The title page of Everyman announces the play as a “treatise” of “how the High Father of Heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world”, as well as informing the reader that this treatise is “in manner of a moral play”.
The first two characters to enter are God, “in a high place” on the stage or performance space, and a Messenger, who delivers a prologue. The Messenger’s prologue asks the audience to give their attention and listen to the “matter” (the content) of this “moral play”. The Messenger then announces the purpose of the play:
That of our lives and ending shows
How transitory we be all day. (l.5-6)
The play will show us our lives as well as our deaths (“our ending”) and how we humans are always (“all day”) transitory: changing from one state into another. Clearly, from the very beginning, the play is clear that it is to be a play about the human experience, as well as one with an absolute focus on morals.
The Messenger continues to tell the audience that, though sin initially might seem sweet, it will cause “the soul to weep” eventually, when you are dead and the body “lieth in clay”. He also informs us that Fellowship, Jollity, Strength, Pleasure and Beauty will fade away from us “as flower in May”.
God speaks next, and he immediately launches into a criticism of the way that “all creatures” are “unkind” to him (“unkind”, in this context, means “undutiful” – not serving God properly). People are living without “dread” (fear) in the world without any thought of heaven or hell, or the judgment that will eventually come to them. “In worldly riches is all their mind”, God says. People are not mindful of God’s law, or his prohibition of the seven deadly sins (and, God reminds us, they are “damnable” – they send you to hell).
“Every man liveth so after his own pleasure,
And yet of their life they be nothing sure” (l.40-1)
Everyone is living purely for their own pleasure, God tells the audience, but yet they are not at all secure in their lives (“nothing sure” ). God sees everything decaying , and getting worse “fro year to year” (from year to year) and so has decided to have a “reckoning of every man’s person”. This “reckoning” is a counting up, an audit, of people’s souls. Are they guilty or are they godly – should they be going to heaven or hell?
God, disappointed in humankind, calls in Death, his “mighty messenger”. Death says that he will travel throughout the world and “cruelly outsearch both great and small”. He is going to “beset” (perhaps meaning "attack" or "deal with") every man who “liveth beastly” (lives in a beastly way). People who love wealth and worldly goods will be struck by Death’s dart and will be sent to dwell in hell eternally – unless, that is, “Alms be his good friend”. “Alms” means “good deeds”, and it is an important clue even at this stage that good deeds can save a sinner from eternal damnation.
God exits, and Death sees Everyman walking along. The text specifies that Everyman is “finely dressed”. Death approaches Everyman, touches him with his dart, and asks him where he is going, and whether he has forgotten his “maker” (the one who made him). Everyman asks Death who he is, but Death replies that he is sent to Everyman by God. Death then tells Everyman that he must take a long journey upon him, and bring with him his “book of count” (his account book as per God’s “reckoning”, above) which contains his good and bad deeds. Everyman must begin his journey towards death.
Everyman says that he is unready to make such a reckoning, and it is then that Death reveals to Everyman who he really is. Everyman is horrified: “O Death”, he says, “thou comest when I had thee least in mind”. Everyman then offers to give Death “a thousand pound” if he will postpone this whole matter “till another day”. Death, though, says that he places no value on gold, silver or riches, and asks Everyman to come with him.
Everyman pleads with Death: his book of reckoning, he says, is not ready. He begs for “God’s mercy”, and asks Death to spare him until he has a way of sorting it out. If, he says, he can have just twelve years, he can make his book of reckoning “so clear” that he would have no “need to fear”. Death refuses.
Everyman then asks Death whether he will have any company to go on the journey from life into death. Death tells him he could have company, if anyone was brave enough to go along with him. Death then asks Everyman if he believes that his life and his “worldly goods” are given to him. When Everyman says he thought they were, Death tells him that they were only “lent” to him. Everyman cannot take things with him once he has died. After refusing once more to grant Everyman more time, Death exits.
