Discomposing Everyman: Personalizing the play in live performance
A particular delight emerges from Everyman in performance that the printer of the original fifteenth-century playtext may have missed. In the preface, the printer describes Everyman as a “treatise… in maner of a morall playe,” but it is much more than a treatise. Rendition of the playtext in performance generously invites players and audience into spontaneous action that resides only in the domain of immediate experience, not in the text on the page. The performance is collaborative and bigger than any one of us. No one among our clusters of writers, producers, and media organizers could have individually composed the performance we ultimately rendered—indeed, the nature of live performance is one of discomposure! Players and playtext are arranged in play space only to be deranged by the live practice of play. If the play is effective, the audience is also discomposed: they shift in their seats nervously, gape in horror, laugh themselves silly, or are even moved to compassionate tears.
“Players and playtext are arranged in play space only to be deranged by the live practice of play.”
All these considerations serve as compelling testament to the act of play itself. An acted play moves, and so becomes something quite different than what “the fact of the play,” the playtext and rehearsal process, may have anticipated it to be. In fact, if there is anything we learned by emulating medieval dramatic practices, it is that the act of play exceeds the work of the script and its prompts to encompass an expressive work, not a “treatise” but a discourse, in its etymological sense of a “running about to and fro.” In medieval drama, every action is an interaction. This interactivity includes the audience—comfortable practices of spectatorship themselves come into energetic debate because of the deeply personal nature of enacting a play live before an audience.
“[T]he act of play exceeds the work of the script and its prompts to encompass an expressive work, not a ‘treatise’ but a discourse, in its etymological sense of a ‘running about to and fro.’”
The question thus becomes: How and in what ways does our Everyman make the play personal? Perhaps the most obvious method is our choice to transform the allegorical characters of the original playtext into real people. Instead of the medieval character Fellowship, we opted for a more familiar Friendship; likewise, Kindred and Cousin become a Family.
The personality of each of these characters is also individualized. Friendship recalls our times of drunken merriment with friends. He stutters and drawls his speech, pats Everyman on the back, and brazenly flirts with a woman in the audience. He comically swears by a flask of Saint Germain instead of the original play’s “Saint Iohan” (288). He parodies modern day friendship by creatively translating the character into a type recognizable to present day audiences. To do this effectively, our Friendship must develop a personal relationship with the audience and with his fellow player, Everyman. Indeed, Everyman responds to Friendship by waving his hands before his nose as if smelling the booze on his breath, and later pleads with Friendship to at the very least to take a cab with him out of the city, since he is too drunk to drive. Everyman gets sympathy from the audience when he pauses to declare Friendship a “jerk” soon after he exits. Each of these interactions pulls affectively on the experiences that player and audience have had in the past.
The portrayal of Family is met with similar sympathy. Everyman’s mother, father, sister, and maid emerge from the audience dressed as tourists but end up alienating themselves from Everyman through their difficulty displaying genuine affection or care. The Father’s sudden malady, a “cramp in my toe” taken directly from the original text, quickly gets rationalized by the Mother as a symptom of his gout—a lame excuse that gave our audience quite the tickle! Kindred’s “mayde” in the original text, perhaps a young family member, is played more accessibly in our production as a more modern “maid.”
Goods presents an equally fascinating case. She languidly struts into the playing space like an heiress with her retinue; we re-imagine the material goods of the original text as one of the material girls that so fascinate our media. Everyman’s misspent and idolatrous hoarding of wealth in the original gets played out as idolatrous love for a woman and time misspent for her fancy. Feeding off of the audience’s energy and inviting them to join him in his adoration, Everyman urges the audience to applaud the beauty of his love and they readily comply. They also easily fall prey to his folly as they excitedly reach for the chocolate coins that the Entourage distributes to them.
Another method by which the play becomes personalized for the audience rests in the phenomenon of translation itself, which itself becomes a both a metacritical and metatheatrical trope. In our version of Everyman, the role of Doctor is generously augmented in order to explain God’s and Death’s speeches in Middle English at the play’s outset. He thus serves as the organizing narrative principle throughout the play, translating its events so we can understand more readily. In this way, he is our “sense maker”: he makes the play intelligible for us. He is our “sense” maker in another way, too: he acts as a ringmaster of sorts, availing himself of showmanship and professorial commentary to indicate the sensory delights and horrors on display. With large hand gestures he directs the audience’s attention to the spectacle before them and draws them into the action of the play, helping shepherd audience members so they are personally involved.