Laughing at Death: Comedy in the Translation of Everyman
In its essentials, Everyman is not a particularly funny play. The Middle English text is heavy with religious language, self-flagellation, and only contains one really good joke: Everyman’s cousin can’t go on the journey because of a “crampe in [his] to” (356). Even so, our performance of Everyman was at times hilarious. While much of this comedy was due to the acting, a good part of it came from the humor of our modernized script. This comedy was not entirely invented, however; rather, the writing group expanded upon comedic elements already present in the original text. The result was a version of Everyman that is both true to and funnier than its predecessor.
After being told that he must make his reckoning, Everyman approaches several people to ask for company on the journey, the first being Fellowship, or Friendship as we renamed him in the modernized script. In our production, Fellowship emerges as a clear type: he is a drunken and insincere frat boy. This extreme characterization of Friendship is rooted in the Middle English text. Fellowship tells Everyman that “yf thou wylte ete, and drynke, and make good chere, / Or haunt to women the lusty company, / I wolde not forsake you whyle the daye is clere” (272-274). These lines suggest that Fellowship’s chief occupation is carousing. Our modernized script expands upon this portrayal of Fellowship as a carefree drunkard, with a few key changes.
In the original script, Fellowship ends his scene with Everyman by telling him that “Wheder ye have loved me or no, / By Saynt Johan, I wyll not with the[e] go” (287-288). The mention of Saynt Johan, or John the Apostle, gives this line a distinctly religious tone. The modernized script translated the oath, unusual for a frat boy, to “by this St. Germain, I will not follow you.” By having Friendship reference a type of alcohol instead of a saint, we not only solved a translation problem but further emphasized Friendship’s comical drunkenness and did away with the religious language that was at odds with our modernized version of the character.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the original Fellowship is his offer to kill a man rather than accompany Everyman on his journey: “in good fayth, I wyll not that waye. / But, and thou wyll murder or ony man kyll, / In that I wyll helpe the[e] with a good wyll.” (280-282). The modernized script resolved this moment by changing this line into a drunken, ill-conceived suggestion: “You need someone ‘taken care of?’ If it’ll ease your current pain, I’ll gladly help you make them disappear.” This translation defangs the homicidal suggestions of the original line, transforming it from frightening to funny.
In the original script, Everyman and Fellowship speak similarly; both reference God and other religious concepts. By editing out religious or otherwise incongruous language, however, our script differentiated Everyman and Friendship. The modernized Everyman is sincere in his desire for Friendship’s company and help, while Friendship is sincere in his desire to party. The scene thus took on a much more comical tone, compounded during performance by Dillon’s excellent portrayal of a wasted frat boy.
The most explicit joke in the original text takes place during Everyman’s scene with Kindrede and Cosyn, when Cosyn claims he cannot go due to a cramp in his toe. This moment is mainly comical because it’s ridiculous—an injured toe is a poor excuse. The modernized script retains this medieval joke nearly word for word: “We can’t go! I, uh… I have a cramp in my toe!” Yet, the humor of this scene comes less from this one joke than from the characterization of Everyman’s family as clueless.
The modernized script does away with the characters Kindrede and Cosyn, renaming them Mother and Father. Their refusal to aid Everyman in his journey is therefore more salient than in the original as Everyman is abandoned by his immediate family rather than distant relatives. In the original script, Kindrede and Cosyn refuse to join Everyman once they understand the seriousness of his journey. Mother and Father, however, comically understate Everyman’s predicament. Mother says, “Oh hush dear, you’re a happy man! Cheer up, and stop all this moaning and groaning.” Everyman’s parents minimize and make light of his situation more explicitly than do Kindrede and Cosyn in the original.
The Middle English script takes on a more serious tone after this scene. Everyman discovers that he has been deceived by Goodes and becomes very emotional. The medieval Goodes is a rather frightening character who declares to Everyman: “My condycyon is mannes soule to kyll; / If I save one, a thousande I do spyll” (442-443). Goodes reminds the audience that, like Everyman, they too are guilty of avarice and will suffer for it.
The modernized script relieved the tension of this scene by representing Goods as a woman. Her femininity and seductiveness makes Everyman’s lifelong obsession with her less reprehensible. “I’m not yours, Everyman. I’m no man’s! I lent myself to you only for a season,” she says: his love for her is comical because it is pitiful. The addition of the Entourage further enhanced the comedic aspects of this scene. Their laughter in response to Everyman’s declarations of love makes it clear that he has been overwhelmingly foolish in his romantic choice and invites the audience to laugh along.
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It is important to note that Everyman lends itself to other forms of comedy; our method was by no means the only way of making the play funny. Students at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, created a video project in 2011 entitled “Everyman: A Modernized Morality Play.” Their short film is intensely satirical and each scene is reduced to its essentials. When approaching Kindrede for help, for example, their Everyman says, in a monotone voice, “I have to go to God so he can pass judgment on me and possibly condemn me.” Kindrede merely shakes his head in reply. Other scenes are similarly minimized.
Despite condensing Everyman to the extent that they did, the Carnegie Mellon students preserved some of the character of the original text. The scenes with Fellowship, Kindrede and Cosyn, and Goodes succinctly expose the falseness of each character. Their approach also enabled them to make scenes comical where we could not. In both the original text and our version, Everyman’s scene with the weak and damaged Good Deeds is distinctly serious. Everyman is obliged to physically punish himself in order to make Good Deeds whole enough to accompany him. The Carnegie Mellon video does away with the intensity of this scene; Everyman’s penance is not shown and Good Deeds’s transformation is signified by the frown on his t-shirt becoming a smiley-face. This scene and the ones that follow, however, are mostly comical because they make fun of the content of Everyman. The actor playing Everyman stifles laughter as Discretion and Five Wits abandon her and she dies with an exaggerated, over-dramatic fall to the ground. The satire of this video makes it easy for a modern audience to understand the message of Everyman: that every we ultimately die alone with no one to keep us company.
Like the Carnegie Mellon students who created this video, our first instinct when modernizing Everyman was to make it a parody. The first draft of our script contained lines that bordered on sarcastic; for example, we originally had Everyman declare that he felt, “fine, fresh, and fierce” and “SO ready” for his journey after putting on the jacket of sorrow. Including lines such as these might have made our playtext more humorous. However, after multiple class discussions and writing sessions, we decided that we wanted to retain the drama and message of the original text and therefore edited out these overtly scornful lines and moments. What our choice to adhere to the text cost in terms of comedy paid off in terms of its faithfulness to the character of the medieval original. The contrast between our script and Carnegie Mellon’s video demonstrates how the original text of Everyman lends itself to diverse forms of comedy that can achieve different effects.