Everybody-Making the Danse Macabre

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

The Danse Macabre allegory discussed in a previous blog post probably claimed antecedents in pagan traditions of dancing in burial grounds. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ script called for a Danse Macabre after Everybody meets with Love and before Death returns to begin the journey.

The University of Idaho Theatre Arts Department planned Everybody to be a virtual production from the start. With this knowledge, director KT Turner and her designers began pushing what they’d learned over the school year working in Zoom. What grew out of those meetings was a hybrid production that involved prerecording elements in the studio and on the Hartung stage which will be fed into live performances.

The big set piece is the Danse Macabre which involved efforts from the entire design team (set, lights, sound, costumes). Choreographed by Victoria Zenner, it was filmed on the Hartung stage. We had access to the Hartung for only a few days for rehearsal and filming.

The rest of the time rehearsals were on Zoom from the actors’ homes and offices.

Typically for Zoom productions here, a backdrop is provided for the actor performance areas. For Everybody, the backdrop would be a combination curtain and green screen to display an image of the set on the Hartung stage.

While Zoom rehearsals went on, lighting and scenic (set by Brindle
Brundage) were testing ideas at Hartung. The curtains at the proscenium limited upstage lighting positions to back light performers.

They looked to where they could and couldn’t reach and how to use that to their best advantage. They also tested different plastics for the upstage curtain to create silhouettes on.

Our theatrical rehearsals were the first at Hartung in almost a year when the pandemic shuttered The Moors one day after its opening. For the short period we were there, strict safety protocols were in place along with constant reminders to watch out for each other.

Besides the Danse, there were also a couple other elements that needed to be worked out and filmed like transitions between the live performances and the short recordings. And through the rehearsal process, the show continually develops and changes.

After watching the dance, KT decided to interweave the actors into it instead of having them be outside observers. Victoria began teaching them the routine.

Then Idaho-always known for unpredictable weather-brought a snow storm which closed campus and we lost a precious rehearsal day at Hartung. The actors were still learning the routine. We would not be able to make up the day before shooting that weekend.

Composite image of Zoom rehearsal. Victoria Zenner top left coaching the actors through dance steps.

The decision was made to have dance practice on Zoom. The above composite image captures the humor and the frustration as the company met the challenge head on. Two days later, we returned to Hartung and were ready for filming.

After several days filming, Christian is now editing the footage for technical rehearsals which begin on Saturday. This is the final process of stitching the production together for audiences to see starting March 5.

More information about ticketing can be found at the University of Idaho Theatre Arts Department’s webpage:

https://www.uidaho.edu/class/theatre/productions-and-events

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Sisyphus

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Let 'em go. They're right. I don't have time for this. I've already spent my entire life dealing with this crap. I refuse to spend the last moments of it pushing the same rock up the same hill. --Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Everybody

The above quote from Everybody is a description of the Greek legend of Sisyphus, a king punished in the underworld to push a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Sisyphus by Friedrich John (1769–1843)

A cunning trickster of legend, when Death came to fetch him, Sisyphus chained Death up instead. This resulted in the sick suffering more so since they were unable to die. The world was thrown out of balance because nothing died. Ares finally freed Death because war was no fun if people didn’t die. Sisyphus was sent to Hades.

Prior to his leaving, he had told his wife to leave his body unburied. He was able to use that as an excuse to get out of the underworld which he did to punish his wife. Once free, he lived a long life until dying a second time.

 When this death came, Hades was ready for him and had a special punishment for cheating Death: pushing a boulder up a hill again and again and again. A torment that has stayed with us through the ages, surviving through art, poetry, and remaining in common speech as a never-ending and futile task. Homer mentions it in the Odyssey:

Aye, and I saw Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. But he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down from his limbs, and dust rose up from his head.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sisyphus”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Jul. 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/Sisyphus. Accessed 9 February 2021.

Homer, The Odyssey, translated by A.T. Murray. www.theoi.com/Text/HomerOdyssey11.html. Accessed 9 February 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Danse Macabre

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Danse Macabre or Dance of Death is a medieval allegory about one’s own mortality that came about during a time when death was very much present. The allegory has been presented through a myriad of media including sculptures, murals, wood cuts, paintings, music and presentations (Hollar; Cohen, p 37). Murals were displayed on church walls and charnel houses where corporeal remains were stored and Gertsman wrote of a Parisian cemetery with a large mural surrounding its inner courtyard (p 1). Danse Macabres typically showed people in long processions with corpses in varying stages of decay (Hollar Collection).

