One Life, Many Faces: Everyman’s Existential Crisis
In the early stages of developing Everyman, we were confronted with many questions while developing the script. We wanted to keep the spirit of the original play while keeping a balance between modern or medieval. The language of the play was the most important aspect for bridging these together. We debated over how to take this play’s text and modernize it while retaining a sense of its “medievalness.” Should we incorporate slang? Should God speak in modern English? Which characters need to be combined, and which split apart?
The main question our script needed to address was, How can we take this medieval play and present it to a modern New York City audience? Moreover, how can we take these allegorical characters and relate them to ourselves? The light bulb went off when we hit upon the idea of having Everyman mistake the account book of his life for his checkbook. Everyman became an everyday New Yorker and in Central Park, and from there the pieces began to fall into place.
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Our Everyman is divided into three different personalities. First, we have the savvy and sarcastic New Yorker caught off guard by Death. Then, Everyman reflects on her life, turns to repent, and fights hard for her sins to be forgiven. Finally, our third Everyman is on his death bed, saddened to see everyone he has met disappear.
Once we solidified Everyman’s many faces, the characters that would revolve around him became more and more corporeal through their language and action. For example, the allegorical characters in the original play, Cosyn and Kynrede, turned into Mother, Father, and Sister, all of whom interact with Everyman in a modern cultural sense. Goods became a seductress who takes on the persona of Everyman’s ex-lover, and Friendship is a fair weather friend and modern day frat boy. Surprisingly, many of the jokes found in the original text translated well into dialogue for these modernized characters. The father’s cramp in his toe, for example, makes for strong character interaction and humor and is directly lifted from the original playtext. In the original play, characters are straightforward representations, but in our production, they become actual characters; they have personalities and relationships, powerfully drawing out the original themes.
Everyman may have once been a story of finding salvation through God and religion. Our Everyman is about the crisis of not knowing what may be beyond death. The original play had a clear message to its audience: your relationships with God and with yourself are most important and are what lead to the afterlife. Morality plays like Everyman served as a reminder to the public that repentance before God was the only way to salvation. In the 21st century, Everyman’s overtly Catholic ideals serve as the foundation for something much darker. Everyman faces loss, the transience of existence, and self-hatred on a path that leads to nothing at the end of the play. We see Everyman being abandoned by his best friend and his family—all the more compelling when our audience is made up of our own family and friends—in order for him to come face to face with the personifications of his faculties, who end up abandoning him as well. When Strength, Beauty, and Knowledge abandon Everyman at the grave, we are reminded of the harsh reality of our physical finite being.
Our performance of Everyman raises the most important question of all: outside the everyday hustle and bustle of New York, who are we when we are only ourselves, without anyone or anything else? Sometimes we forget who we are because we are so deeply immersed in this sprawling metropolis. We wake up every day working, socializing, and living a life we might not even recognize as ours.
Despite the presence of a God and angels within the performance, not once do we see Everyman join hands with God and his troupe in the afterlife, even though this is his motivation all along. Rather, what we see is Everyman, alone, disappearing forever, carried off in a body bag. In the wake of an existential crisis, we may look to a God we have ignored for validation and hope, but in the end we truly do not know what will happen to us. In our Everyman, God acts as the unreachable unknown whose only action is to call Death to do his bidding. In fact, Death acts as the main motivator behind Everyman’s actions, not God. Everyman struggles with repentance and self-discovery only to find that God may or may not be on the other side of the grave in the end after all.