Reading the Everyman can be a strange experience for a modern reader: it is entirely different to our own modern notions of what theater and drama should be. To begin with, where we might expect a play to gradually unravel its plot and any moral purpose it might have, the Everyman states it before we have even met a character. Printed on the title page is the purpose of the play, so the reader can be in no doubt; and in performance, the first thing that happens is the Messenger’s entrance, who begins by telling the audience that this will be a “moral play” about our “lives and ending”.
The Everyman is also an emphatically Christian play, which exists to promote the Christian ideology and religion. It assumes a good knowledge of Catholic doctrine and of the Christian faith – and its original audience would probably have had this knowledge. Their experience, therefore, of the play would have been very different to our own. The church in the medieval period was a seat of political as well as religious power, and fear of the devil, sin and hell would have been culturally commonplace. It seems likely that the message of the play would have struck some fear into the hearts of its original audience in a way it no longer does today. The play also announces its own moral ambition: to teach its audience how to behave and how not to behave in the eyes of God in order to attain salvation.
There is, however, no record of Everyman being performed in the medieval period at all, and, bearing in mind we know so little about the play, we have very little information about how, in what conditions, or where it might have been originally performed.
The play immediately foregrounds its purpose, and introduces a key theme: ‘how transitory we be all day’. The transience of man’s life – how short lived we are – is a central theme of Everyman: focusing our minds not on the soon-finished concerns of our worldly life, but the eternal afterlife which will follow. There is also no dramatic tension established: the Messenger tells us that Fellowship, Jollity, Strength, Pleasure and Beauty will all fade from us “as flower in May” – in other words, all these things, which in the world are considered valuable, are transitory and will merely fade away when you die. You can’t take them with you. The ending of the play, then, is announced at the very beginning – there is no mystery about whether or not Everyman’s so-called friends will desert him.
Thus, the Messenger’s opening speech also begins the play’s concern with beginnings and endings: the play shows of our “ending” as well as our “lives”, and warns us “in the beginning” to “take good heed to the ending”. So at the beginning of the play, we are invited to think about the end; just as, as the Messenger continues to explain, sin seems fantastic “in the beginning”, but “in the end” causes the soul to weep. There is a natural rhythm, then, in the play – and a recurring theme – of the relationship between beginning and ending: and the importance of planning ahead, of thinking about where the end point might be, of considering the consequences of any particular action.
It is fascinating to a modern audience that God begins by expressing his disappointment in a superficial world, obsessed with worldly riches and renown and not paying enough (if any) respect to the spiritual things of real worth: a charge that could be levelled at our own modern world as much as the world in c.1500 when the play was originally written. Everyman – whose name provides us with the clue that he represents all of mankind: every man – is clearly no exception to this rule. He clearly cares about expensive, fine clothing (he is “finely dressed” upon entering) and, when he wants Death to postpone his day of reckoning, his immediate recourse is to money, offering Death a thousand pounds as a bribe.
Ron Tanner, writing in the Philological Quarterly, has shown very persuasively that there is humour in Everyman, paying particularly interesting attention to Everyman’s negotiation with Death:
What makes the exchange between Death and Everyman humorous is Everyman's attempts at negotiation. First he asks for an extension of time, then he tries to bribe Death… it is ridiculous to attempt such bargains. This is the end, after all. “Now, gentle Death,” says Everyman, still hoping to slip away, “spare me till tomorrow.” The humor here is that Death is anything but gentle or noble: one has only to imagine the ghastly figure of death looming over the now flattering Everyman to appreciate the irony. Everyman's words are doubly ironic since his request for respite has dwindled from twelve years to only one day.
What Tanner’s comments particularly illuminate is the unusual tone of Everyman, which is one of its most interesting features. Is this scene intended as straightforwardly hilarious? Clearly not, for even Tanner sees the darkness in the presence of Death himself “looming over… Everyman”. Yet Tanner’s emphasis on the humor in the play is persuasive, and remind us that, if indeed Everyman was performed, it is possible that it could serve at once as both entertainment and moral education. As any student of Chaucer will know, it is perfectly possible to combine drama and comedy, seriousness and lightness in the same text.