Michael Wolgemut, Danse Macabre (1493)

The Danse Macabre probably claimed antecedents in pagan traditions. The practice of dancing in burial grounds did not stop after Christianity had spread into Europe (Cohen, p 37). Medieval cemeteries were not relegated to solely mourning and reflection. Gertsman found them to alive with a variety of activities:

…the medieval cemetery, not necessarily a mournful place, was a site of public picnics, promenades and celebrations—and therefore always busy and often given to worldly affairs. –Elina Gertsman, p 1.

As the church absorbed the graveyard dance, it transformed it into a moral pageantry (Cohen, p 37.) It was the fusion of these differing beliefs that would give rise to the Danse Macabre. Gertsman wrote that the Macabre imagery melded the ideas of death as communal and individual. Each person faced it on their own, in their families, and with the presence of mass burials at cemeteries. None could escape it. “The Nobleman and the Beggar of the danse macabre are both mortal in equal measure, and their indistinguishable remains will co-mingle at a charnel house….” (Gertsman, p31).

Holbien, The Noble Woman

The most popular woodcuts of the Danse Macabre were created by Hans Holbien in about 1525 (Public Domain). His work has seen successive reprints over time.

Interestingly enough, when artists decided how to depict Death visually the most common representation was his own handiwork. Jean de Vauzèle, the Prior of Montrosier remarked on this in his preface to Holbien’s book:

"And yet we cannot discover any one thing more near the likeness of Death than the dead themselves, whence come these simulated effigies and images of Death's affairs, which imprint the memory of Death with more force than all the rhetorical descriptions of the orators ever could." (Wikipedia).

Death is often illustrated dynamically and full of more life than any of the other characters. As if being freed from the mortal coil, has given it more energy. Cohen wrote that he found the pain still within Death’s appearance:

“…the artists of the Dance of Death, by levity, satire and humour, render him a ‘jolly fellow’, a trusted friend. Nevertheless, anguish in the face of Death breaks when, as in our time, massacres and monstrous weapons of universal devastation are all too familiar, death as a dancer can no longer have any ‘reality’, even in fantasy.” (Cohen, p 38).

Along with the duality of Death being a communal and individual experience, the Danse Macabre brings it close and keeps it apart making it both friend and stranger to the people of the Middle Ages.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Procession of the Dance of Death (Unknown date, author lived 1607-1677)
Dance of Death attributed to Johann Jakob Haid, 1700-1750, from the @britishmuseum collection.

Cohen, John. “Death and the Danse Macabre.” History Today, vol. 32, no. 8, Aug. 1982, p. 35. EBSCOhost. Last accessed: Jan 21, 2021.

Gertsman, Elina. “Visual Space and the Practice of Viewing: The Dance of Death at Meslay-Le-Grenet.” Religion & the Arts, vol. 9, no. 1/2, Mar. 2005, pp. 1–37. EBSCOhost,

Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5). The Public Domain Review. publicdomainreview.org/collection/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5. Last Accessed: Jan 22, 2021.

University of Toronto’s Library Wenceslaus Hollar Collection. hollar.library.utoronto.ca/dancedeath.

https://www.uidaho.edu/class/theatre/productions-and-events/everybody

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Notes

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Last night’s rehearsal included the scenes with Friendship and Stuff. Friendship in Everybody is not the ideal looked for in the Middle Ages: one that is a true friendship, enduring and tested by adversity. At the end of the scene, Friendship has nothing of substance to offer Everybody and leaves them with a statue.

I’ve been thinking about the tawdry little trophy most of the night. It was on par with a golden idol. And probably the best summation of their relationship. Which reminded me of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments only to discover people had gotten bored, melted down the gold for a golden calf, and were throwing a party. Rather than waiting for something of substance, they had gone for gratification.

junk lady from Labyrinth.

The departure of Friendship leads to the arrival of Stuff, a larger scale version of the trophy Friendship had just awarded Everybody.

My mental picture—despite BJJ’s description that Stuff is a trophy—is the junk lady from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. The junk lady rolls into that film intent on distracting the heroine from her mission with all her worldly goods. This is one reason Stuff gives for not accompanying Everybody on their journey.

