When God talks, people listen—or they ought to, anyway. They haven’t been paying Him any attention lately, so He’s sending Death into the world to give them a bit more focus. And when Death knocks it’s a wake-up call. Out of the blue, he tells Everyman he’s going on a trip to meet his maker. Everyman, needless to say, has not packed his bags. He’d rather not go. Please. This is how the best known play of the Middle Ages begins: with a bang and then a whimper.
Everyman is one of five surviving English morality plays; it was probably written around 1500, and originally in Dutch. The morality play offered its audiences moral instruction through dramatic action in allegorical form. That’s a dreaded and formidable word: allegory. It means that everything which happens in concrete form also exists in another more abstract dimension. For instance, that castle on stage might be an actual stage castle—but it is also the “Castle of Perseverance,” a symbolic citadel where we see mankind holed up, fortified by faith and courage, resisting evil temptation and assault. Allegory gives a play and its audiences a double power of seeing and understanding—everything is enriched: the concrete is made symbolic; the symbolic is made concrete. Allegory was especially important to Medieval culture: it’s one way the drama can represent the invisible and deeper reality that informs all of God’s creations—it gets to what really exists, and matters.
Morality plays were set outside of historical time, with a central character representing all humanity, and other characters representing human categories and qualities like lust, knowledge, gluttony and good-deeds—all lots of fun for actors. Morality plays are always about man’s alienation from God, and their action is about his redemption and return to favor, often across the span of a whole lifetime. But Everyman is unique in its focus on the concluding and most dramatic chapter in our story.
It’s a chapter that we don’t read as much in modern life, even though the death rate continues, as I just read in the New York Times, “at a scandalous 100%.” But we have made great progress in removing the presence of death from our daily lives. We now die in hospitals, in nursing homes, in places not regularly visited by most of the living. We don’t see many people dying on television or in movies, unless they die suddenly, violently and thrillingly (the recent film Amour is the wonderful exception). We have better ways of denying and avoiding death than ever before. So the news of our own imminent demise is even more likely to come, as it does to Everyman, as a very unpleasant surprise. It was never going to happen now.
Everyman is fortunate he gets the news ahead of time, as shocking as it is. He won’t have to go to the grave like Hamlet’s father,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanaled;
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!
Morality plays almost always enact some form of journey to salvation, and Everyman is no exception. The play is the story of the road that must be taken when you have the chance to get ready to die, and the road map is the one ordained and prescribed by the church. But if Everyman were only a relic of the medieval religious instruction, it is unlikely that we would produce the play at THEATREWORKS. We are, after all, that same infamous theatre company that proudly presented the notorious Church last year, which rather unnecessarily riled up some of the faithful. It is absolutely true Everyman reflects the religious belief of the Middle Ages, and that this practice is grounded in a deep and profound faith, but the play is much more than church doctrine. When he gets the bad news, Everyman experiences almost exactly the same sequence of emotions described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. On the road to the grave, Everyman learns that dying is about subtraction and abandonment. His instincts tell him to keep as much company as he can, but he finds, as we all must, that in the end we die alone. This dramatic discovery gives the play a stark existential power that persists even after the balm of salvation has been poured; it’s one great reason why the play has spoken so directly to audiences of different faiths (and lacks of faith) for a very long time. It turns out that dying hasn’t changed all that much in the past 600 years.
We are doing Everyman exactly as it was written; you might say we too are among the faithful; we believe. The play, as I mentioned, exists outside of history: every man is every man (and woman) at any and every point in time. The play is neither more nor less relevant now as it was then, nor then as now. So it is no distortion of the original to set it in a contemporary context. And we think that taking the audience on an actual journey will only ground and enhance the play’s allegorical dimension and dramatic power.
Thus it is that audiences for this production will be invited onto a city bus leaving from daily life downtown, from the lobby of the Wyndham Grand hotel on the corner of Pikes Peak and Nevada. You and 35 others will be in for the ride of your lives. There will be several stops on the way, and many vivid and often amusing passengers will be arriving and departing before the bus arrives at its final destination. Who says getting ready to die has to be dull? Not in the theatre, and certainly not on our bus! There are plenty of surprises en route, and though the ride is harrowing, it ends in song. You won’t forget your journey with Everyman, and we hope you will find, as audiences have for six centuries, the experience is just what the original anonymous author advertised.
This matter is wondrous precious
But the intent of it is more gracious,
And sweet to bear away.
Please be advised that while this is a journey we will all take, seating for any individual performance is very limited; we recommend making your reservations early, keeping in mind that you may not get to choose exactly when you get to go. So it is in life, and in death. Whenever you do go you will find dying is quite an adventure, and this time around, thank God, it’s only a practice run.
PROLOGUE: Anne Dobyns and Medieval Revelry by Kevin Landis
Ann Dobyns is coming in February to tell us all about Everyman and its position in the history of medieval literature, and there is no one better. Professor Dobyns joins us from the University of Denver and has plans to talk about what the theatre of the Middle Ages looked like. Do you know the difference between a cycle play, a mystery play, and a morality play? Me neither. But Ann does, and she will come bearing slides and videos and teach us all how to read and watch a classic of world literature. Everyman is an incredible play, but it is even more enjoyable once placed in context.
So, while Everyman on the Bus is unusual in that it will begin in downtown Colorado Springs, I strongly encourage you to make the trek up the hill to THEATREWORKS on Sunday afternoon to listen to this brilliant scholar. It will be so worth your time to meet Ann Dobyns, to learn from her and to hear her speak in Olde English. And, I am personally making meat and vegetable pies for everyone to try… and mead. A medieval snack to make it a real party!