Everyman and Modern Audiences
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 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...
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