The image of us being burdened with unnecessary crap seems easier to recognize than that we might have social connections that are just as hollow. There are TV programs dedicated to people who gather too much and messaging would have us believe that we are a nation of hoarders. Comedy routines have been written on the subject as in this example from George Carlin’s 1981 A Place For My Stuff:

That's all your house is- a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.... --George Carlin

Our conversation shifted to cutting loose of worldly goods. There was talk of minimalism and how impossible it would be to achieve that for some. I was reminded of Swedish death cleaning, an on-going process of decluttering and organizing but still hanging onto sentimental items. There are quite a few web pages on the topic as it is all the rage nowadays. This was the one I stopped at to refresh my memory. https://www.dumpsters.com/blog/how-to-do-swedish-death-cleaning


Carlin, George. A Place for All My Stuff. https://genius.com/George-carlin-a-place-for-my-stuff-lyrics Last Accessed: Jan 21, 2021.

Keenan, Bretton. “A Beginner’s Guide to Swedish Death Cleaning.” Dumpsters.com. Sept 11, 2019. dumpsters.com/blog/how-to-do-swedish-death-cleaning. Last accessed: Jan 21, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Misc

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Five Wits

The Five Wits are considered synonymous with the five senses. There were even doctrines that placed the senses in a hierarchical order based on their moral standing.

In Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama, Clare Wright wrote this top-down system was derived from Aristotelian philosophy and that:   

Because of their associations with light, truth, knowledge and understanding sight and the eyes were perceived as the most respectable of the senses. At the opposite end of the spectrum was touch, the basest of man's perceptions (Wright p23).

Friendship

Everyman and Elckerlijc found inspiration from a Buddhist parable about false friends (Poláčková p 325; Williams). Everyman and Everybody, in their eponymous plays, look for someone to accompany them to their reckonings with God but are hard pressed to find a companion. Conley in his paper on “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman” wrote that friendship had to be tried with adversity to be proven its worth in medieval times. A true friendship was lasting, and then it would be called virtuous “indeed supernatural- a gift of God” (Conley). This last trait made it something of great value. Conley continued that true friendship: “…provides counsel and comfort pertaining not only to this life but also to the next life” (p 382).

This value on true friendship was added to the plot of Everyman which taught the necessities for salvation.


Conley, John. “The Doctrine of Friendship in Everyman.” Speculum, Jul., 1969, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 374-382. University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Medieval Academy of America. www.jstor.org/stable/2855500. Last Accessed: Jan 15, 2021.

Poláčková, Eliška. “Mutato Nomine Dicor Nunc Homulus Latin Translation of The Morality Play of Elckerlijc.” Listy filologické / Folia philologica, 2011, Vol. 134, No. 3/4, pp. 323-339. Centre for Classical Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences www.jstor.org/ stable/23468757. Dec 2, 2020.

Williams, Arnold. “Reviewed Work(s): A Study of Everyman with Special Reference to the Source of Its Plot by Genji Takahashi.” Speculum. Vol. 28, No. 3 (Jul., 1953), pp. 616-617. University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Medieval Academy of America. www.jstor.org/stable/2847061. Last Accessed: 11-01-2021 20:03 UTC.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108/1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Amongst his many awards, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has received the Paula Vogel Award 2011, the Steinberg Playwriting Award 2015, MacArthur Fellow 2016, Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Drama) at Yale 2016, Critics’ Circle Theatre Award Most Promising Playwright Gloria & An Octoroon 2017, USA & John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships 2020, and the inaugural Tennessee Williams award.

He holds an MA in Performance Studies from NYU and is also a graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School.

Plays

Neighbors 2010
War 2014
Appropriate 2014—Obie Award for Best New American Play with An Octoroon
An Octoroon 2014
Gloria 2015—Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist 2016
Everybody 2017—Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist 2018
Girls 2019

Quotes

He said he hopes his students will use the form to provoke thought: "There is an anti-intellectualism in the theater right now. There's room for more challenging work that's talking to the moment, which is filled with so much unease" (Souccar).
"I'm not interested in a linear tale of divorce in the black community," he says. "My dream audience member would turn to the audience member next to them and say, 'What just happened to me?'" (Marks).

On Everybody

For Jacobs-Jenkins, there’s little distinction between adapting a play and creating one—primarily because he can’t resist commenting on what he’s adapting. “For me, adaptation is about challenging the original play. I’m not translating it for an audience so much as actually trying to explore what this piece meant in its context and what it might mean now. That’s my process, starting there and unpacking that way” (Haun).

