; more sophisticated in that it sees the exceptionally gifted individual, the man who believes he has mastered all the known fields of human learning, as precisely the one who is most lacking in genuine self-knowledge, the most vulnerable to illicit temptation. This concern with the potency of evil also appears in the hero's inability to repent despite his urgent desire to. Before he signs the bond Faustus suffers momentary pangs of conscience, and periodically thereafter he is moved to repent. Clearly, he is damned in the end not because of what he actually does, for his deeds are merely frivolous and self-indulgent rather than vicious, but because he despairs, because he is convinced that he is damned. Even as he calls on Christ in the agony of his final hour he sees only the heavy wrath of God; the one drop of blood that would save his soul unavailable to him. Dr. Faustus is a distinctly post-Reformation play because the hero's destiny hinges entirely on the question of faith, a question which does not enter into Everyman at all. This is not to say that the play is Calvinistic in its implied theology; the opportunity to renounce his bond and repent is genuinely available to Faustus to the very end, as the Old Man indicates. Nevertheless, a heavy element of spiritual predeterminism does appear in Faustus's conviction that even God's mercy is not so capacious as to embrace such a sinner as himself. Although the conviction may be illusory, it is still one of the most powerfully felt ingredients in the play.

Another significant feature of the two plays which serves to distinguish them is their treatment of time. In both plays time is to be conceived in two basic senses. First, it is a mechanically regular process, a ceaseless, irreversible flow which determines the limits of human experience but remains unaffected by it. In the second sense, it is a flexible medium which may be manipulated by man to attain his ends. The first is clock or astronomical time, the second moral time. The first is deterministic; the second involves opportunity, or man's freedom to control his own destiny.

In Everyman's progress, time in the first sense prevails momentarily but is superseded by the second. Since the play deals with the general experience of mankind, history, in the sense of what particular individuals do at a particular time and place, is almost but not entirely excluded. Only three historical events are mentioned: the Fall, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment—the three events which in the medieval Christian view determined the entire course of human history. The first event began history by binding man to time and mortality, the second offered him the opportunity to escape this bondage and decide his own destiny in the hereafter, the third will end all possibility of choice and so end history. Time in the first, or mechanistic, sense enters the play when Death summons Everyman. Once the latter is fully aware of the fact that he must die, his first response is to beg for more leeway: "Ye, a thousande pounde shalt thou haue, And thou dyfferre this mater tyll an other daye.’’ But Death, immune to bribery, insists that he die that very day. After Death leaves, Everyman, alone and desperate, wishes he had never been born and shudders to think what little time he has left: "The day passeth, and is almost ago. I wote not well what for to do.’’ It is here that Everyman most closely resembles the Faustus who in his final hour curses his existence and helplessly endures the ticking away of his small stock of remaining time. After discovering the hypocrisy of Fellowship and the other worldly goods, Everyman realizes that all his life he had wasted time, that is, had misused his opportunity to prepare for the hereafter: ‘‘Lo! now was I deceyued or I was ware; And all, I may wyte, my spendynge of tyme.’’ At this point time for Everyman means finitude and the horrifying prospect of damnation.

But once he discovers a true companion in Good Deeds and receives instruction from Knowledge, Everyman is no longer obsessed with time in the negative sense. His passive waiting for death changes into a voluntary pilgrimage, a journey in which he sets his own pace and hopefully anticipates a benevolent end. What he must do is undergo the established rituals of purification: confession, penance, and the receiving of the sacraments of the eucharist and last annointing. These are rituals of renewal: they counteract the deleterious effect of time by relieving man of his bondage to his sinful past and enabling him to be "reborn." The sacrament which receives the greatest emphasis in the digression on the priesthood, the eucharist, is the one which in Catholic doctrine testifies to the continual, revivifying presence of the sacred in the profane, the eternal in the temporal. Time in the latter part of Everyman is not negated; instead it becomes the medium of spiritual regeneration and fulfillment.

Nevertheless, as he approaches the grave Everyman is still not fully prepared to meet death. He must undergo the actual process of aging and dying, must suffer the desertion of Strength, Beauty, and his other natural attributes. In his momentary disillusionment he shows that even the penitent finds it difficult to divorce himself from the temporal and face death with equanimity. Even as he enters the grave time does not wholly cease for Everyman: he must passively but hopefully await the final event of history, the day of doom. But as the singing of the angels indicates, his ultimate redemption is no longer in doubt.

