Trolling the Grim Reaper: a Tale of Two Everymen

A few months ago, I opened Medieval Drama: An Anthology. It was uncomfortably close to my final exams, and I had decided to familiarise myself with Everyman. Everyman is a play from the 1510s, about a hapless dope at the mercy of forces beyond his control, who, after gradually abandoning his normal life, calmly faces the solemn ritual of his own demise. My study, as ever, was semi-autobiographical. Or so I flattered myself.

After that, some stuff happened.

Yesterday, I opened Everyman: a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy. The passage of the aforementioned stuff meant I was now free to read as I saw fit, and in between the cover letters and the CV-polishing, I decided to see if Duffy’s version lived up to the original.

Everyman, for those unfamiliar, is a play about death. But it’s also about some other things, including Catholic doctrine, family dynamics, environmental destruction, and the music of Meghan Trainor. In both versions, it is not interested in beginnings. Only in endings.

But let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Everyman in no way ‘needed’ this adaptation. Dr Liv Robinson has talked about the paratext for Duffy’s 2015 National Theatre production, and its irritating tendency to treat Duffy as somehow ‘rescuing’ the play from its original context. Duffy’s script is indeed impressive, and by mounting such a high profile production she undoubtedly gave the play some much-needed attention. But the original Everyman is an astounding work of art on its own terms. That its own terms are not those of twenty-first century theatre (or of overpriced paperbacks from Faber & Faber) is not the fault of the text itself.

The original Everyman is melancholic atmosphere; Duffy’s is melancholic freak weather. The original is didactic, but its content is curiously benign. Greg Walker points out that, unlike most medieval moralities, Everyman has no vice figures, “nor is there, strictly speaking, any real dramatic tension”. This is not a world of epic conflict, but quiet acceptance and well-meaning abandonment. The play’s most moving moment comes when Everyman simply states:

How sholde I be mery or gladde?

For fayre promyses men to me make,

But whan I have moost nede they me forsake.

I am decyved; that maketh me sadde.

But for all that sadness, the play is full of odd humour (or odd to this modern reader, at least). Such as when Everyman asks:

EVERYMAN: My Cosyn, wyll you not with me go?

COSYN: No, by Our Lady! I have the crampe in my to!

Everyman is a play about accepting death, specifically within a Christian worldview. Everyman must scourge himself (“In the name of the Holy Trynyte,/ My body sore punyshed shall be”), and then seek absolution from a priest who remains offstage. The action is static, austere, funereal, concluding with Everyman simply laying down and dying, still delivering the play’s Message:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,

How they that I loved best do forsake me

Excepte my Good Dedes, that bydeth truly.

It’s an attitude, if not alien to modern sensibilities, at least considerably removed from them. That a recent production of its acceptance of punishment, followed by death, resonated so strongly with the students of Oxford University, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Duffy’s version understandably ditches the sermonising, though she retains a surprising amount of the original plot, and updates the pithy humour of the original. My favourite moment comes when Everyman (or ‘Ev’ to his friends) tries to explain his problems to his sister:

EVERYMAN: I met death.

SISTER: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.

Duffy’s other updates are largely positive. We first meet Everyman drunk at a party, vomiting into a bucket held by a female cleaner, who turns out to be God herself. This adds a pleasing class-consciousness, particularly given Everyman’s portrayal as nouveau riche playboy.

Several of Duffy’s additions are hard to judge on the page; the rapping prologue reads cringily, but could well have been effective on stage. The use of pop music (including ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘All About That Bass’) is similarly difficult to judge without seeing the performance, though the “storm scene” towards the end, cued by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ is pleasingly reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.

The film’s final image feels curiously apt: a young man, exhausted, slumped in a chair. His friends departing. His magic expended. But still the old potential for escape. The right words in the wrong order. That guy is dead now.

Duffy’s main divergence, of course, is the ending. Absent the explicitly Christian worldview, her Everyman achieves peace through more personal, less grandiose means.

He says thank you.

Thank you, thank you,

for the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful, the cool, the crap,

for discord and harmony, rough, smooth,

for the fragrant or foul, the fucking lot of it.

My whole life all I’ve ever wanted

was to be alive; awaken

to the light and air of here.

This is his redemption. Not confession, but confessional. But these are not quite his last words. His final utterance comes in conversation.

DEATH: My work is done,

but let me tell you, son,

I’ve loved the hunt.

EVERYMAN: Can I tell you something?

You’re a cunt.

He then slips gently into that good night. The play’s final image is Death, alone on stage, finally realising the insult:

Help me out here –

did my feckin ears deceive me

or did your man call me a cunt?

This is a total affront.

Where’s the respect?

I’m to pick up my scythe

and exit stage left?

This is Duffy’s answer to Everyman’s dilemma. We cannot outrun death. But we may be able, in a purely rhetorical sense, to get the better of it. To shame, bamboozle, and troll it. The last enemy that shall be DESTROYED is Death.

I’m coming towards the end now. A personal essay is like an English degree; the good ones always know just when to stop.

Listen: I’ve got something to say.

Never mind.

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