Everybody is dedicated to the memory of James Houghton the founder of the Signature Theatre and director of the drama division at Julliard from 2006 until his death. Jacobs-Jenkins is a member of Signature Theatre Residency Five program joining in 2013 and an alum of Julliard.

Video


Haun, Harry. “ Why You Need to Know the Name Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.” Playbill. Feb.  27, 2017. www.playbill.com/article/why-you-need-to-know-the-name-branden-jacobs-jenkins. Last  Accessed:  Jan 17, 2021.

Marks, Peter. “A playwright who’s at ease with causing discomfort.” Washingtonpost.com, 24 June 2016. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A456073426/AONE. Last Accessed: Jan 16, 2021.

Souccar, Miriam Kreinin. “40 UNDER 40; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, 32.” Crain’s New York Business, vol. 33, no. 13, 27 Mar. 2017, p. 0015. Gale General One File, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A487852264. Last Accessed Jan 16, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Everyman

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Very little is known about the morality Everyman. It is a translation and adaptation of the Dutch Elckerlijc but there is no surviving record of its production history until modern day; when or where it was seen; if it was indoors or outside. Nor any description of the size and shape of the stages it used (Tydemann, p 1). But that does not mean that Everyman was never produced. “It could, of course, have been staged, though unrecorded, any number of times in the early sixteenth century, and would have been ideal for presentation as a school play” (Davidson).

Despite its missing production history, it was known to have had at least four print runs to attest to its popularity (Davidson). And has been described by modern writers as one of the best examples of a morality play (Poláčková, p 325).

Much of the first half of Everyman looks backward over Everyman’s life. The acquaintances they has made and material goods acquired. And with the coming of Death, there is a realization that none of these things will make the journey to judgment. “The things of the world are banished, in other words, as part of a gradual triumph of the things of the spirit” (Garner, p 281).

At first blush, the story of Everyman may appear to be terrifying, meeting with Death, faced with mortality, and being sent to judgment. But the lesson of Everyman’s chance for redemption and a life after death makes it a tale of hope (Kaula, p 10). “The reluctant journey of Everyman’s contrite soul toward God as judge becomes a glad pilgrimage toward God as Savior” (Cunningham, p. 168).

In his “Sermon Themes and Sermon Structure in Everyman,” George Peek divided Everyman into two parts or two medieval sermons. The form of sermons then was divided into five parts: theme, protheme, introduction of theme, divisions, and subdivisions. The themes would contain the message that the orator would build from; the protheme introduced a prayer and led into proof of the theme. The introduction was a narrative which served to bring the listeners into the divisions and subdivisions which expounded on the ideas introduced in the theme (Peek, 159).

With Everyman, the messenger introduced the theme and emphasized the transitory nature of material things. God developed the Protheme: the fall of man and gave reason for the action of the play. The Introduction was the scene with Death and Everyman. The desertions were divisions. Peek detailed how the second part of the play moved from the dealing with spiritual death (averted now that Everyman is seeking salvation) to physical death (Peek, p 160).

Finally, I read an article comparing adaptations of Everyman produced in the United States which raised the question to me of what is the story of Everyman without the theme of salvation?

How can spiritual values be dramatized for a society which is generally unreligious? How can death be depicted for an audience accustomed to cosmetize death? How can abstractions such as Good Deeds be realized? How can the very familiar fable of Everyman be made fresh for a modern audience? How can the spectacle of theatre be transformed for a visually jaded audience? Earl Schreiber, p 106.

The adaptation that Schreiber commented on was Everyman Today, a 1975 adaptation of Jedermann (a 1911 German adaptation of Everyman). In it there is no redemption, no existence beyond the grave, only death. Most early moralities messaging taught that behavior while living determined where their afterlife would be spent. Jacobs-Jenkins remarked on this in Everybody, describing moralities as stories about the transience of life which means they’re really about death. And perhaps that depends on where people chose to end the story of Everyman. I’m hoping to revisit these ideas through the course of the production of Everybody.


Cunningham, John. “Comedic and Liturgical Restoration in ‘Everyman’.” Comparative Drama. Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 162-173. www.jstor.org/stable/41153346. Dec 2, 2020.

