DURING THE holiday season, Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago offered a welcome antidote to the sentimental, Dickensian fare generally staged at that time of year, and a more fitting choice for the penitential Advent season: a production of the morality play Everyman. In making the choice, Steppenwolf reached into a time with concerns somewhat similar to our own. In the late 14th century, when the English version of Everyman was first presented, the skirmishes of the Hundred Years War were still going on. Moreover, England was beset by a severe economic depression stemming from shifts in the economy, and the plague was raging.
There was also a strong spirituality in popular culture. Among the byproducts of the interplay between religious and secular thought, and between Christian and pagan traditions, were the morality plays. These religious dramas were performed in the vernacular outside the confines of the institutional church. They drew on traditions of folklore, street preaching, popular music and commedia dell 'arte. While the mystery cycles told the biblical story of salvation, morality plays were self-contained allegories, presenting the conflict of good and evil in the battle for the soul, or, in the case of Everyman, the journey of the soul to final judgment. Our culture too seems fascinated by the interplay between spiritual and secular, as angels become pop icons and the church absorbs the style of the market. Of course, death--and what follows--is on our minds, and the journey of Everyman can be as cathartic for us as it was for medieval audiences.
The plot of the play is simple. God orders Death to summon Everyman for his reckoning. Shocked and frightened to find himself facing Death, Everyman pleads for time to find someone to accompany him to his judgment hour. Death consents but warns him "to make [himself] ready shortly for the day/that no man living may scape away."
Everyman seeks out as companions what he cared about most in life-fellowship, family (in the form of Cousin and Kindred) and Goods; each refuses to go with him. Strength, Beauty, the Five Wits and Discretion also forsake Everyman before he reaches the grave. Knowledge accompanies him to the grave, but only Good Deeds is able to go with him all the way. (Good Deeds initially is too weak to walk but becomes stronger after Everyman encounters Confession and does penance.
Steppenwolf ensemble member Frank Galati has made a career out of his ability to create drama from other literary art forms. His work includes a Tony-award-winning adaptation of Grapes of Wrath and an Oscar-nominated screenplay (with Lawrence Kasdan) of The Accidental Tourist. In this instance he used the text of Everyman as written, but in adapting it for a contemporary audience with modern stagecraft and images he reconceived the play in an urban, industrial setting. The stage was left open to the back wall of the warehouse-like theater. Actors, dressed primarily in sneakers, jeans and T-shirts, looked like they could have stepped off the streets of Chicago's trendy North Side. The initial dance sequence, in which Everyman was selected by Death, was as raw and sexual as any MTV video, and when Fellowship appeared he stepped out of a pickup basketball game.
Galati stressed the randomness and unexpectedness of Death. The role of Everyman was played by an actor chosen by lottery at the start of each performance; most of the cast members were young and athletic, so it was easy to believe they had given no thought to Death before she made her entrance. Galati also sought to stress Death's universality: the four actors playing Everyman were Hispanic, black, East Indian and white--three men and one woman. The full cast, which also included an Asian actress, was fairly evenly balanced ethnically and between women and men.
Unfortunately, the visual emphasis such casting fosters was shallow. The cast looked like a Benetton ad--all races, lithe and young, but bland. …