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in Space, Time, and the Imagination

 

 

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Everyman: Conversion Comedy

From Chapter 19, “Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp.  301-312.

 

In the Gospels, the life of Christ is presented as fully patterned comedy. The destined life of that comedy is not merely temporal; it is eternal. And that life is premised on a single condition, faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Anointed One dying to take away the sins of the world.

Christ Himself is seen as the perfect embodiment of that faith. The sympathetic characters around Him do not possess that faith perfectly. But they have grasped it, and through their faith they have started to become conformed to the image of Christ, with the hope of a resurrection, and eternal life, also in His image.

While we do see such sympathetic figures in Gospel comedy, the full development of the themes of conversion and Christian life are left to the Epistles. In the present chapter, I will consider these two comedies and their presentation, respectively, in Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress, and will be particularly concerned with the critical errors caused by a failure to recognize the comedic form of these literary works. In the case of Pilgrim’s Progress and Everyman, the import of the works is so clear allegorically that even without recognizing the comedic form, one is hard pressed to miss the message. Rather, the critical problem for both Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress resides in oddities of patterning that can be explained by these works’ strenuous attempts to be true to their biblical sources. Critics trained in secular literature alone are easily thrown off by these oddities and convinced that somehow Everyman is not “true drama” and Pilgrim’s Progress is not “true narration.” Such criticism spends its time vainly trying to define what separates these works from other works of literature rather than recognizing how the oddities themselves relate these works to all other comedy. In the process, Everyman is reduced to a mere “precursor” of Elizabethan drama and Pilgrim’s Progress to a “forerunner of the novel.” Such contentions eliminate some of the most successful of all literary works from the realm of true literature.

If we are to understand the oddities in the patterning of Everyman, we must first have a solid understanding of the biblical comedy of individual conversion, or salvation, on which it is based. As defined in the Epistles, the comedy of individual conversion presupposes that human beings are spiritual creatures, capable of an eternal life. All life is dependent on the active sustenance of God “in Whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, King James Version). Real success for the human race in the present life and all hope for eternal life is predicated on the condition of faith in Jesus as the Anointed One of God. This faith asserts that his death has paid the price for human sin and that His resurrection is God’s pledge for the eternal, resurrected life of the believer. The Epistles emphasize that this new life into which the believer is born—not at death but at conversion—necessitates putting to death the “old self,” which claims independence from God.

The comedy of individual salvation, so conceived, fits quickly into a first-the-bad-then-the-good-news formula, not unlike the gag formula made popular on the television series Laugh-In. Such a formula depends upon both incongruity and sudden reversal. Incongruity sand sudden reversal are central to the comedy of conversion.

The bad news of the conversion pattern can be variously stated. As Paul puts it in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23b). James puts it, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). Or John: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

What such statements of the bad news do for the pattern is to exclude any middle ground between the good and the evil.  There aren’t any possibilities, with such statements, for man being “part way to heaven” or “working toward heaven.” In the comedy of conversion, there can be no sympathy for those who are striving diligently toward meeting God’s standards or for those who depend on their own merit to square them with God. However earned, such merit leaves them still sinners, still infinitely below God’s standard and still without hope of eternal life.

So the bad news is that merit, even sincere piety or faith, if misdirected is not enough to get one right with God. The Epistles, however, are fond of the sudden reversal from the bad news to the good news which is possible through a properly directed faith: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

All this has shocking implications for an audience used to the standards of “proper” society. Characters who display faith in Jesus Christ are the automatic good guys of conversion comedy. Those who do not, no matter what their social rank or worthy occupations, are automatically bad guys. And the distinction is as clearly drawn as that between the guys in the while hats and those in the black in melodramatic Westerns. There isn’t any in-between. It may then seem strange to us to find a former harlot like Mary Magdalene given such a high place in the early church, strange to find such a braggart and often incompetent as Peter feeding and shepherding Christ’s flock. It may seem equally strange to find that the bad guys include the pillars of society, whose social merit is manifest and who seem never to have done anything wrong.

Similarly, those things that society normally honors—wealth, station, respectability, even family ties and friendship—are, for the comedy of individual salvation, delusions that keep human beings from recognizing their spiritual poverty. Faith in these socially recognized values is ridiculed while the “foolishness” of faith in a salvation in this world and the next provided by a God existing outside the temporal order is praised as the only true sanity.

Everyman embodies these theological abstractions. In the process, it experiments with dramatic form to create import consistent with its biblical source.

