Sunday, 6 March 2011

Everyman ~ The Original

This month our Monday book group is reading Philip Roth's 2006 novel, Everyman, and as it must be all of thirty-five years since I read the original morality play, I thought I ought to go back and revisit it if I was going to be able to make sensible comparisons between what I assume are texts that are meant to be considered together.

The earliest print fragment of Everyman dates to somewhere between 1510 and 1525 and although it has been suggested that it is actually several decades older than that if, as is often posited, the English play is based on the Antwerp text of Elckerlijc (c 1518-1525) then this fragment is probably very close to the time of composition. This isn't the place to go into theatre history and its developments, but if Everyman is as late as 1525 then the changes that were to take place in the intervening seventy-four years between this and the opening of The Globe on Bankside in 1599 with that ringing cry of Oh for a muse of fire are just unbelievable. Even the thought makes my head spin. (Look, we can argue another day about whether the choruses were in that first performance - stop trying to distract me and take me off subject!)

What strikes me most immediately about Everyman is how modern it is and yet how much it is of its own time. There can't be a single person who reads this who doesn't identify with the main character, facing his own death and realising that the life he has lived has not been as he might have wished. It doesn't matter whether you define a well-lived life in terms of religious belief or not, surely everyone of us has to have some regrets. And everyone of us has to share Everyman's fear as well. I know that there are some people who live in such pain, physical or mental, that death is a relief, but even in such instances there must be, I would have thought, a certain amount of trepidation. And, the 'associates' who desert Everyman, his friends, his kin and most especially his goods - well I bet there are a few people around now who are reckoning the cost of the financial turn around in more than just monetary terms.

But, at the same time, this is so much part of the medieval society, especially in its insistence that however much Everyman repents he has to get it all sanctioned by a priest. No question of finding your own way to salvation, you go the way the church lays down or you don't go at all. If this is as late as 1525, then Martin Luther has been making waves on the Continent and the Catholic Church in England, not aware of the home grown challenge just around the corner, would be keen to emphasise and reinforce its power over the people who would have made up the audience for this drama.

Something that I do find interesting is that unlike a lot of other plays of this type there is no depiction of the 'fun' that Everyman has had up to the point that death comes along and says "Oy". We just jump straight in there on the fateful day itself. Maybe the church wasn't taking any chances. Don't give the plebs any ideas, they can be creative enough in the ways of evil as it is without putting notions in their heads for them. It does make for a pretty dark play from the first line onwards.

But, the original version of Everyman has one speech in it that surely lifts the heart of every reader who meets it. Having been forsaken by those he thought would always stand by his side, Everyman thinks he is alone until he discovers his ailing Good Deeds and that virtue's sister, Knowledge and it is Knowledge who says to him

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide,
In thy most need, to go by thy side.

This, of course, is the preface to the books published in the Everyman series. Words that still thrill me every time I hear them.

So, how is this going to relate to Philip Roth's book? That remains to be seen. Not only, of course, a modern retelling, but also one by a notably non-Christian writer. Our discussion this week is going to be very interesting.



  1. A story that doesn't show the fun before the character repents and dies must be one that's quite serious about its message! There's no room for any subversion there, as you sometimes find in books about deathbed repentance. I haven't read this play, and it seems like a major omission.

  2. Dorothy, the thing that really came home to me as I was re-reading this was how close it is to the 'start' of the Reformation. Somehow, I'd always thought of it as an earlier text. If the dating evidence is right and especially if the source text began on the contented, I suspect this really was a Catholic reaction and they would want no wriggle room at all. It's a very quick read - a couple of hours at most - an well worth looking at.

  3. I found my way here via Litlove, and I hope you do post on your discussion comparing the original Everyman with Roth's contemporary take. I read Roth's novel a few years ago now and wish I'd heard of this original piece. I have some difficulties finding an entrance into Roth's writing universe, although I enjoyed Everyman well enough. I think I will go have a look for this early play and do some thinking on the two. Thank you!

  4. Please do post about the Everyman comparison. I am very curious!

  5. Michelle, I've just come in from the discussion and at some point during the week I will definitely post about it, but as is always the case with the Monday group, they've given me a lot to think about and I need to give myself time to assimilated it all. I am, by the way, a great admirer of 'Incurable Logophilia'. You are a great deal more erudite than I could ever hope to be.

    Stefanie, probably about Thursday.