on 18 April 2008
A.C. Cawley's selection of English medieval plays has shown remarkable durability, and was for its time the best accessible anthology of early English drama. Unfortunately it is now showing its age, leading the reader into all manner of questionable assumptions. It remains, however, one of the only accessible editions of 'Everyman', that archetypal medieval English play now known to be a translation from the Dutch.
It's been years since I've read any middle English or medieval texts, about twenty in fact, since I was at university. I started reading this book for research purposes, as we are thinking of staging a mystery play in the school I work in. I found it really hard going to begin with, but then realised that the trick was to read the verses aloud. The punctuation, and the phonetic spelling really help to shape the words as you say them, and their meaning becomes much clearer. After a while I found myself thoroughly enjoying the plays, and reading them for pleasure as much as for research. I am now on my second volume of plays and loving them. The stories are vivid and interesting, the language, if you are at all interested in how English has evolved, is fascinating and the plays are short enough to keep my interest and focus. The history of how and why the plays were produced and who put them on is another factor which really interested me and I actually found myself voluntarily reading all the academic notes and foreward/appendix pages too.
on 15 December 2008
A typical medieval play in the fact that it is a poem more than a play, an inner dialogue or discourse of one Everyman with death that came to claim him and his conscience in all its components, Fellowship, Kinsmen, Worldly Goods, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Discretion, Strength, Beauty and his Five Wits. On the way he will have to meet with Confession, hence confess his sins, look for forgiveness, making penance, receiving absolution, eventually getting redemption and deserving salvation. But the poem is sad in many ways because it more or less reckons there is nothing on the other side. You can only go there with your good deeds and these good deeds exclude any social achievements, be they social success of any sort rejected as worldly goods, beauty in any form and kind, even strength and discretion, all these things you know and enjoy deep in yourself and that give you depth and reason, even your five wits, or the five senses, also known sometimes as the five qualities or faculties, common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation, and memory, all you need to be a fully developed man. All that is of no value in the face of death and god. The play is cruel because you are at once rejected by your friends who refuse to accompany you to death, and then your relatives who do just the same. You are alone in front of that death and so alone that all your inner qualities will disappear, forsake you at the very last minute because they are not recognized as having any value by and for god. That vision of a god that only acknowledges your good deeds, that is to say your religious actions, your confessions and penances, and all other scourges and whippings and who knows what other self-inflicted-in-the-name-of-god corporal punishments. This vision of god and religion is the most archaic vision you can imagine, even at the end of the 15th century, because beyond death there is nothing, in fact no salvation, no compensation or reward. All you have done, thought, brought to life or whatever counts for nothing. That vision of man, of god and this conception of religion is nothing but total fundamentalism that has to come up from the deepest experience of death after the Black Death that meant the wiping out of more than one third of humanity in just a few years or decades. It is in line with the Danse Macabre of these times where death meant absolute leveling and deprivation, where death meant the loss of absolutely everything you may have done and achieved. Life gives you no merit whatsoever. Death is seen as the only redeemer possible that picks everyone as if they were nothing at all. This vision cannot survive forever and its extreme fundamentalism will produce another that will lead to an even worse evil, the belief that you are chosen by god for an afterlife of fulfillment because you have succeeded in a way or another, but essentially economically, in life. It will lead to Goethe's Faust who will find his redemption in his social lead to improve the lot of humanity, but also to the fundamentalist belief that the lot you have in life is the mark of your goodness in the eyes of god, that social Darwinism which bloomed in the United States at the end of the 20th century and is still quite vivid and lively, kicking and strong in the minds of those for whom wealth is the sign of worthiness. We can wonder why today some bring this godly but not fairy at least not good-fairy tale out of the cabinet where it was more or less rotting away. Either we don't have anything worth reading, watching, enjoying in the vast cosmos of human creativity, or we need some solace in the face of the delicate threshold we have to cross in our globalized world that is in the process of tilting up and down old equilibriums in favor of new ones. We seem to remember that somewhere and somehow we believed that the last one will be first and the first one will be last, and we are starting to shiver, shake, quake, tremble, quiver and fear: maybe after all we might be brought down from our Western vain belief that we were the most powerful and absolutely perfect forever. We seem to be remembering that Vanitas vanitatum, omnis vanitas, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. But we could frankly do better than reviving what should have been kept in its dead oblong casket buried under twenty layers of forgetfulness.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines