Allegory and Audience Awareness in the Performance of Everyman
“I love that play, that acting in it is so real!” an actor friend said to me recently. This prompted a lengthy conversation about what makes for “good” acting, which seemed to have something to do with how believable the character was. But I wondered, in an obviously fictional story, with fantastical elements like magic or aliens, if we don’t need to believe the story, why do crave believable characters? Certainly it means more emotional resonance with the character, but why do we feel the need to identify with characters’ feelings?
“[I]f we don’t need to believe the story, why do crave believable characters? … [W]hy do we feel the need to identify with characters’ feelings?”
A uniquely modern assumption about theatrical performance is that it should be naturalistic. Naturalism, in theater vocabulary, refers to a performance that strives to imitate nature as completely as possible. A naturalistic set for a Victorian drama would be the recreation of an English countryside estate on stage. Naturalistic acting calls for the characters to have believable motivations, which they act on in reasonable ways. This creates a character that seems to exist in the real world, complete with realistic details down to what kinds of food a character would eat. Though these characters seem like they could really exist, they are limited to the world of the play, which is separated from the audience by a stage and a proscenium. This mode of performance works well for many modern plays and has become our culture’s accepted norm for acting.
Though it functions well for most modern works, naturalism becomes a problematic approach to medieval plays, which often include religious and allegorical figures. To be sure, with enough research, one could figure out what kinds of food Jesus’s tormentors might have eaten. But what does a character like Good Deeds eat for breakfast? What does Five Senses look like when he walks? What are the vocal qualities of earthly Goods? Notions of creating a naturalistic character break down when confronted with allegorical figures. Given that, an entirely new way of thinking about performance is necessary for the performance of a medieval text.
William Tydeman presents an approach to acting that can inform both the performance of a medieval text and the audience’s relationship to that performance. Tydeman notes that “[m]edieval theatrical characterization tends to be broad and expressive, and actors presented figures rather than identified with them” (37). This not only suggests that actors should not identify with their characters, but also that audiences should not either. The audience should not be so absorbed in a character’s suffering that they forget that are watching an actor depicting the suffering of that character. There should always be an awareness of the fact that a person is performing a role.
Our production of Everyman sought to play with this awareness by creating unusual and unexpected relationships between actor and character. Our production cast three actors—two male, one female—in the role of Everyman, reminding the audience of the role’s fluidity. Casting the same actor as the morally outraged God in scene one and the morally dubious Friendship in scene three also emphasized this fluidity. Perhaps the most fluid character-actor relationship, though, was Death. For this role, the actor transformed into his character through face paint. Unlike Everyman and God/Friendship, the actor’s relationship with Death was rigid, but the character of Death reappeared throughout the production as a member of Everyman’s family, part of Good’s entourage, and as the figure of False Priest, a man who is deeply invested in the physicality of his body.
Not only did our production seek to explore fluid character-actor boundaries, it also broke down character-audience barriers through staging. In most modern theatrical settings, the action of the play takes place on a raised stage, with an invisible boundary or “fourth wall” between the action and the audience. Any character not a part of the scene waits offstage for his or her entrance, invisible to the audience. Our production chose a non-traditional performance space, one with no off-stage area, with most of the play’s action taking place on the same level as the audience. Many lines were delivered to the audience, with a significant amount of physical interaction between audience and characters. The effect served to dissolve notions of the separateness of performance and audience. Any character not in a scene remained highly visible as an observer from the sidelines, an audience member still on a stage with no boundaries.
One significant character-audience interaction was the giving out of golden chocolate coins by Goods and her entourage. After the coins had been displayed and given to a few people, the audience was invited to request them, forcing members of the audience to become a part of Goods’s lesson about the power of greed. This kind of character-audience interaction recalls similar fluid boundaries in other medieval plays. In the morality play Mankynde, for example, the comedic Vice characters demand that the audience pay up before they summon an even funnier devil on stage so that the play can continue.
This lack of boundaries partially stems from audience members’ personal relationships to the actors on the stage. Tydeman observes that, if not in the same plays, people from every social class participated in playing, from kings to fishmongers (34-35). Medieval audiences would recognize the man performing as Herod as someone they knew from daily life; one of Christ’s tormentors might be the local butcher. These personal connections between audience and actor in medieval staging conventions create a gray space that mutually involves audience, actor, and action. Indeed, the suffering of an allegorical figure can be deeply moving when the actor portraying that suffering is someone you know personally.
Something deeply important to our production was making Everyman’s struggle deeply personal without letting the audience fully identify with the character. Presenting Everyman as one distinct allegorical figure represented by multiple bodies created greater range for potential identification. With this casting of multiple actors, Everyman becomes more than just a figure, but a representation of everyone, as medieval audiences would have well understood. When combined with the lack of boundaries between actors and audience, Everyman becomes a member of the audience—anyone in the audience could be behind that mask. However, the mask also reveals half of the face of each actor or actress playing the role. This prevents total identification with Everyman and interrupts the audience’s complete empathy with the character. Everyman becomes a persona of suffering that does not entirely consume the actor but can be passed off from one person to another.
“Everyman becomes a persona of suffering that does not entirely consume the actor but can be passed off from one person to another.”
The openness of our performance’s staging further accommodates this disengagement from the action of the play by forcing the audience into awareness of the act of performing itself. The visibility of actors changing into and out of costumes and patiently waiting for their entrance on-stage emphasizes the non-reality of the play. The action invites the audience to reflect on the suffering of Everyman, and think critically about the choices he makes and the ways he falls short in his character.
This reflective disengagement does not negate the identification with Everyman, however. It creates interplay between identification and disengagement. The identification with Everyman suggests that the audience is not safe from the action of the play; they too will face their end one day. Their disengagement from the character Everyman makes the audience aware of their own life choices, in relation to Everyman’s. At the end of the play, Everyman passes into his grave with Good Deeds, but we do not see him ascending to Heaven. Both text and production invite the audience into critical-self reflection without enforcing any moral certitude as to Everyman’s fate.
Simply exploring this technique that values self-awareness over total identification raises some interesting questions about the limitations of modern theater. Most modern theatrical practices emphasize the importance of emotional catharsis. Yet the medieval approach to theater echoes popular counter-currents in theater practice that resist catharsis during the theatrical experience, most notably in Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater and its descendents. In other words, medieval approaches to performance are not totally out of place in the world of contemporary theater. Rather than being contradictory, the medieval de-emphasis of realistic performance in fact compliments some modern approaches. People often dismiss medieval theater as uncomplicated and not relatable because the plays come from a different time and rely on different notions of character. As a growing number of people become dissatisfied with traditional notions of realistic theater, though, it is invaluable to remember that older forms of theater can flourish in dialogue with contemporary practices and issues.
William Tydeman. “‘Agreable to hys pageaunt’: Some Thoughts on Medieval Acting.” In Acting Medieval Plays, edited by Peter Meredith, William Tydeman and Keith Ramsay. Honywood Press, 1985: 27-46.