Everyman has been preserved in four copies dating between 1508 and 1537. It was probably written, however, before the end of the fifteenth century. A similar play, Elckerlyc, was first printed in Flemish in 1495, and this peculiar publishing history has provided a technical scholarly argument as to which play is a translation of which.  In the intricacies of this argument, in which neither side has presented overwhelming evidence, we can lose sight of the major import of both plays. Everyman is not the result of one Englishman’s private thoughts. It is a representation of the ideas of a whole class of pre-Reformation Roman Catholics in Western Europe. Because it belongs to the immediate pre-Reformation period, it contains a curious mixture of standard Catholic doctrine and intimations of the protest that we associate with Martin Luther, twenty-five years later. Perhaps because of the turbulent religious times in which it was produced, Everyman stresses then-contemporary issues, like the role of the priesthood, more than is necessary for a biblically based drama of individual conversion. But the play has endured because of its general adherence to biblical vision rather than its attention to these pre-Reformation issues.

Christendom in the Middle Ages was fond of creating and listening to homilies on people’s futile efforts to find a substitute for salvation. Everyman dramatizes these homilies by presenting an allegory of a person accepting all the substitutes society offers but finding himself suddenly confronted with the reality of death.

The opening scene of Everyman takes place outside the natural order at God’s eternal throne. The choice has immediate significance. People do not turn toward God; rather, God intervenes to bring them back to Him. Without God’s intervention, the human race runs amok:

 

I see the more that I them forbear

The worse they be from year to year.

All that liveth appaireth fast; [degenerates]

Therefore I will, in all the haste,

Have a reckoning of every man’s person;

For, and I leave the people thus alone

In their life and wicked tempests,

Verily they will become much worse than beasts . . . .[i]

 

Thus, God sends Death to Everyman to remind him:

 

Though thou have forget him [God] here,

He thinketh on thee in the heavenly sphere. [94-95]

 

Were it not for God’s love, man would go on without a backward glance.

But being called by Death, Everyman quickly realizes what he has hitherto ignored, “Full unready I am such reckoning to give” (113). Though he recognizes this fundamental truth immediately, he does not soon turn to God’s mercy. Instead, he tries to bribe Death with worldly things. Death quickly reproves him with cutting sanity:

 

Everyman, it may not be, by no way.

I set not by gold, silver, or riches,   [care not for]

Ne by pope, emperor, king, duke, ne princes;

For, and I would receive gifts great,

All the world I might get . . . . [124-128]

 

From the beginning of his confrontation with Death, Everyman is made aware that he has nothing substantial to aid him before God’s judgment. Yet he can still act the fool—in many ways the most outrageous kind of fool—by recognizing his spiritual poverty and while still hoping that the things he has struggled for in this world may somehow compensate. A bleak incongruity and humor exists in this obtuse buffoonery that relates Everyman to the darkest comedies of our own century.

But all is not lost for Everyman. The more the fool, the more he receives the answers of sanity from Death. Finally, Death tells him plainly that, once dead, Everyman will never return to terrestrial life; and Everyman cries out:

 

O gracious God in the high seat celestial,

Have mercy on me in this most need!   [153-54]

 

As we shall see later, from a classical dramatic perspective this is the turning point of the play, barely one-sixth of the way into the drama. Here Everyman has left off his foolishness and asserted sanity, as defined from a biblical stance. He has begun to search for help where it truly may be found.

The help Everyman receives is, ironically, more sane conversation with Death. Death asks:

 

What weenest thou they life is given thee, (suppose)

And thy worldly goods also?

 

And Everyman answers, “I had wend so, verily.” Death says:

 

Nay, nay; it was but lent thee;

For as soon as thou art go,

Another a while shall have it, and then go therefore,

Even as thou hast done.

Everyman, thou art mad! [161-68a]

 

Everyman, however, is not ready to act on what he should well know. Instead, he strives to avoid Death and to find reassurance from the things he has trusted. It is easy to see this psychological unwillingness to act on knowledge as an example of primitive dramatic technique in Everyman. Actually, it is an important part of the pattern of the play. Everyman means to assert precisely what if portrays. Human beings can know with their heads, be convinced by the obvious nature of the world, and still refuse to learn the lesson. We can demand to act out our foolishness. Moreover, we have precisely such a foolish bent when it comes to confronting ultimate realities and death. The comedic challenge in Everyman is whether the human race can survive such foolishness.

Fleeing ultimate realities, Everyman turns first to Fellowship, whom he has always trusted implicitly—as well he might if he accepts Fellowship’s words:

 

If any you wronged, ye shall revenged be,

Though I on the ground be slain for thee—

Though that I know before that I should die. [218-20]

 

When Everyman asks Fellowship to accompany him on his journey to the Great King, however, Fellowship’s tune changes drastically:

 

That is matter indeed. Promise is duty;

But, and I should take such a voyage on me,

I know it well, it should be to my pain. [248-50]

 

When Everyman reminds him, “Ye promised otherwise,” Fellowship shows his true colors:

 

I wot well I said so, truly;

And yet if thou wilt eat, and drink, and make good cheer,

Or haunt to women the lusty company,

I would not forsake you while the day is clear,

Trust me verily! [271-75]

 

Though Everyman is being treated shabbily, there seems no other cure for his inveterate foolishness When he responds to Fellowship ironically, “Yea, thereto ye would be ready!” he is beginning to move from foolishness to reality.

