by Lillian Bills, dramaturg
This interview was conducted on March 4, 2021 by Lillian Bills, dramaturg for BYU’s productions of Everyone, a new adaptation of the medieval play Everyman. Dr. Joseph Parry is a professor of Comparative Arts and Letters at Brigham Young University. Watch the video, or read the transcript below. And join us for Everyone, live streaming March 11-13, 2021.
Lillian Bills: We’re talking about the original Everyman. The first publication, that we have in English, is around 1510. And that was right when King Henry the Eighth gets onto the throne. There’s a lot of things that are happening. And I was wondering if you could set a scene of medieval life for us, what was it? What would it have been like?
Dr. Joseph Parry: Great. Well, the first thing to say is 1510 is pretty late. We might call the middle ages in some ways. In fact, even though the play looks backward to a medieval tradition.
1510 is the beginning of what we call the early modern period. And by early modern, we really do mean we start to see the outlines of a world that looks more like ours than it did in the past. I mean, England is making ready to become a colonial empire or starting the first moves for that. And so the Columbus stuff and the things that Spain and Portugal are trying to do. And so,
society is a lot more stable at this point in the late middle ages coming into this period, the rise of nation-States that are more stable within themselves, even though they fight each other, they beat up on each other. We have more alliances being formed between European nation-states. We have a much better economic situation than we did before. There’s more trade, with it increased gradually of technologies like shipping and all of that. That’s allowed some kind of treaties to become a bigger deal that way. And then we’ve had the Renaissance in Italy. And the influence of that is starting to be felt as well. And, and nobody needs to feel like the rise of the Renaissance is in any way sort of a turning away from God by no means.
I mean, in many ways the immediate effect of Renaissance humanism is just to sort of expanding the Canon to include classical works, but by no means necessarily, you know, get rid of any of the kind of Christian sources we’ve used. Education is still very scholastic, and that is a kind of, sort of asking questions that you can answer on two sides and you through debate show your ability to reason with authorities and to reason logically. That’s the education system. So, people get prepared both for church service and for civic service. Civil service is learning how to how to make arguments, how to read texts, and make arguments very similar to what we might find in a kind of humanities class or in a law school that sort of rhetorical education is kind of a big deal in a law school.
But the first stirrings of a kind of humanist education. Where it’s not just about arguing finer, theoretical points, starting to turn to, uh, this sort of literature for insights into the human condition and looking at a more expansive sense of the authorities that can tell you stuff about that. But you’re right to point out that with Henry VIII on the throne, we’ve been through the reign of Henry VII.
And that was a way of getting past a very long and sometimes very contentious world within England. So we’ve kind of settled some questions about who should be on the throne, but it’s not completely settled. The Tudors still have to kind of make a case that they’re the right family to be in charge of things. And so even though Elizabeth, they have to do things to kind of make sure everybody’s okay with them. They can’t just order everybody about and do whatever is they want to. they can within their own families like Henry the Eighth. So anyway, there’s a sense of the world is starting to change on us a little bit, but as you know, better than I do as a drama person that, we’re still very much in a kind of late medieval phase with this sort of dramas.
And so, you know, there there’s a much more established kind of employment system with guilds. People belong to each other a little better. I mean, but they were still not traveling from village to village. People live very much isolated within their immediate spheres. And so they have a lot to do with their neighbors.
They have a lot to do with members of their guilds. And so there are still, you know, the fact that the play is very interested in fellowship. Right? You’ve got people that you would have known all of your lives and you’ve got people that you do work with. You find yourself attracted to friends in your workspaces and… So, so no the social relations are still, you know, small-town except for places like London, but even then neighborhoods, right? The sort of sections of London that people don’t travel very far outside of it would have had a little more of a kind of neighborhood feel. Um, other questions that my little lecture there brought up to you?
LB: I think this is a good spot to talk about… I can talk about theater. Well, what was done during this age was very much very Christian. You would have festivals every year in your town. And each Guild will have a play that was based on a Bible story that they would put on. It was liturgical drama and it’s because they were very fascinated with God and Christianity was such a big part of their lives.
