Notes on Everyman
By far the best example of the morality play is Everyman which
dates from 149395. Scholars, by the way, differ as to its probable
relation to a Dutch Elckerlijk, published in 1495; that is, which
play influenced which? For the purposes of this course, we will let the
scholars continue to debate this question, however, one of you may wish
to choose this as the topic for your major paper. Everyman is so
successful as a morality because "nothing in the play is extraneous
to the central homiletic purpose" and "all elements of style,
structure, and theme are governed by the conventions of allegory."
T. S Eliot says "Everyman is on the one hand the human soul in extremity,
and on the other any man in any dangerous position from which we wonder
how he is going to escapewith as keen interest as that with which
we wait for the escape of the film hero, bound and helpless in a hut to
which his enemies are about to set fire." Eliot's comment neatly highlights
what makes Everyman so successful: it is both perfect allegory and
The information below is taken from L. V. Ryan's "Doctrine and
Dramatic Structure in Everyman, Speculum 32 (1957): 7223.
Understanding the theology of the play is indispensable to a full appreciation of it. As Ryan notes "the real meaning and thus the true and legitimate effect of the work depend not on the action alone, but on a proper comprehension of what the action signifies" (723).
The key question the playwright addresses is: What must a man do to be saved?" Further, he must solve the problem of reducing "the complex answer to terms of simple dramatic representation without falsifying or obscuring the doctrine." To do dramatize the orthodox Catholic view of the scheme of salvation, the author was faced with two paradoxes. "According to Catholic theology, man having fallen by Adam's original sin, is incapable of saving himself through his own efforts. Only through the graces earned in the redemption by Christin which one must believeis the free gift of salvation made available. After professing his faith, however, one must also continue to cooperate with grrace; that is, he must live well in the life of grace in order to achieve heaven. In addition, the benefits of the redemption are passed on to all men through the ministration of Christ's church, of which one must be a member to gain eternal life. Here the paradoxes arise. First, though man is incapable of doing anything by himself to merit salvation and is saved by the Sacrifice on the Cross, yet he is finally judged on the basis of his own good deeds. The believing Christian must perform good deeds because the precept of charity so commands him and because failure to do so is a grave sin of omission (72324) . . . The second is that while Christ died for all men, only through membership in his church may anyone be saved. This belief in turn poses two problems. It rules out the strictly Calvinistic doctrine of special election. Everyone does receive sufficient grace to save his soul. Nevertheless, even St. Thomas Aquinas admits that why some men are saved and some reprobated is one of the unfathomable mysteries of the divine will. Thus, the author of Everyman is careful to show that while some may not share in its benefits, the redemption was intended for all . . . The author also points out that God's graces in their fullness flow to men only through the church and through the sacraments, which are administered by the clergy" (724).
"The problem of presenting these ideas efficiently and without confusion has determined the structure of the morality. Everyman goes far beyond the overly simple moral lesson that is likely at first glance to be taken as its theme: "Do good deeds and you will be saved." It offers, in effect, a concise presentation of the orthodox teaching on the matter of man's salvation. For the play to be a success, the audience at the end not only must be exposed to but must comprehend the rather involved message revealed step by step through the experience of Everyman" (72425).
The matter of the role of good deeds in salvation also bears comment.
"The author has had to present his doctrine with extreme care. First
of all, the church teaches that good works, though they are naturally good
and are never to be taken as anything but good, are availing to salvation
only to the Christian in the state of grace. Secondly, it is also dogma
that man is unable even to begin repentance for his misdeeds unless God
supply the first motion in him. God is a wrathful judge, as the opening
of the morality indicates, but at the same time he is the merciful Saviour
who provides Everyman with the grace to repent. Consequently, Good Deeds
is represented as willing to help the hero, but so "sore bounde"
by his sins that she 'can not stere.' There is a moment of dramatic suspense
here in order that the audience may grasp the full import of the situation:
good deeds in themselves are as nothing if a man be in the state of sin"
Other things to note are:
1. that God dominates the first half of the play
2. that the Wheel of Fortune assists in the descentascent pattern
3. that Everyman initially relies on his earthly supports to assist him on his "journey"; at this point he is damned
4. that the motifs of prayer, preoccupation with time, and personal suffering appear in both halves of the play.
5. that the Seven Deadly Sins, although not overtly present in the play, are central to Everyman's dilemma, especially Avarice and Pride.
6. that the play has a number of thematic references to Christ's Passion
7. that the play finally teaches man's redemption is only through Christ.
In addition, various structural patterns for the play have been advanced.
On the one hand, some have argued for a fourpart structural scheme:
1) the fruitless conflict with death, 2) the failure to find a companion,
3) the change from despair to joy through the arrival of worthy companions,
and 4) the new complication arising from the desertion by the worthy companions.
On the other hand, others argue for a threepart scheme focusing on
various climaxes as Everyman is abandoned by various groups of companions.
However, the "negative" prologue of the Messenger and the "positive"
epilogue of the Doctor clearly distinguish a twopart structure. One
movement, a falling action, occupies approximately the first half of the
play; it traces Everyman's decline in fortune from Death's entrance, which
shatters the apparent serenity of his life, to the depth of his despair,
where he can forsee only eternal damnation. The second movement, a rising
action, carries him from this nadir to his final salvation, symbolized
by the words of the welcoming Angel. Detailed analysis reveals this twopart,
descentascent structural pattern as the basic principle of the play's