Despairing of Fellowship, Everyman moves on to test Kindred and Cousin, who despite confident assertions, just desert him as quickly. Like Punch-and-Judy farce, Everyman repeatedly buffets its protagonist. After being scorned by Kindred and Cousin, Everyman is abused by his Goods, who laugh him out of countenance for thinking they would accompany him from this world. However, those trials force Everyman out of foolishness and prompt him to consult his Good Deeds for counsel. Too weak from sin to help Everyman herself, Good Deeds introduces Everyman to Knowledge, and Knowledge brings Everyman to Confession.

Many think of Everyman as the tragedy of Everyman. But clearly, even if we consider only the plotting elements of pattern, Everyman conforms to our definition of comedy as an assertion of faith in humanity’s destined survival. Even though Everyman displays foolishness that would seem to damn him completely, the pattern of Everyman shows God providing Death as a providential agency by which Everyman is forced from his foolishness and urged to an acceptance of his true state. The overall design requires human beings to die, but the requirement of death allows us to see our dependence on the things of this world for the foolishness it is and to escape this massive delusion into new life.

At Confession, Everyman is reminded of the Savior’s suffering in his stead and receives the key to success in any further difficulty:

 

But in any wise be sider of mercy, [sure]

For your time draweth fast; and ye will saved be,

Ask God mercy and he will grant truly. [568-70]

 

Thus, Everyman is reminded that salvation does not come through “works which we have done” but “according to His mercy He saved us (Eph. 2:8-9). Henceforth, Everyman is to rely as a repentant sinner on God’s grace. Having confessed his sinfulness, aware that he can be fully pardoned according to God’s mercy, Everyman avails himself of God’s free gift:

 

O eternal God, O heavenly figure,

O way of righteousness, O goodly vision,

Which descended down in a virgin pure

Because he would every many redeem,

Which Adam forfeited by his disobedience;

O blessed Godhead, elect and high divine, [divinity]

Forgive my grievous offence;

Here I cry thee mercy in this presence. [581-88]

 

Having put himself right with God, Everyman is comforted by Beauty, Strength, Discretion and Five Wits, who promise to accompany him everywhere. Though Everyman is saved, he is still imperfect, and he greets this comfort too credulously. Soon, however, Everyman comes to his grave, and all of these recent comforters desert him. While again abused, this time Everyman is not totally discomfited, having put his final trust in the right place:’

 

O all things faileth, save God alone—

Beauty, Strength, and Discretion;

For when Death bloweth his blast,

They all run from me full fast. [841-44]

 

Everyman has miscalculated in trusting society’s values and his personal assets. Ironically, now when he sounds most rational in confrontation with Death, he has calculated incorrectly again. While everything he trusted during his life has failed him, his Good Deeds, of which he has little thought, are prepared to accompany him even to the throne of God. The point of this addition to the comedic pattern is in part to emphasize the biblical truth of the Olivet discourse found in Matthew 25. Although we cannot earn our way to heaven and the good deeds of the person who has not thrown himself on God’s mercy count as nothing, the good deeds of those who do not trust to good deeds for their salvation are all recorded and will be rewarded in heaven:
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40b, King James Version).

This seemingly awkward final miscalculation also emphasizes that Everyman has not moved from folt to hero in one small moment of conversion. Everyman is saved, but he has moved only from unsurviving fool to surviving buffoon. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “Now we see in a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13;12, King James Version).

This use of Everyman’s miscalculation to emphasize several biblically-based parts of its import shows again that, far from being a primitive piece of drama or a heavy-handed propagandizing diatribe, Everyman is a carefully crafted work of art. Without belaboring the theological point, the play manages to assert that the destined survival of the human race does not depend on perfect knowledge or understanding any more than it depends on socially acceptable values or personal resources.

At his death, Everyman remains a human and thus fallible buffoon. He is a sympathetic figure nevertheless because, despite his miscalculations, he has found the key to life, and he has found that life to be eternal.

 Even from such a cursory analysis of the plotted pattern, it should be clear that supposed crudities in the plot—Everyman’s knowing he has nothing to stall Death with and his going, nevertheless, to ask help from Fellowship, Kindred, and the others; Everyman’s miscalculations even after conversion—are in fact successful attempts to pattern the play in accordance with a biblical view of the world. Three other aspects of the comedic pattern of Everyman should be emphasized.

