Everymanís God


Megan Mateer


One of the medieval plays most frequently revived and adapted during the twentieth century is Everyman, a morality play dated at about 1498. An interesting aspect of the history of this play is that there are no records of it being produced from the banning of religious plays in 1559 until 1901. William Poelís production in 1901 sparked a new popularity for Everyman, and directors and writers throughout the 20th century have experimented with ways of expressing the message of the meaning of life in the face of death through this old play that have reflected various agendas.

Everyman is a play that tries to address the meaning of life through death. At the time of its initial production in the fifteenth century, this theme was very relevant, death being prevalent due to wars and outbreaks of the Black Death (Clark, 187). All the characters are allegorical: Everyman, the Messenger, God, Death, Kindred, Goods, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Five Wits, Strength, Beauty, Discretion, Angel and Doctor. The dramatis personae also include the Messenger, Death, the Angel, the Doctor, and God. These characters represent aspects of Everyman's world.

The plot is very simple. Everyman is called before God for the final reckoning. He is given a slight reprieve to find a companion to go with him and stand by him to receive this judgment. As he searches for a companion, he, and we, learn what is important in life in the eyes of God, and by what criteria we all will be judged. The focus of this paper will be on the various ways that God has been portrayed in this popular play.

In 1901, William Poel was mourning the recent death of his mother. They had been very close and, as he considered his next production, her death was on his mind. Dr. Adolphus Ward, a friend who had helped Poel in previous productions including Dr. Faustus, suggested "Do Everyman" (Speaight, 71). Poel was unfamiliar with this medieval play but when he read it, he found some comfort in it, as well as theatrical possibilities. Poel came from a protestant background and his portrayal of God reflects the basic conceptualization of God as associated with this doctrine and depicted in art. In fact, Poel doesnít list "God" in the program but uses the Hebrew for Deity, "Adonai," a plural from of the Adon, "Lord," with the pronoun of the first person further emphasizing the ancient origins of this play. One reviewer at the 1901 performance commented on Poelís representation: (a note: Poel played the role of Adonai in the original production.)

The presentation was naturally naive. Adonai was shown as an elderly man with a curling gray beard. Death had no scythe, but had, as in some illustrations we recall, a drum and a trumpet. (Faxon, 173).

Though Poel had been accused by William Archer of having a lack of sensitivity toward public taste in his novel approach to producing Shakespearean and Medieval works, he seems to have maintained an image of God that would for the most part meet his audienceís expectations. Beyond the slightly deprecating remark concerning the naivete of the production, concerns about the religiosity of the play came not from the seemingly staunch Victorians of the London audiences but from an American.

In 1902, Charles Frohman brought Everyman to America for a national tour. The production was under the direction of Ben Greet, William Poelís partner. Changes in the production had been made due to a commentary by an American writer who expressed his outrage after a performance at the Imperial Theatre in July of that year, three months before Greet was to go to America. Winifred Isaacs writes of this occurrence in her biography of Ben Greet:

"It appeared to be the most shocking audacious bid of sacrilege!" He deemed the presentation of religious plays for money an obnoxious idea. . . . He agreed that Everyman would have been one of the most beautiful and touching events of the season. . . . He beheld on the stage a presentation of the Almighty sitting under a canopy, wearing a red robe trimmed with silver, whiskers, and full beard. The scene represented heaven. . . . The writer watched the audience, they all watched the stage carefully and nobody appeared to be in the slightest degree startled. . . . It was the first time in his life he had ever seen a stage representation of God and it gave him the creeps. . . . He admitted that the play was remarkably well and reverently acted by the Elizabethan Stage Society, had it not been for the unnecessary and audacious scene in Heaven (Isaac, 76).

Greet responded by stating that the play was produced as it would have been in the Middle Ages. In those days it was usual to portray God in Art and Drama. Greet, concerned about the possible negative reactions of American audiences, eliminated God on stage, and only the voice of God was heard resonating through the theatre. This staging was continued in later productions by Greet back in England.

Poelís production of Everyman influenced many other productions of this play throughout the twentieth century. One such production that can directly trace its origins to Poelís Everyman is Jedermann by Hugo von Hofmannsthal written in 1911. Jedermann later became a staple at the Salzburg Festival in Austria beginning in 1925. It is important to understand the significance of Jedermann in the evolution of Everyman in the twentieth century in that it is deemed a modern play about the story of Everyman. It is believed that "Hofmannsthalís version of the play is far more widely known by the general public than the medieval Everyman" (Stevens, 17). Jedermann begins very much like Everyman: a messenger enters and introduces the premise of the play, then the voice of God is heard expressing his displeasure in Man. God calls forth Death who is sent to summon Everyman on a pilgrimage and his final reckoning before God. This play attained its modern connotation in that the characters are less allegorical. Everyman has an actual family represented in his wife and mother which is much more specific that Kinship in Everyman. Also, characters interact with each other, not exclusively with Jedermann. There still are a few purely allegorical characters such as Mammon (Goods), Good Works (Good Deeds), Faith (knowledge), and death. In this production, only the voice of God is heard. Personalizing many of the characters including Everyman, established a different relationship between God and man creating a more mundane, less mystical quality to the play.