LB: That’s it, you know, it was in every kind of aspect almost, I would say. And so what’s really interesting about Everyman, is it starting to come with a little bit more originality in the tales? It’s a morality play, right? And so instead of the mystery plays with the era before–they were the Bible stories that the guild will put on– the morality plays are ones that we’re taking those Christian concepts and those ideas, and we’re talking about, well, how do you live your life in order to prepare to meet God?
And so that’s what Everyman is. You’re going to die. What kind of relationships and things can you do in your life that, what can you take with you and what will God approve of? And thinking about that, right.
JP: Right. Absolutely. In fact, one of the really interesting dimensions to this play is that it gives us a really accurate portrayal of the Catholic church at the time, at the moment that the forces are formatting for the reformation.
And everybody knows about Luther and the kind of things that set Luther off. And the fun thing is that in Everyman, those things are actually right. You know, the fact that there are clerks looking for people to buy off, um, um, you know, sins and things like that. And they’re actually criticized in Everyman.
But the other thing, the fact that the heavy emphasis on works. Right, even to the point that you have the image of the accounting notebook, a ledger, I mean, the middle-ages invent double-column accounting. Right? And so the fact that that image makes its way into the, into the play and that it is a sort of accounting, even that sense of debits and credits. What’s the balance?
And so that heavy emphasis on works is really interesting. And you can see why therefore Luther comes along and says, “Okay, wait a minute, wait a minute. All this stuff about works. I mean, sure, there’s talk about grace, but it’s still so much emphasizing what you do, what you need to do.” And, and that rings true for a BYU audience.
But for the Protestant audience, it’s going to hit Europe in a big way. It hit England in a big way. It’s sort of, it’s wandering from the place that grace should play. And so that’s one of the most interesting things for me about Everyman and has been, is that even though again, it’s sort of medieval, it’s a picture of that kind of late medieval Christianity that has dug its heels in over works and the importance of what you are responsible for, what you need to be doing to be a good Christian.
And that’s all going to become a real big bone of contention in the religious conflicts for the rest of that century and beyond.
LB: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting to me that Everyman before he accepts that he has to die, he goes to the church to repent. And he has to confess his sins to the priest. And then he self-flagellates and wears the hair shirt.
JP: Right. Again, we take, it sort of takes that side of, of Catholic Christianity. That’s not always been there. I mean, it’s there and then that sort of monastic life, and that’s what makes you feel like a monastic figure actually wrote this, or at least the tradition that these kinds of plays come from, even though they’re put off and things like that, but that’s clerical authorship.
And so you do have had that sort of higher road to Christianity, right? The complete self-denial. The fact that you have to mortify the flesh in order to operate the spirit, that’s a really big deal in that play. Um, and yeah, the emphasis on the priesthood of authority, again, that’s going to become part of the bone of contention with Protestantism and with the reformation, with Luther in particular, Luther’s gonna preach the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
If you’re a believer, if you have faith, you’re a member of the priesthood that Peter is talking about in that scripture, rather than “no, there’s a priesthood. They wear the right clothes. They’re in the church. You submit yourself to the priesthood, to the physical building of the church and the confessional.”
And the fact that that power is what separates, right? I mean, I realize, you know, that particular scene is separate from the way that Good Deeds is liberated from his bonds or her bonds in the case of your play, but at the same time, it’s still that sense that we’re culminating in a church authority that actually can confer all of those things.
The emphasis on the seven sacraments, right? That’s the church, you know, it’s sort of the, you know, the covenant path that we’re talking about in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I mean the seven sacraments of the covenant path, for them and that they figure so prominently as well as also just the fact of the kind of fundamental hostility almost between the body and the spirit. The body wants all the awful stuff. Right? I mean, you have to, you meet the sort of different aspects of embodied existence. There’s sort of like, well now I’ll go with you. If we can go to a place where we, there are some girls we can have some fun with and, uh, you know, it’s sorta like, you know, there’s no subtlety.