In Dr. Faustus references to time and eternity occur much more frequently than they do in Everyman, and Marlowe's treatment of time in general is more deliberate and complex. One good reason for this is that the time element is heavily stressed in the plot. Faustus has precisely twenty-four years in which to live ''in all voluptuousness.'' As his end draws nearer his obsession with time grows more intense, until at last it reaches the extremes of spiritual agony. One of the intolerable ironies which forces itself on Faustus near the end is that he has gained a limited quantity of pleasure at the cost of an eternity of pain. Another, counterbalancing irony which he fails to realize is that, given the necessary faith, he could at any moment escape his bondage to mechanistic time and enter the realm of moral time, to his ultimate redemption.

Before and during the signing of the bond Faustus naturally shows no more concern for time than he does for the spiritual consequences of his act. With what appears to be forced bravado he announces to Mephistophilis, ‘‘Faustus hath incurred eternal death by desperate thoughts against Jove's deity''—speaking in the past tense as though the matter were final, unalterable. Having signed the pact with Lucifer, Faustus suffers his first serious misgivings after a time lapse of indefinite length, during which he has amused himself with a variety of exotic diversions. Already he has begun to despair, so profoundly that he would have killed himself "Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.’’ The form his pleasure takes is significant: he has had Homer sing to him of Alexander and Oenone, and Dardanus perform duets with Mephistophilis. Faustus, in other words, seeks to escape the present with its constant flowing away of his limited stock of time by projecting himself into a remote and changeless past. The classical figures he conjures up seem seductively real at the moment, like those in a dream, but as the anachronism of Homer's singing of Alexander suggests, they are illusory; Faustus himself later admits they are not ‘‘true substantial bodies.’’ Later in this scene (II. ii in Boas's edition) Faustus again reveals his inclination to evade the present reality, together with his nostalgia for an idyllic beauty near the beginning of time, just before he is to see the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins: "This sight will be pleasing unto me, As Paradise was to Adam.’’ The same impulse reappears with special poignancy near the end of Faustus's twenty-four years, when he tries to find heaven and immortality in Helen's lips.

Meanwhile, the fact that time, clocktime, does flow on ceaselessly is made unmistakably clear to Faustus in the same scene in which he speaks of Homer and Alexander. When he questions Mephistophilis about the movement of the heavenly bodies the latter replies: ‘‘All move from east to west in four and twenty hours upon the poles of the world; but differ in their motions upon the poles of the zodiac.’’ The number twenty-four should serve as an ominous reminder to Faustus, but he complacently dismisses the explanation as old hat: "These slender trifles Wagner can decide.’’ Once the clock has announced the beginning of his final hour, however, Faustus's astronomical awareness becomes painfully acute: ‘‘Stand still, you evermoving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come.’’ Looking skywards, Faustus also sees Christ's redeeming blood streaming in the firmament, but the vision is momentary. In his despair he equates the ceaseless movement of the spheres with the certainty of his damnation: ‘‘The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.’’

Two other significant variations on the time theme may be observed in the play. The first is the changeless state of damnation tangibly represented in Mephistophilis, who as a spirit is incapable of repentance. In his description of the nature of hell Mephistophilis indicates that while the state of damnation has no future, it does look back to a past. His greatest torment, in fact, lies in his memory of the joys of heaven and his knowledge that he will never see them again. Although Faustus at first makes light of Mephistophilis's suffering, he also realizes at the end what it means to exist without hope, without the expectation of future change. Any finite period of suffering, even ten thousand years, would be preferable to permanent exclusion from the company of the saved. As long as Faustus exists in time, however, the possibility of change is continually available to him. This is made clear through the periodic reappearance of the two angels, the first counselling hope, the other despair. When Faustus asks whether enough time remains to escape damnation, the Bad Angel answers, ‘‘Too late,’’ the Good Angel, "Never too late, if Faustus can repent.’’ Faustus never avails himself of the latter alternative because he cannot believe that his repentance would ever be acceptable to a deity he has so grievously affronted. He is a moral determinist who, unlike Everyman, can think of time only as binding, not as liberating.

If time assumes a more problematic significance in Dr. Faustus than it does in Everyman, this is merely one symptom of the play's having been written in an age which was becoming increasingly sensitive to the radical distinction between the eternal and the temporal, the sacred and the profane. The distinction is most sharply focused, perhaps, in the Calvinistic conception of faith and works, which sees all of man's temporal activities as spiritually worthless, his whole salvation depending on his absolute commitment to a time-transcending deity. In less explicitly theological fashion, Marlowe and his contemporaries habitually interpreted time as a strictly negative process, the implacable destroyer of whatever man values most highly in this life— beauty, love, fame, honor. Such hostility toward the universal principle of change could arise only in a period of transition, when the medieval hunger for the changeless was still a very real and potent impulse, but when confidence in the divine was no longer firm enough to satisfy that hunger. Not that all the Elizabethans saw time as a purely negative force. A few amplified the conception of it implicit in Everyman, as the necessary medium or moral growth and fulfillment, the dimension through which the underlying logic of man's spiritual experience is progressively revealed and his final deliverance achieved.

