Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Weapons of Conversion: Mankind and Medieval Stage Properties

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Weapons of Conversion: Mankind and Medieval Stage Properties

Article excerpt

In the final scene of the medieval morality play Mankind, the character Mercy employs a dramatic piece of stage violence in order to insure Mankind's repentance and salvation. Having promised the audience that he will proceed forth and do his "propyrte" (765), (1) Mercy interrupts the four vices of the play--Nought, New Guise, Nowadays and Mischief--just as they are teaching the sinful Mankind how to hang himself by the neck in his despair. In an act of direct physical intervention, Mercy rushes into the acting space, threatening the villains with a brandished weapon:

MYSCHEFF: How, Mankynde! Cumm and speke wyth Mercy, he is here fast by.

MANKYNDE: A roppe, a rope, a rope! I am not worthy.

MYSCHEFF: Anon, anon, anon! I haue yt here redy, Wyth a tre also bat I haue gett. Hold pe tre, Nowadays, Nought! Take hede and be wyse!

NEU GYSE: Lo, Mankynde! do as I do; pis ys pi new gyse. Gyff pe rope just to py neke; pis ys myn avyse.

MYSCHEFF: Helpe pisylff, Nought! Lo, Mercy ys here! He skaryth ws wyth a bales; we may no lengere tary.

NEU GYSE: Qweke, qweke, qweke! Alass, my thrott! I beschrew you, mary! A, Mercy, Crystys coppyde curse go wyth you, and Sent Dauy! Alass, my wesant! Ye were sumwhat to nere.

(799-10, my emphasis)

Mischief's unwitting but dramatically and theologically accurate assertion that Mercy "is here fast by" reminds us of the importance of presence and absence in the early morality plays. When medieval allegory is dramatized, a character's proximity to the other characters and set pieces can be used to reinforce levels of meaning. Blocking can provide a level of visual signification beyond those established verbally, and allegorical relationships may be introduced and developed through staging as well as through dialogue. (2) But in this particular scene, physicality moves beyond mere presence, absence, and relative distance, and Mercy forces his person upon the vices through an act of physical violence. Mankind--occasionally an allegory of location (3)--here becomes an allegory of action.

At this point in the play Mercy initiates the traditional role of the force of moral conversion, rescuing Mankind from a state of sin and despair. He ultimately proves himself a personification of a divine mercy: unsolicited, aggressively and autonomously driving away Mankind's sins. (4) For his actions here to have full allegorical as well as physical expression, it is important not only to make sure that the actor playing Mercy uses appropriate gesture and blocking, but also to ensure that his weapon--the bales mentioned by Mischief in the passage above (807)--is properly represented. Too many modern productions pay too little attention to costuming, stage settings, and stage properties in the medieval and early modern allegorical drama, and non-verbal levels of meaning can be either underdeveloped or else completely obliterated.

Earlier in the play, we see Mankind using a spade to enact the planting of his crops. When the vices taunt him in an effort to keep him from his labor, he uses his spade to drive them away (327-400). In an article, Stephen May rightly asserts that Mankind represents more than just a common farmer or field laborer, despite his agricultural accoutrement. His spade is symbolic rather than realistic. The spade, in fact, provides an iconographic link to the original Fallen Man, to Adam: "Mankind is (as his name suggests) an ideal representative of Fallen Man in general, not a real representative of a particular social class." (5) A misunderstanding of the significance of a stage property (such as the spade) in an allegorical drama can lead to a vital misunderstanding of the play's iconography and allegorical framework, and to accurately represent the bales in the final movement of action, we must understand exactly what property was intended. Mercy's bales can be, in fact, a weapon of lucid spiritual and allegorical signification. …

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