In the 1960s, Peter Arnott produced Everyman entirely with puppets. Prior to this production, Arnott had produced several Greek plays, such as Aeschylusí Agamemnon, Sophoclesí Oedipus Rex, Euripidesí Medea and Cyclops, and Aristophanesí Frogs and Birds, with his puppet troupe. He found a wealth of inspiration to draw upon in the medieval drama, especially with Everyman. Arnott believed that puppets were the ideal mediums for presenting this story. He states:

The later medieval moralities work through allegory to convey the Christian message. In most cases their characters are completely depersonalized, and represent various bodily or spiritual qualities. In the most famous and most familiar of these plays, Everyman, the eponymous protagonist, represents sinful mankind. . . . In the puppet medium it is possible to depersonalize the story more completely, and more effectively, than on the live stage, for it is no longer necessary to rely solely on the human form (Arnott, 71).

An example of the depersonalization of these characters was Arnottís interpretation of Goods. He represented this character in the form of an iron bound chest that slowly opened and closed when speaking, with a final loud bang at the end of the scene. This helped to further emphasize Everymanís attachment to inanimate objects for solace. Yet it was the representation of God that posed the most difficult challenge. He decided that instead of representing God with just another puppet dressed in a white robe and long flowing beard, Arnott chose to create a manifestation of God that would emphasize his greatness in contrast to the size of the puppets. He stuck his own, gloveless hand through a slit in the backdrop and used it as a form of puppet, gesticulating throughout Godís speech.

It (the hand) was lit by a single red spotlight and, in this position, gave the effect of a gigantic hand poised over the scene of the coming action. This device was simple, and still impressive. The speech supplies hints for a number of significant gestures-the hand turning slowly, with the fingers out stretched as if in agony, when God describes the suffering on the cross; the hand flattening and making a thrusting motion toward the ground, when He talks of visiting His wrath on mankind: a single stabbing forefinger to indicate the whereabouts of Death. The device of the hand of God pointing from the heavens is, of course, frequent in medieval illustrations; here was an effect which at the same time gave interest to the speech and was stylistically appropriate to its period. When Death finally emerged from the trap, the contrast between the small skeletonic figure and the apparently huge hand of God was startling (Arnott 87).

The stylization that can be created through puppets helped to emphasize the allegorical aspects of Everymanís world that may be difficult to achieve with human actors to this extent.

In 1970, Frederick Franck produced his play EveryOne: The Timeless Myth of Everyman Reborn at Pacem in Terris, an eighteenth century mill he had renovated, in Warwick, New York. I initially saw this play as a simply another rewriting of Everyman reflecting the free spirited attitudes of the 1960s. What I came to realize was that this version of Everyman was not only an adaptation of the medieval play but an outgrowth of one manís own personal journey to understand the meaning of life. Unlike the other productions discussed, I was afforded the opportunity to gain insight into the unique development of this version from the playwrightís own words. Published with the script is his manifesto that shared his own journey of self discovery culminating in the writing of EveryOne. This work reflects the influence of a variety of religions he encountered in his travels

The basic structure of the play remains true to Everyman. Franck begins with God upset with manís blatant disregard for him. Following is Franckís version of God expressing his displeasure with man, in the format that he wrote it:

I am

who sees whole peoples

milling on their tiny planet earth

in ignorance, conceit

confusion, delusion

anger, guilt

and folly

I am

who watches

from the center of the Human heart. . .

They made me into an idol,

one of their countless idols,

a childís bogey

a lollipop for comfort

a tranquilizer

for their conscience.

They have desecrated

their Earth,

violated their Great Mother,

exploded the bombs of their folly

in her vast womb,

poisoned the bloodstream

of her oceans

thoughtless of their childís

tomorrow . . .






ON!. .



HE MUST GO! (Franck, 15)

In this opening speech, Franck addresses several modern issues: destruction on a grand scale perpetrated through decades of war, the rising ecology movement, the concern for the future of our children, as well as manís self absorption and disregard for God. These concerns are echoed throughout the play.

The play continues after Godís speech with him ordering Death to summon EveryOne. EveryOne then attempts to find a companion for this last journey first by asking his Friends, then his Family, and finally his Treasure. In his moment of despair, as he is abandoned by his earthly loves, he begs for light. Insight appears. Through a question and answer dialogue, EveryOne comes to terms with his fate and a new understanding of whom he is and where he fits into the grand scheme of things. When he has achieved understanding, the rest of the cast appears as a chorus in support and blessing. They share a litany that reiterates what EveryOne has learned, as EveryOne dies. Unlike previous versions of Everyman, Franck has God ending the play with an epilogue and in the final moment resurrects EveryOne:


Wake up!