Davidson, Clifford. “Introduction.” Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc. Eds: Davidson, Clifford Davidson; Martin W. Walsh; Ton J. Broos. 2007. d.lib.rochester.edu/ teams/ text/ davidson-everyman-introduction. Last accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Garner, Jr., Stanton B. “Theatricality in ‘Mankind’ and ‘Everyman’” Studies in Philology, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 272-285. University of North Carolina Press. www.jstor.org/stable/ 4174272. Last accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus.” College English. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Oct., 1960), pp. 9-14. National Council of Teachers of English. www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Poláčková, Eliška. “Mutato Nomine Dicor Nunc Homulus Latin Translation of The Morality Play of Elckerlijc.” Listy filologické / Folia philologica, 2011, Vol. 134, No. 3/4, pp. 323-339. Centre for Classical Studies at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences www.jstor.org/ stable/23468757. Dec 2, 2020.

Peek, George S. “Themes and Sermon Structure in Everyman.” The South Central Bulletin. Winter, 1980, Vol. 40, No. 4, Studies by Members of the SCMLA, pp. 159-160. The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of The South Central Modern Language Association. Last Accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Schreiber, Earl G. “Everyman in America,” Comparative Drama. Summer 1975, Vol. 9, No. 2. pp. 99-115. www.jstor.org/stable/41152663. Last Accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Morality Plays-Pt 2

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Limited materials have survived to tell us about morality plays of this period. Here is Dorothy Wertz’s description of the extant materials:

What survives is (1) texts, sometimes in several versions of varying corruption; (2) occasional stage diagrams or instructions for costuming; (3) writings of reformist clergy who disliked theater; (4) account books of the guilds, listing expenditures and properties for performances (p 443).

These materials give a sense of what stage, costumes, and props were used in the sixteenth century for the morality plays as well as performance style. Some of the details were surmised from plays other than Everyman.

The religious plays were staged on holidays as an upbeat part of the festivities (Twycross, “Genres,” p 258). One of the several things that makes Everyman unique is its seriousness (Tydemann, p 18).

When presenting the morality plays, the producers were not concerned with photorealism in their sets. Tydemann wrote that they relied on improvisation and imagination (p 171). He also observed that they created “small-scale illusions of reality.” He noted examples of a realistic staging of Cain murdering Abel or “blood from the side of the stricken Christ appears to spurt out and cure the blind Centurion” or the “torments of the Savior.” He continued that he didn’t believe the elements clashed for the audience to ruin the experience (Tydemann, p 173).

This juxtaposition of the real and the unreal also served the edification goal of the plays. It created a shared lasting and immediate memory of the event:

...though the actor is not Christ and the audience are aware of this, the presence of another human body viscerally enacting the torments of the Saviour, transforms the story and its relevance into a real, felt presence making it even more immediate than imagining the same scene, the impact of which could be felt directly by the audience. Carole Wright, p 32

During the Middle Ages, there were few site-specific performance venues to stage drama. And when it came time to stage the morality plays, the producers had to use what was available (Tydemann, p 163). Plays could have scenes constructed on a series of wagons that moved or the audience walked from one to the other, build at an outdoor location, an inn yard, or be performed indoors (Tydemann, p 33, 78, 104). Any of these locations might be what we think of as multi-use sites:

We have to remember that they did not have distinct buildings called theatres dedicated solely to the performance of drama. The nearest to these were the ‘playing places’ of East Anglia and elsewhere, where the major place-and-scaffold plays were enacted: but even they, once the theatrical game was over, could revert to venues for football or wrestling. Meg Twycross, “Genres,” p 259.

Medieval acting was presentational. The characters they portrayed were not complex and the roles rarely demand nuance (Tydemann, p 181). Twycross noted that the plays employed many non-naturaluralistic techniques in performance: breaking the fourth wall, masks, allegory, and symbolic action (“Masks,” p 233). “All theatre is illusion, but this draws attention to the fact” (“Genres,” p 258).

And finally, moralities were not fully masked presentations. Instead of concealing the wearer, they commented on their moral state. This found its roots in the cultural belief that state of the soul was reflected on the body like corruption or ambivalence (“Masks,” p 234, 277). And while they are not described as wearing a mask, Twycross made a costuming note on Death in Everyman:

The text gives no guidance about Death’s appearance, alluding only to his spear; but the woodcut prefacing the printed editions shows a wholly traditional skeletal Death, suggesting that this was how he was envisaged by readers, and most probably also audiences of the play. “Masks,” p 250.

Twycross, Meg. “Codes and Genres.” Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c.1350–c.1500 Edited by Peter Brown. Medieval English Theatre. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007.