First, comedy, even in Everyman, works best if it is not the story of a single individual. It may make sense to talk about a main character or protagonist in Everyman, but the comedy creates other characters to play off against the lead role, and the comedic message depends on them too. Fellowship, Cousin, Kindred, Goods—all these are, comedically speaking, fools. While they laugh at Everyman, it is they themselves—or, allegorically, those who still bet their lives on them—who are the objects of satire.

Second, from the viewpoint of secular literature, there is something odd—something often called “unliterary” about Everyman, an oddity shared with Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost. It is easy to assume that this oddity derives from the allegorical nature of the work, but such an assumption fails to recognize the tendency of all literature to create characters and situations that stand for more than themselves. Conspicuously, comedy employs stock characters and standard situations that represent entire classes of people and types of experience. As allegories, Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress only enlarge on this tendency.

Nor can the oddity be explained by some claim that, in being didactic, Everyman falls outside normal literary boundaries. Both Everyman and Pilgrim’s Progress could avail themselves of many more chances to be moralistic and didactic than they do. Both choose fictive forms largely to avoid discursive, moralistic statement. And most other works of literature, particularly comedies, have distinct didactic tendencies whether explicit or concealed. To say that Everyman is odd and unliterary for its didacticism simply ignores the didacticism of “M*A*S*H” (which argues that war is silly kid’s stuff), Waiting for Godot (which argues that man is tortured by a meaningless universe) and Twelfth Night (which argues that society continues to meet its challenges only through love and forgiveness).

The real peculiarity of Everyman as a dramatic structure has to do with an odd placement of the turning point. In secular drama, dramatic action generally builds through a series of complications each seeming to lead further and further from any possible resolution. This technique however, is a dramatic illusion. As the plot becomes more involved, the involutions themselves finally create the necessary conditions for a turning point. After the turning point has been reached, the complications work themselves out, creating a resolution. In a well-made play, all this is accomplished skillfully and has some of the neatness of a classic geometrical proof.

As Everyman is let down by Fellowship, Kin, Cousin, and Goods, he seems further from help, even though his disappointments are discoveries that seem to lead him to call on God for salvation and mercy. But then we remember that, from his first interview with Death, Everyman knew that he would be disappointed by these worldly values. That these complications are necessary conditions for Everyman’s conversion or that he learns anything from them is questionable. Furthermore, the timing of Everyman’s turning to his Good Deeds and thence to Confession seems arbitrary. He might have turned at any point, and he seems almost deliberately obtuse in not turning sooner. The geometrical pattern isn’t there.

In fact, as has already been suggested, Everyman’s prayer of repentance at Confession is not the true turning point. That turning point comes when Everyman, confronted by Death, calls out to God for help, barely one hundred fifty lines into the play. All the rest, all the disappointments, then, are not really complications. Rather, they are part of the very slow denouement, which takes better than 80 percent of the play. What can be the comedic point of such odd structuring?

Once we have asked the question properly, assuming that there is significance for import in this odd structure, the answer is fairly obvious in biblical sources. We must remember that the comedy of individual conversion or salvation is based upon the Gospel comedy of the life of Christ. The turning point of any comedy of conversion is the point at which human beings stop trying to achieve sufficiency and survival on their own and throw themselves instead upon God’s mercy. After such a turning point, eternal life lies ahead and thus, a theoretically infinite denouement. But the victory, eternal, has already been won long ago, even before conversion, at the Cross. As Paul states it in Colossians:

 

And when you were dead in your transgressions and uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When he had disarmed the rulers and authorities. He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. [Col. 2:13-15]

 

The repeated past tenses and past participles, even the pluperfect, suggest how completely the victory of salvation occurs prior to acceptance of it. With the victory already won at the Cross, all that is left for Everyman to do is to recognize his need for God’s mercy, to ask for it, and then to receive it. Complications continue, but the resolution is already underway.

If Everyman were to have a more normal dramatic structure, a later turning point, it would suggest a necessary chain of events leading to Everyman’s acceptance of God’s mercy at a particular moment in time, after a particular series of complications, failures, and redirections. But Everyman has no desire to assert such survival. It asserts instead that eternal survival is always at hand—“Today is the day of salvation”—because the victory has already been won. Men and women need only to accept the payment already made for us and the victory already won.

In short, Everyman seems odd not because it fails to do what drama does but because it makes the odd—(from a secular perspective)—assertion which Christianity has always made about comedic survival through acceptance of Christ. The Latin Easter hymn states the point more simply than either Colossians or Everyman:

 

The strife is o’er, the battle done,

The victory of life is won;

The song of triumph is begun,

Alleluia!


 

[i] All quotes from Everyman are taken from Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, edited by A. C. Cawley (New York: Dutton, 1959).

     

 

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