Everyman is one of the most famous and best known examples of a medieval morality play (see ‘The Morality Play’). It is, in the words of Arnold Williams, “the morality play best known and most widely performed in modern times”. Modern scholars are fairly sure that the play we know in English is in fact a translation of the Dutch play Elckerlijc, which was published in 1495. A scholar called Dr. Logeman has argued that the writer of Elckerlijc is Petrus Dorlandus, and that has been accepted by some scholars. We know nothing about the person who translated the play into the English version we study today.
In many ways, it is a play startlingly different from our own ideas of drama – perhaps even more remote from us in terms of construction, tone and genre than Shakespeare or (strangely) the Ancient Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Setting aside Everyman himself – and that itself is debatable – the characters are one-dimensional allegorical figures rather than representations of real people, the plot is made clear in the opening speech, and there are no twists or unexpected turns! Yet the Everyman has been a hugely influential text in terms of English drama; Christopher Marlowe, for example, is clearly influenced by the medieval morality play in his Dr. Faustus, which contains parades of personified sins and a dialogue between Faustus’ good and evil angels. The moral of Marlowe’s play – the futility of worldly goods and riches, and the value of faithful Christian observance – also has much in common with morality plays such as Everyman.
We have no record at all of Everyman being performed in the medieval period. This has led to speculation by some scholars about whether it was ever meant to be performed at all. David Miller, in particular, notes that the original Dutch play might have been “intended for private reading, not for theatrical performance. Some support may be given to this view by the description of it as a “treatyse … in maner of a morall playe” in the heading to Skot's edition.” “Treatise” is a word more usually used of a written document which thinks about and discusses a particular, and usually religious, issue.
Yet it is a fact that Everyman addresses the audience and speaks of its ideas being heard rather than read. Noting the popularity in this period of the Miracle cycles, and a little later, of the morality-influenced Dr. Faustus, it seems a little far fetched that the Everyman would not have been performed at all – particularly considering how popular it seems to have been in terms of printing.
There are four early sixteenth-century editions of Everyman that have survived to the modern day: two complete printings by John Skot (likely a medieval spelling of Scott) which bear the title Here begynneth a treatyse how the hye fader of heuen sendeth dethe to somon euery creature to come and gyue a counte of theyr lyues in this Worlde, and is in maner of a morall playe (The sumonyg of eueryman) and two texts which contain only fragments of the original work.
These four texts all date from the same period, somewhere between 1509 and 1531. Clearly, then, there was demand for Everyman from readers of the period; though whether this means that it was performed (and people wanted to buy a copy of the script) or whether it was just an incredibly popular text to read is, like so much else written about Everyman, intelligent guesswork rather than serious, evidenced proposal.
Historically, Everyman was thought of only as an interesting historical document, rather than a play with relevance and interest solely of itself. It seems to have largely disappeared during the Jacobethan period, and only emerges when reprinted in Thomas Hawkins's The Origin of the English Drama in 1773. Even then, it is important to note that it is anthologized only because of its historical, rather than its dramatic, interest.
It was not until 1901 that the revolutionary theatre director and scholar William Poel produced what may have been one of the first ever performances of Everyman in Canterbury. Poel, the forefather of simple text-focused stagings of classical plays, restored the play’s reputation, and following where he had led, another production followed in 1902, which was reviewed by the Manchester Guardian, which praised the production’s ‘‘amazing ingenuity, judgment and care''. Many critics were surprised to notice that the play had real gravitas and solemnity – and was not merely a piece with some historical interest: it could touch an audience in the modern day. A production in New York followed in 1903. Notably, in all three of these productions, a woman played the part of Everyman.
Everyman is now often performed and widely studied in the disciplines of English Literature and drama.