Every Man & Woman: Gender, Casting, and Historical Performance
If there was one thing I was certain of when our medieval drama class chose to perform the morality play Everyman, it was that the character of Everyman had to be a woman. Actually, that sentiment was the driving factor behind my decision to support Everyman as an option for performance. One of the greatest strengths of the play, a cautionary tale that finds its titular character embarking on a journey to his reckoning, is its ability to speak directly to an audience and provide them with a lesson. Yet at the same time, the show’s potential to provide insight to a general audience is hindered by a fact captured by the play’s title: Everyman. Because the play’s title immediately genders its main character, Everyman presented a substantial challenge to us as players: namely, to render a play that aims to enlighten both men and women so that the sentiments of the play are not restricted to one gender. The character of Everyman is, after all, a reflection of all of humanity; when God curses mankind at the play’s start, he’s not just condemning men, and when Everyman later walks the path to salvation, he doesn’t just represent men’s repentance—he is meant to represent everyone.
Similar to words and phrases such as “you guys” or “mankind,” the term “everyman” is meant to encompass a large group of people, hence the inclusion of the word “every” within it. But just how identifiable are the themes and lessons conveyed in Everyman for women? As a story, Everyman has the potential to connect with a vast audience, regardless of gender: the play’s exposition delivers a cautionary tale with the potential to speak to a general population. In fact, there are many moments throughout the play in which Everyman speaks directly to the audience, thus making clear the importance of connection between audience and character. The other characters of the play are tangible representations of traits and values, and are thus relatively undefined by gender. Though some of these values can be associated with a specific sex (for example, feminine connotations of Beauty, masculine ties to Strength), they each have the potential to be unsexed and played by an actor of any gender. By playing around with typical gender roles, our performance offers a new perspective on Everyman that subverts typical gender norms in favor of the play’s ability to reach out and convey lessons to men and women alike.
Ultimately, our casting decisions directly informed the way we carried out our performance. The collective decision to have three Everymen — two male, one female — spoke to the play’s broad appeal to both men and women more than just having, say, one woman play Everyman, as I had originally hoped for. In theory, having just one man or just one woman portray Everyman could end up isolating the character, potentially keeping audience members from connecting with the character and the lessons expressed by the play. A close friend of mine who came to the show and was familiar with the play noted that seeing a female Everyman “made it feel like [she] was a part of the journey, too.” Just seeing a visual, physical representation of herself in the production “enhanced [her] ability to see through the character’s eyes.” With three different actors of different sexes portraying one general character, the audience was invited to think, “Could I step into those shoes? Could I portray Everyman?” Everyman’s physical variations reflect those of the audience.
It’s essential to note, however, that the choice to cast a woman in the play’s titular role is not exactly a new concept. In “Women and the English Morality Play,” Douglas Bruster notes that female portrayals of Everyman have historically been found especially sympathetic among audiences. In the early twentieth century when productions of Everyman began to cast women in the lead role, “[p]laygoers… may have found themselves especially able to empathize with a female Everyman, given the gendered nature of the era’s melodrama” (60). The choice to cast women as Everyman had the potential to summon empathy from audiences in ways that a male Everyman couldn’t, deepening the connection between the character and the play’s audience.
Bruster goes on to note that “if we take these plays’ universalizing gesture as indicative of what English theater was like before, during, and after the age of the morality play, we are very likely to miss an important part of what they tell us about what theater is, and has been: an intensively social form which, no matter what its auspices and assumptions, inevitably includes others” (65). It seems that this sentiment, in relation to the play’s gendered title, virtually invites female Everymen, in order to demonstrate how the male-gendered language of the title does not define the play’s meaning and context. By taking a show titled Everyman and casting a woman in the title role, we quickly quash the idea that the character is only meant to represent and speak to a male audience.
Gender-inclusivity in our performance extended beyond the casting of Everyman. Although our cast was comprised of a significant number of women, our choices to cast them as certain allegorical characters like Wisdom, Five Senses, and Discretion, among others, was not arbitrary. We stripped all of the play’s characters of gender and then reassigned them ourselves. Because these characters are allegorical, rather than specific people bound to a specific sex, they lend themselves to an open interpretation of gender. Yes, Beauty and Strength may be two values typically associated with the feminine and masculine, respectively, but many of the other allegorical figures had clear potential to be embodied in ways that would augment the play and our intentions. Goods, for example, is lustful, has a dangerous-looking entourage, and puts on an effusive display of excessive wealth. Such a character might call a male pimp to mind, but through our casting we chose to place power and wealth in a woman’s hands. Similarly, Confession is a Catholic sacrament administered by male priests; casting a female Confession implies that a woman is just as capable of cleansing sin. These decisions undoubtedly helped the play’s themes and lessons to resonate with both men and women in our audience.
Although Everyman may appear to be a deeply gendered text, a closer reading of the play reveals just how much gender play the play contains and how rich its themes and lessons can be for both men and women. Because of how the play directly speaks to the audience and provides them with cautionary insight, it’s essential that the character-audience connection be successful. Thus, by playing with the play’s gender roles through casting, our production of Everyman was able to foster a deeper connection between audience, characters, and the themes the characters represent.