Be reborn!


For you are ripe now

to live the Human life

to love and live and glorify. . .

Go now, EveryOne,

My son,

son of the living

go to the living!

Share my Bread of Life

with all these who surround you,

See: They Are Mankind!

Each single one

here present

conceals, contains,


all man is!







Wake up!

And Share

and Eat



The Bread of Life! (Franck, 126)

The play ends with EveryOne being reborn. Franck felt that the play should not end with EveryOneís death:

Having learned what life has to teach, he (EveryOne) must be reborn, resurrected. . . . I felt that in the ancient play, too, Everymanís death implies his rebirth. For the Cross he crawls to, when at last reconciled to his fate and to God, is not merely the sign of agony and death. Unless it is at the same time the sign of resurrection, the Koan of the Cross is misinterpreted! For it is also the sign of the rebirth of the Unborn, the Undying, of the "Truly Human in this mass of protoplasm that is the human body," to paraphrase Rinzai (Franck, 142).

Though the Christ motif is very evident to a Christian credo, Franck writes of the reaction by other religious sects present in his audiences:

It was uncanny: Protestant students and Catholic nuns were as moved by this Credo as were the un-churched. Christians saw it as a Christian play. Buddhists called it a Buddhist play in disguise. Jews declared it to be essentially Jewish. It was as if they all rediscovered in it some essence of their Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity that had escaped them but that became visible once more with all metaphysical accretions stripped away. Apparently it did not cause allergic reactions! (Franck, 144)

In this production, God is still present only as a voice but in this case it helps to support the universality that Franck implies by avoiding any sect associated image of God and maintaining a purely allegorical approach to the rest of the characters.

The final production I will discuss comes back full circle with the original script of Everyman by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1995, Frank Galati director. He maintained the original medieval script with only minor updating of some of the medieval language. His production concept experimented with the casting of Everyman. In this case Everyman was chosen by lottery each night by Death from four actors. Galati attempted to reflect the universality of this play by creating an ensemble that was ethnically diverse. The four actors Death had to choose from consisted of a black, Hispanic, East Indian, and a white actor; three of whom were male and one female (James, 139). The actors not chosen would play other roles. This created an ensemble that was balanced ethnically, and between men and women. Tracy Ring, writing for Outline in Chicago, states that an actress was included in the options for Everyman in an attempt to make the production relevant to women but it is unclear if she dressed as a man or woman and exactly in what way she would make a play more relevant (Ring, 2). Just as the concept of the broad definition of who is Everyman is demonstrated by the lottery, the manifestation of God was redefined by having three actors represent God in the form of the trinity. Gender and ethnic diversity were further emphasized with a woman as Death and a black actor as God, the father, not to be confused with God the son and God the Holy Ghost.

Ann James of The Christian Century in her review of this production found this dividing of God problematic:

Some of Galatiís casting decisions muddy the text. . . . A poor choice was the casting of God. God is Judge in the original version. Galati divided Godís lines among three actors, emphasizing the Holy Trinity. But the split diffused the strong line of judgment in Godís speech. The theme of judgment was weak throughout the show. Everyman is a straightforward indictment of human sin and a reminder that we will each be held accountable for our life. The Steppenwolf production lacked such conviction. . . . At times the teaching for effect simply resulted in over production (James, 139)

Whether or not reviews appreciated this unique interpretation, it does further the argument that Everyman is highly mutable, readily lending itself to a myriad of directorial choices.

Throughout the twentieth century, societies over the globe have been in turmoil and flux. Since its reemergence on the theatrical scene, Everyman has been able to find a place of expression and relevance in the modern repertoire whether in a monastery in England, in the hills of Austria or on the remote Philippine Islands. Though directors approaching this play may initially find themselves caught in a conundrum of political correctness in how to portray the all-inclusive identity of Everyman, they are soon faced with the equally difficult task in the manifestation of God, whether on stage or not, or to portray their God or seek to understand Everymanís God.


Arnott, Peter D. Plays Without People. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.

Clark, James M. "The Dance of Death in Medieval Literature." Modern Language Review, 45 (1950): 336-345.

Faxon, Fredrick Winthrop, Mary E. Bates, and Anne C. Sutherland. Cumulated Dramatic Index. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1965.

Franck, Frederick. EveryOne, the Timeless Myth of Everyman Reborn. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979.

Isaac, Winifred. Ben Greet and the Old Vic. London: Greenback Press, 1964.

James, Ann. "Everyman in Chicago." The Christian Century. (Feb. 7, 1996): 138-140.

Ring, Trudy. "Unique Collaboration: Gay Director Frank Galati Uses Windy City Gay Chorus as the Musical Voice for Everyman" Outlines: December 1995 outlines@suba.com.

Speaight, Robert. William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival. London: William Heinemann, 1954.

Steven, Martin. "The Reshaping of Everyman: Hofmannsthal at Salzburg." Germanic Review, 48 (March, 1973): 117-31.