Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Knight" from "The Dance of Death," 1524-26
Medieval theatre was not quite theatre as we know it. It was created at time when theatre was emerging from the womb of the church, and it remains deeply bound to its mother. But it occupies a space of its own, a zone between religious ritual and secular show biz. It works on its audiences in quite a special way, quite differently from today's entertainment. I began to understand this the other night when I went out for a ride on my own.
Everyman, as we know, is a play about the journey of a man (who represents all men and women) going to his death. Death of course was everywhere in the 15th century, just as it is now, and even though it was much more visible it still often came as a surprise--as these famous Holbein woodcuts of death's dance illustrate.
Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Noble Lady" from "The Dance of Death," 1524-26
Like the woodcuts, the play asks us to be intensely aware of death, but more than awareness it lifts us into another plane of reality. We watch Everyman confronting his own death, and in doing so our vision changes--or at least mine does.
Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Young Child" from "The Dance of Death," 1524-26
I went out on Saturday night about 9 o'clock to drive the route our bus will take during the route of our show--I hadn't seen it when it was dark. The bus will take us down a few streets I rarely travel, and many of them are very quiet. I also wanted to listen to some of the music we'll be playing on our bus, which Alex Ruhlin has wonderfully refitted for sound. Listening to the music, imagining riding with Everyman, watching the small houses on the dark streets, thinking always of death--it's not the sort of thing I do every day or night. Driving past a desolate city park, three boys were playing basketball on a lighted court:they looked like ghosts. On Platte avenue I saw the school band walking down the sidewalk after a game; a tuba gleamed in a street light. I looked at the signs lit up downtown and the north end: so many banks! So many churches! Really at night it's not so different from the 15h century, with the Norman tower of Grace Episcopal glowing, and the cross lit up high on Penrose hospital. Lights in the dark. With the play running through my mind, as it has been doing for the last several weeks, the world seemed close yet far away, something I was floating over, on the way to leaving. 600 years between the 15h century and now disappeared; I felt like I was feeling the play in a way not so different from its original audience. I believe that this is the space the Medieval theatre wants to usher us into, considering the world in a new way, as something temporal, and more illusory than the eternal but often invisible realities which inform it.
Considered as a play, Everyman might seem crude by contemporary standards. The language is often repititive, the verse is simple and sometimes clumsy. But its effect can be remarkable. You might think contemplating death is a grim prospect, but in this play, where we are taught "how transitory we be all day," I felt strangely peaceful, an in-and-out of body experience. And indeed, as the play's Messenger informs us, "this matter is wondrous precious, and sweet to bear away."