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A Medieval Morality Play

The author of the English morality play, Everyman, is unknown. Everyman is characterized by Ernest Rhys, editor of the famous Everyman's Library, as "the noblest interlude of death the religious imagination of the middle ages has given to the stage." It is assigned to the reign of Edward IV (1461-83), and is regarded by some authorities as a translation of a Dutch play, Elckerlijk. Morality plays were performed in England without scenery, often as pageants in the open air. The word "pageant" (from pagina, or plank) was used for the stage, or wheeled cart of two stories, before it was used for the show set forth upon it. The actors costumed themselves in the lower room, playing in the upper room which was open at the top so that they could be seen and heart by the audience.


God, reflecting in Heaven upon the failings of Everyman, concludes that all men are drowned in sin and flout His commandments; that, in spite of His sacrifice upon the cross, all have forsaken Him. It is the day upon which Everyman is to die, and God summons Death to go to Everyman "and show him in my name a pilgrimage he ... must take, which in no wise he may escape."

Death sets out with a promise:

"Lord, I will in the world go run over all,
And cruelly out-search both great and small ...
He that loveth riches, I will strike with my dart
His sight to blind and fro Heaven to depart."

Soon he sees Everyman walking on his way. "Fill little he thinketh on my coming," reflects the grim messenger, as he hails him: "Everyman, stand still; whither art thou going thus gaily? Hast thou thy Maker forgot?"

Everyman asks what it is that God desires of him, and Death replies:

"On thee thou must take a long journey.
Before God thou must answer and show
Thy many bad deeds, and good but a few."

Everyman protests:

"Full unready I am such reckoning to give...
O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind...
A thousand pounds shalt thou have
An thou defer this matter till another day."

Death cannot be bribed, but he concedes to Everyman the comfort of taking with him on his journey a few of his friends, and Everyman, after reflecting on his companions so that he may select the most congenial ones, confidently starts on his quest. He appeals first to Fellowship, with the reminder that ever before he has found him true. Fellowship, unaware of the favor to be asked, glibly replies:

"And so you shall forevermore.
Therefore show me the grief of your mind,
As to your friend most loving and kind."

Then Everyman implores his company on the deathly journey, and Fellowship promptly cancels his shallow pledge. In dicing and drinking--indeed in almost everything--he will gaily go with Everyman, but he concludes:

"If you will murder, or any man kill,
In that I will help you with a right good will.
But if you ask me to help when you die,
Let another man do it--no, not I."

Everyman turns next to Kindness, but Kindness says:

"No, by our Lady, I have the cramp in my toe.
God speed you now in your way to Hell;
And so, my cousin, a fond farewell."

Next, he goes to Riches who answers:

"My job, good friend, is in life to deceive,
And not in death to comfort and relieve."

At last Everyman has tried all his companions except his Good Deeds. She is too feeble to help, although she wishes to stand by him. She explains: "Thy sins have me so sore bound that I cannot stir." She sends him to Knowledge, who takes him to Confession, who, in turn, presents him with a necessary but painful garment, the scourge of Penance, to help him find the oil of Forgiveness.

Now, garbed in his garment of Penance and anointed with the oil of Forgiveness, Everyman goes back to Good Deeds. He finds her restored in health, ready to serve him. Heartened by her loyalty, Everyman exclaims: "For every sweetness of love I rejoice." He finds that the presence of Good Deeds has brought to his side several other friends--Strength, Discretion, Beauty and Five Wits.

But after Everyman has gone to the priest to receive the Sacrament, and all have journeyed to the edge of the grave, the friends desert him one by one. First to do so is Beauty, with this excuse:

"What, into this grave? I fear
That I would smother here."

Next, Strength says, despite Everyman's appeal to "tarry, I pray you, for a little space":

"Nay, sir, by the rood of grace,
I will hie me from thee fast,
Tho thou weep till they heart brast."

Everyman comments sadly:

"He that trusteth in his Strength
Deserves to be deceived at length."

Next, Discretion deserts him, saying:

"My friend, when Strength is gone before,
I follow after evermore."

Finally Five Wits goes. Everyman reproaches him, saying: "I thought you were my closest friend." Five Wits answers: "But now our friendship is at an end." Only Good Deeds is left now to follow him into the grave. Everyman reflects:

"Thou helpest me when all are gone,
Though I loved thee least of any one."

She answers:

"When all thy friends and comrades flee,
Good Deeds alone will speak for thee."

So Everyman, with his sole loyal friend, surrenders himself to Death. The grave closes over them. An Angel sings him to sleep, and his purified soul is welcomed to Heaven.

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