Mankind is one of the most famous and best known examples of a medieval morality play (see ‘The Morality Play’). It is, like many others of the same type, anonymous, and we know very little about the playwright, though the play itself seems to point that he or she knew well the area around East Anglia.
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. In most medieval moralities, 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 Mankind is perhaps the bawdiest and liveliest of the surviving moralities, and – compared to other plays like Everyman – is theatrically far more vivid and accessible to a modern audience. G.A. Lester comments that “there can be few plays as daringly racy as Mankind, as wildly disrespectful, as resourceful in involving the audience, and yet as committed to a serious and consistent moral end”. The playwright is also immensely skilled at marrying crowd-pleasing comic antics with serious religious lessons.
The influence of the morality plays on English drama has also oft been commented upon, and the battle between good and evil for the soul of the play’s protagonist (a perfectly serviceable description of Mankind) is played out in, for example, Marlowe’s 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 Mankind.
We have a surviving manuscript of Mankind which dates from the second half of the fifteenth century, but a precise date for the play’s composition can be guessed more accurately with recourse to evidence found in the play itself. There are many references to money which help us to date the play: the three vices ask for “royals”, for example, when collecting money for the appearance of Titivillus, which were coins first issued in about 1464. The play’s mention of “Pope Pocket” (l.143-4) have also been read (see Lester) as a reference to John Pocket who was the prior of an Abbey in Cambridge, a locality with which the play already has likely links. There is also the reference to “King Edward the Nought”, which has been interpreted as pointing to the period when Edward IV fled the country in 1470 only to return to the throne in 1471. As G.A. Lester sagely points out, for Mankind, “1464-71 is as precise a date as one can safely assume”.
Mankind does not really have a detailed stage history: until the 1970s, it was condemned by critics as being corrupt, lewd, rude and basically unperformable. There are no records of major productions, though critics have come to see the virtues of the play and to understand its structural and thematic unity. Hopefully theatrical producers will eventually follow suit and give students the chance to see this fantastically lively and intelligent play in the flesh.