Twycross, Meg, and Sarah Carpenter. Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uidaho/ detail.action ?docID=4817054.

Twycross, Meg. “The Theatre.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Edited by Sawyer, John F. A. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108/1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Morality Plays

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

The sixteenth century morality plays were staged at a time when mortality outpaced the birth rate due largely to war, famine, and disease. Clifford Davidson wrote that cities maintained population size with an influx of immigrants (Davidson). A person living during this period was keenly aware that death could come without warning.

Morality plays, which were first presented by the church then the guilds with church oversight, offered meaning in God’s world. By staging them outside of the church and in the vernacular, it reinforced Christ’s presence in the everyday world. That God was not only found in hallowed halls. The writers told stories of Jesus Christ and his time on earth, his care for humankind and the sacrifice to redeem humankind (Tydemann, p 10; Wertz, p 541; Kaula, p 9). Using the morality plays , the church was able to edify and prepare congregations for the day of reckoning. Dorothy Wertz wrote that the presentations could inspire audiences to face their own accounting after seeing a stage character repent and be redeemed:

The audience, facing together the figure that all of them must at some future time meet separately, perhaps gained a measure of assurance in the face of their own deaths, an assurance that vastly increased when they later saw Manssoul saved (Wertz, p 446.)

The Christian lessons in these plays were shown to the audiences allegorically, using simpler ideas to express complex ones. Braswell described allegory as a sort of “continuing metaphor” as a series of related images or acts (p 125-126). This overlay of ideas would at times distance the audience from the action of the play causing them to reflect on what was happening.

Along with impression left on the audience, the allegorical qualities also served to bring the audience out of the story at times. This might be akin to Brecht’s distancing effect. Everyman would describe what had transpired and what it meant for their future. This in turn caused the audience to reflect on their own lives (Garner, p 283).

Morality plays were noted for their transformative power and one of the reasons cited for that by Meg Twycross was their immediacy. It made it a personal memory which stayed with the attendees after the event. This same immediacy was something Garner argued would be lost in the allegorical distancing (Garner, p 283; Twycross, “Theatre,” p 340; Wright, p 257). If the morality plays were moving between immediacy and distancing, it would’ve have created an interesting frisson for the audience.

It was this staying power that Davidson found that would give a morality play its strength as he eloquently described here:

… the power of such a play as Everyman, even if read rather than staged, would presumably have been more deeply felt than today and would have left a more powerful lasting impression. The intended visual effect, whether on stage or in the imaginations of readers, was to create a kind of memory theater to which the mind would return again and again as a way of being reminded in symbolic terms of human mortality and the consequences of one’s actions in this life. Clifford Davidson

Attending morality plays, created memories of sensations experienced witnessing the story which stayed with the audience (Wright, p 242). It made the play and the allegories within present with the audience after the morality play had concluded.


Braswell, Laurel.  “The Visionary Voyage in Science Fiction and Medieval Allegory,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Winter 1981, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 125-142. University of Manitoba. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24780359.  Last Accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Davidson, Clifford. “Introduction.” Everyman and Its Dutch Original, Elckerlijc. Eds: Davidson, Clifford Davidson; Martin W. Walsh; Ton J. Broos. 2007. d.lib.rochester.edu/ teams/ text/ davidson-everyman-introduction. Last accessed: Jan 9, 2021.

Garner, Jr., Stanton B. “Theatricality in ‘Mankind’ and ‘Everyman’” Studies in Philology, Summer, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 272-285 University of North Carolina Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4174272. Last accessed: Dec 1, 2020.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus” College English, Oct., 1960, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Oct., 1960), pp. 9-14. Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. https://www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Twycross, Meg. “The Theatre.” The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture. Edited by Sawyer, John F. A. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006.

Tydemann, W. English Medieval Theatre. 1400-1500. Routledge & Kegan Paul. (London) 1986.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Dec., 1969, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108/1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.

Everybody-Dramaturgy Packet-Audience

Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by KT Turner
dramaturgy by Ariana Burns

(Section of frontispiece from edition of Everyman published by John Skot c. 1530.)

Clare Wright’s thesis, Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama, got me thinking about the medieval audiences in the High Middle Ages. There isn’t a lot of information on attendees of morality plays but what is available is interesting. The audience is an important participant in theatre. More recently, scholars have been researching play attendees and their role in the process of theatre and sharing stories.