O Time, thou must untangle this, not I: It is too hard a knot for me to untie.

For the most profound interpretation of time in all its aspects among the Elizabethans we must look, of course, to Shakespeare.

Source: David Kaula,"Time and Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus'' in College English, Vol. 22, No. 1, October, 1960, pp. 9-14.

1901 Review of Everyman

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

To Mr. William Poel, the secretary and originator of the Elizabethan Stage Society, we are indebted for some quaint and edifying illustrations of our early stage. None of the previous experiments has had quite the value and interest of the performance given last Saturday afternoon under the shade of the venerable walls of the Charterhouse. The place was admirably suited to the entertainment, which consisted of the anonymous morality of 'Everyman' and the scene of the interrupted 'Sacrifice of Isaac' from the 'Histories of Lot and Abraham,' which is the fourth of the Chester miracle plays. That the scene was better suited than the court of Fulham Palace, which witnessed Ben Jonson's 'Sad Shepherd,' or than the halls of the various Inns of Court which have been placed at the Society's disposal, may not perhaps be said. The environment was, however, in keeping with the action, and the two were so harmonious that it became easy to conceive the mimic performance real, and to believe that we were spectators of, and almost participants in, a great historical tragedy. Tragedy indeed, in its naive simplicity and uncompromising sincerity, 'Everyman' is—that ‘‘tragedy to those who feel’’ which is our general lot, the great unending problem of life, responsibility, and death. There are many points from which the entertainment may be regarded, and from all it is significant. The first thing that strikes one is that the primitive drama, which seems so dull and didactic, may well have passioned our forefathers—is, indeed, capable of passioning us; the second that this particular piece, played no better and no worse than on the occasion it was, is capable, when its merits are known, of attracting all London and becoming the "sensation'' of a season. 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.

What are the obligations of the English dramatist to the 'Elckerlijk' assigned to Peter Dorland of Diest, the Belgian mystic, the author of the 'Viola Animæ,' or to the 'Barlaam and Josaphat' of John of Damascus, we are unable to say. After the delivery of a species of prologue by a messenger, the scene, like that of' Festus' or of one of Goethe's prologues to ' Faust,' opens in heaven with a speech from God, described in the programme by the Hebrew name Adonai, complaining of the lewdness of life of men and their neglect of His worship. Death then approaches, and is told to bid Everyman to his final pilgrimage. Everyman comes capering to his lute in festive garb and singing to his mistress. Having received from Death his instruction to prepare for immediate departure, he seeks by bribery to obtain a respite. When this effort is vain he summons Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods or Wealth; but though ready enough to accompany him to scenes of debauch or even aid him in a murder, they refuse to accompany him on so grievous a journey. Good Deeds is so weak she can neither stand nor crawl. She is none the less helpful, and brings to him her sister Knowledge, by whom he is led to Confession. By means of penance he is then prepared for death; and after he has received the sacraments he dies penitent and pardoned, deserted by his former associates Strength, Beauty, Discretion, and Five Wits, but supported by Good Deeds, whose strength and stature are augmented, and by Knowledge.

The presentation was naturally naïve. Adonai was shown as an elderly man with a curling grey beard. Death had no scythe, but had, as in some illustrations we recall, a drum and a trumpet. He had also, it may incidentally be mentioned, a strong Scotch accent. Everyman, who was admirably played by a woman, was a bright and dapper youth in the opening scenes, and in the later presented a tragic figure. Designs for the dresses are supplied on the title-page of an edition of the morality printed by Skot, and are given in facsimile in the first volume of Hazlitt's 'Dodsley.' In preference to these, Mr. Poel has taken others from Flemish tapestries of the early fifteenth century. Whencesoever obtained, they were admirable, and the entertainment was lifelike and impressive.

No less interesting was the short scene of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the rhymed verses of which were well delivered. In short, we may say that a performance casting a welcome light upon the conduct of the liturgical drama is this day repeated in the court of the Charterhouse, and those who care to witness an entertainment unique in its kind are counselled to take an opportunity that most probably will not recur.

Source: Anonymous, review of Everyman in the Athenaeum, July 20, 1901, pp. 103.


Critical Overview


Everyman (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))