Monday, September 26, 2011

Everyman and Mankind (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen.

Arden’s Early Modern Drama series applies the scholarly approach they’ve brought so successfully to Shakespeare to a collection of plays published between the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century, plays which may have influenced and been influenced by him. They recognise that an emphasis on Shakespeare in recent times has somewhat eclipsed other great works from that period and offer a chance to approach these texts in a form which has been analysed with Arden’s usual editorial zeal.

Everyman and Mankind, two anonymous miracle plays from the late 1400s, are perfect examples of that ethic. Neither plays has gone unpublished before but in each case the editors Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen (the latter co-author on the recent RSC Complete Works) have returned to the available copies of the texts only glancing at later interpretations when absolutely necessary. Though the spellings and punctuation have been modernised as per Arden’s usually editorial standards, both have the atmosphere of looking backwards into a forgotten time.

Both offer their only challenges. The only existing historic copy of Mankind is an incomplete manuscript held by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Pages are reproduced and to my untrained eye they’re in gobbledygook and to make matters worse the first of the two transcribers wrote in very tight lines so as to save paper. There are four quarto editions of The Summoning of Everyman (to give its full title) in existence but only two are relatively complete and of the others only fragments exist and all differ wildly in content, sometimes words, sometimes whole lines.

Given this is my first experience of either play, I can’t intelligently analyse the editorial choices though it's interesting to read that thanks to one of those fragments of Everyman, the Q2, having only recently having been discovered, they’ve used it in conjunction with Q1, to produce a brand new variant of the play, somewhat different to that seen in other editions which rely almost exclusively on Q3. That fits in well with the rest of Arden’s recent mission to fight against orthodoxy and offer an alternative.

But what of the plays? As was usually the case in pre-Reformation drama, they feature an archetypal figure experiencing some kind of symbolic trial explaining the ways of God to man. Mankind is tempted by the vices of New-Guise (the fashion), Nought (nothingness) and Nowadays (living for the moment) and ultimately seeks mercy from a character called Mercy for succumbing to their charms. Everyman is visited by Death (yes, the Death) and we witness their earthly belongings deserting them as they're ultimately tested for their worth and face the grave.

Mankind was as far as can be ascertained from the text, written and performed by the monks at the abbey of St Edmund in Bury (yes, as in the modern Bury St Edmunds) and toured within the South East region between King’s Lynn and Cambridge and may have been bankrolled by the ten nobles very specifically named in the text. Perhaps more interestingly, since it shows that English-language remakes are not a new phenomena, Everyman is a translation of a Dutch play, Elckerlijc, its satire blunted slightly to remove material critical of the Catholic faith.

Neither sounds particularly entertaining and in truth it’s impossible not to look at either of them without a certain detachment, especially if you’re the kind of person whose unlikely to draw solace from a story developed from the Book of Job just as Mankind is. We’re also used to symbolism, themes and allegory being buried deep within our dramedy, a characters we can somewhat identify with emotionally wrestling with the implications (thank to the reformation). Morality plays turn that notion inside and symbolism, themes and allegory are given character names.

But in parts they are incredibly funny. Mankind in particular was kept out of production for many years because of the lewdness of its language, one song in particular as scatological as a gross out film comedy, indeed more so because the participating audience is dragged into the mess. The writers understood, even at this early stage, that the best way to carry a message is through a mix of humour and drama and you can see the roots of how Shakespeare also would later include comedic scenes even in his blackest of tragedies.

The introduction is relatively short but that just reflects not only the brevity of the plays themselves – neither is much more than nine hundred lines each and feature continuous action – but also the relatively negligible critical and performance histories. Brusher and Rasmussen make light work of revealing how the medieval mind would approach both plays and what they might draw from the text. There are no deep psychological discussions of the characters since their characterisation is less important than the effects they might have on the audience.

Just as useful in production terms are the staging discussions in the back which attempt to define just how large a cast both plays would require. Anyone who’s seen the underrated film about a troop of medieval actors The Reckoning (starring Paul Bettany) might have some idea of the conditions in which these plays were produced but it’s fun to see the mechanics of how certain characters must have been doubled up simply because it means a performer would have to sit out much of the show which is hardly cost-effective.

Perhaps that’s one of the only frustrations of finally greeting these plays. The Shakespeare effect means that neither is readily available in a modern professional recording. I like to hear these words performed and I’m not sure I did Mankind justice reading it out to myself (I certainly lost much of the sense). There is a copy of the 1955 recording of Everyman featuring Burgess Meredith (as mentioned in the Arden introduction) available on Spotify (link) but the treatment of the text is ponderous with only a couple of the actors properly catching its satirical tone.

Either way, Arden Early Modern Drama’s Everyman and Mankind is an illuminating read and a reminder of just how much drama developed even in the hundred years leading up to Shakespeare’s birth. Plus its impossible, just now and then, not to wonder if he read these words himself. When in Everyman, Fellowship says “In faith, Everyman, farewell now at the end. / For you I will remember that parting is mourning”, it’s impossible not to hear Juliet’s line to her Romeo: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Everyman and Mankind (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen. Methuen Drama. 2009. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271628. Review copy supplied.

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