Three things I found noteworthy:

Obligatory caveat: These are not unique to this time period, but I think their presence effected audience interaction with morality plays and are something to have in mind when thinking about Everyman.

During the Middle Ages, people were focused on the soul;
literacy was not the priority it is nowadays;
reading was performed aloud as a communal experience, though it could be a private one.

Wright reflected that in that Middle Ages the soul was more valuable than the body. It would abide with “God, heaven and eternal bliss” but the body would be cast aside at death (p 15). The body was also the entry point for both redemption and temptation.

On this reading, the body is not in opposition to the soul, but is instead the central means of accessing the divine and, despite its weaknesses could be used to achieve knowledge of God and an eternal resting place in heaven. But, given the infectious nature of sensory temptation …it was necessary to be vigilant…. (Carole Wright, p 21).

Towards this increased vigilance, the church wanted to increase religious devotion and spiritual education. Publishing pamphlets wasn’t going to be particularly successful. Literacy was at low levels, but being unable to read Latin or French wasn’t considered a deficiency then (Coleman, thesis, p 90). Tim White, writing for the British Library, explained that information was acquired through painted tapestries, sculptures, reading, and dramatic presentations.

“Individuals that we might now consider to be ‘illiterate’, in the sense that they could not read or write, could still possess sophisticated and detailed knowledge, not only of religious materials, but also of literary texts and traditions” (White).

In her essay about medieval audiences, Joyce Coleman explored how different classes of men and women made use of public reading as an activity. People gathered for the aural experience during meals, study, or entertainment (Coleman, p 161-164). Where we might find it a limiting experience, for them it was a source of variety:

Every medieval person, of every class and gender, would probably have heard many oral texts throughout their lives. Such material could include the lyrics of songs, poetry unaccompanied by music, popular romances, public oratory, and sermons and other forms of religious exhortation (Joyce Coleman, "Audience," p 161). 

Oral texts were an efficient way for the church to communicate and have a transformative effect on their flock. Also, like performance, the act of involvement in an oral text (either by reading or listening) bound them together in a shared event (Coleman, “Interactive,” p75). It was an immersive experience not singularly encountered through one sense organ. They could hear sound and feel it reverberate through their body. They could feel the emotions of the story related (Wright, p 14).

The audience’s experience of the event is not only mental but spiritual, emotional, and physical. It took them on a journey that stayed with them after the performance (Wright, p 237-242) and created both a common and a personal recollection as Cepek explained in her thesis:

In the Middle Ages, then, salvation history as communal memory is the premise on which most drama is based. The goal of most medieval religious drama is therefore to make these narratives as real as possible so that they become memory – the collective memory, of course, but individual memory as well.--Rebecca Cepek, p20

With the church looking to spiritual salvation, readings and dramatic presentations were effective tools to this end (Wright, p 29). The audiences were already familiar with them and they could be used for Biblical stories, education or showing that there was hope of salvation for all (Kalua, p 9).


Cepek, Rebecca. Stages Of Belief: The Nature Of Audience Response In Medieval And Early Modern Drama. Dissertation. Duquesne University. 2014.

Coleman, Joyce. “Audience” A Handbook of Middle English Studies, First Edition. Edited by Marion Turner. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2013.

Coleman, Joyce. “Interactive Parchment: The Theory and Practice of Medieval English Aurality.” The Yearbook of English Studies, 1995, Vol. 25, Non-Standard Englishes and the New Media. Special Number, pp. 63-79. Modern Humanities Research Association. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3508818. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

Coleman, Joyce. The World’s Ear: The Aurality Of Late Medieval English Literature. Ph.D. thesis. University of Edinburgh. 1993.

Kaula, David. “Time and the Timeless in Everyman and Dr. Faustus” College English, Oct., 1960, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 9-14. Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. https://www.jstor.org/stable/373857. Last Accessed Dec 22, 2020.

Wertz, Dorothy. “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Dec., 1969, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp.438-453. Sage Publications, Inc. https://www.jstor.org/stable/173563. Last Accessed: Jan 7, 2021.

White, Tom. British Library. www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/experiencing-medieval-literature. 31 Jan 2018.

Wright, Clare. Sound, Body and Space: Audience Experience in Late Medieval English Drama. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. 2011. Access from the University of Nottingham repository: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/13108 /1/555408.pdf. Last accessed: Jan 1, 2021.