Using and Enjoying the Time of Music in Everyman
“I hear angels singing!” Knowledge exclaims as she stands proudly on the middle plateau of Summit Rock. Listening closely, we faintly hear the melody she hears. As it grows, the Angels take Knowledge’s place and say their closing words; the melody merges with the chorus and a drum beat.
The significance of the music the chorus sings can be easily overlooked. Our modernized performance forces its audience to think of their future death, for which the play’s music can serve as a metaphor. Like the music, life has a beginning, middle, and end, and once both are over, they cannot be revived. Just as the sense of hearing forever leaves Everyman when abandoned by his Five Senses, the audience also experiences a loss of hearing when the music stops. In fact, the audience loses its ability to hear the angels singing at the same moment as all the actors in the play, blurring the line between actor and audience and incorporating the audience into the play itself. They, too, are Everymen, and they, too, will face the same fate. Their senses of hearing will diminish like every other sense, faculty, relationship, and boon in their lives. In this sense, the music incorporates into the play a profoundly macabre illustration of the ever-present possibility of death—like the sound of the music, our life will ultimately die away.
In the Middle Ages, one common way to perform plays was in a platea-and-locus setup, with the audience surrounding a central circular playing space through which the actors moved. Audience members might also cluster at the feet of podiums around the circumference of the circle, which represented certain allegorical locations upon which actors would stand and perform. In this playing format, the audience members themselves were considered part of the play. Actors would interact with audience members and audience members could contribute to the play, creating ample opportunity for improvisation. Often, local merchants would serve food in a festive atmosphere that helped bring people together, inviting intimacy in the sharing of one’s food and labor. We can see a similar festive sharing in our performance of Everyman, when the actors gave out chocolate coins freely to the audience. This generosity united actors and audience in a carnival setting, an open-ended space where the rules are thrown out the window that still showcases an entertaining production.
Music, like the coins, invited everyone to be entertained. For the actors, the entertainment would consist of the act of singing and entertaining, and for the audience it would consist of simply being an active spectator by listening to the melody and the words. Everyone, audience and actors alike, could hear the music. This was a key moment in the play—it united the entire collection of individuals present into one body listening to the same song in the same span of time. Every person present was listening to the music of Everyman, and the fact that they were participating in the act of listening to and appreciating the music at the same time demonstrated their equality, no matter the part they played.
While an audience member listens to Everyman, time passes from word to word. With time’s passage, an audience member can follow the moral play in all its poetic aspects. Music likewise demands the passage of time. One needs time for the music to unfold just like one needs time for the play to proceed. One cannot hear all words of the play at once, just as one cannot hear all tones of a musical piece at once. Like spoken words, music advances step by step in time, a necessary factor if the message is to be communicated.
In our production, the song we performed was derived from a medieval plainchant, Angelus Autem Domini, an antiphon that would have been sung during Church liturgy. The original song would have been much less rhythmic than the version our actors sang. It was also originally sung in Latin, the language of the clergy, rather than English, the language of the people. Like the play Everyman itself, our singing thus acknowledges both clerical roots and a desire to speak to the common folk.
Our rendition of the play’s music also manifests time in multiple ways. When the Angel appears, she speaks her lines aloud in time in an effort to communicate with the audience. The music playing in the background simultaneously offers a second manifestation of time. These two parallel time streams operate to highlight this very important moment in the play: the Angel summarizes what has just happened, namely, Everyman’s death. The music provides a sweet buffer to the horror of that death, alluding to Jesus’s resurrection.
However, as the Angel warns the audience, the music also plays an ironic role: Is the audience taking pleasure in the sweet words and music of the angels or are they using it to appreciate God? The audience needs to make a choice, one familiar from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (Book 1, Ch 3-4): do they enjoy the aesthetics of the words and music for sensual or selfish reasons, or do they connect to fear and awe over divine retribution and a sense of humility and helplessness in the face of death? Is the audience just like Everyman, taking the wrong kind of pleasure from the world, or have they learned their lesson from the play they’ve just seen? After being equalized by collectively listening to the music, each audience member and actor must individually choose to take heed or to ignore the message of the play. Though the actors do not listen in the same way as the audience, they don’t escape having to make a choice either: do they use their talent to convey a moral warning to audience members or do they take pleasure in performance and entertaining itself?
The music in Everyman serves many purposes. Mainly, it equalizes the audience, actors, and characters in the same moment of time in their fallible humanity. The music also contributes to the soundscape of the performance. What was previously only taxi cabs and the bustling sounds of New York City now merges with a song derived from medieval repertoire, bridging past and present. Indeed, the music serves to highlight modern day moral questions. Do performers and audience fall unthinkingly into an entertaining performance, or do they think through the questions it poses, trying to understand its moral dilemma?
Music becomes one way that our performance of Everyman poses this question; it can inspire divine thought and feelings, but it can also incite a lust for the pleasure of being entertained. Whatever choice players and audience make individually, all lose the sound of the music, just like Everyman ultimately loses his speech and hearing faculties. In this way, music helps connect the experience of our Everyman to modern viewers by taking them on a similar journey through the act of listening and singing.