There’s no subtlety about sins there. It’s sort of like, no, the flesh desires, wealth, the desires, the lusts of the flesh. So you have is this painting in broad contrast between what the body wants and what the spirit should want. And, um, and, and again, that, you know, you can appreciate the spiritual intensity, the need for faith, the doctrine of all that stuff.
But yeah, it’s a little hard on us as mortal beings that, you know, we are who we are. And, the process of coming closer to God is a matter of a kind of lifelong refinement. This (in Everyman) isn’t lifelong refinement. This is if this has to happen at the end of your life. So be it, it’s better if it happens early in your life. And it’d be an intense, all-consuming experience and you’re going to come out of it in a profoundly different person.
LB: Yeah. I really liked what you were talking about with the flesh versus the soul. And you’ll see that in both versions. Well, especially in Everyman, because Everyman he’s like, “all right, I have to show God something that I did with my life. um, I’ll see if my friend can come with me. I’ll see if my family can come with me. I’ll see. Oh, I know riches will come with me and they’ll show God how great I am.”
JP: Right. Oh, no, it is. It’s fun. And even, you know, the fact that you did that first round of people, that won’t go, but then you get the round of people that will go right. The five wits, the five senses. And you’re sort of interested. “Wow. Wow. The five senses of the body are going, this is really revolutionary” and they all have to peel off as well, because again, the, you know, ourselves as embodied beings are just antithetical. And of course, that’s the issue here, right? The nature of God that God is just– and again, I don’t mean to say that Christianity, traditional Christianity is a negative theology– but it has a lot to do with not me. God is not me and He’s not embodied. And so, He’s a spirit. He is eminently rational. He’s, you know, a hard bargainer. At the same time “we did the atonement. We did the huge act of love. We made it possible. Now, buddy, it’s up to you. You’re the one that’s gotta, you know, put out, do the works. Repent. Become this different person, deny the flesh and liberate your spirit.” Because even though, you know, theologians have a doctrine of a bodily resurrection, they read their New Testament you know.
The sort of rough and ready kind of popular theology is a little more about kind of body versus spirit. We’re going to be spiritual beings in the presence of God, free of all the things that we come to know are fundamental to our bodily existence. The need to eat, you know, and, and also even Everyman’s desire for, for friendship, for fellowship, for somebody to do these things with. I mean that really kind of reaches out to you at an emotional level.
You’re right. I don’t want to take a journey like this by myself and I don’t want to do life by myself. I need deep relationships. I need intimate relationships, but again, that’s sort of the vision of religion that’s put here is that yeah, that all may be well and good. And you might even enjoy that up to the moment of your death, but at some point, you stand before your judge.
It’s not even, God as maker in this play, right? It’s God as judge.
LB: Yeah. And God is really, really interesting in Everyman as well, because He’s a very stark contrast to the Latter Day Saint version of God.
LB: He’s very, very upset. He’s mad. He’s angry. He wants to kill Everyone because they’re not listening to him. It’s very much more of a biblical God. And I was wondering what thoughts you had about that.
JP: I’m happy to speak to that because some ways this represents a problem in the Middle Ages. We’re actually aware of this problem as have been other writers. Another writer that’s extremely aware of this problem is John Milton, who writes a couple of centuries later, actually going to create a kind of Father and a Son figure. But be still a Trinitarian himself. But yeah, the Father sounds really, really harsh. He’s the language of justice. The Son is the language of mercy. And so He’s got our backs. And so in some ways that’s sort of the problem that the playwright and the play therefore wrestles with is, how do you represent God?
You know, in his full truth, when in some ways our relationship with him is ultimately going to be one of accounting, one in which the full truth has to obtain, even though this is an LDS phrase that comes from the Book of Mormon, you know, the idea that God can’t tolerate sin with the least degree of allowance.
That’s an idea, that’s very Medieval Catholic. But the good news is that even though the God of Everyman seems to be this language of justice and this language of “why haven’t you figured this out already, what’s wrong with you? We did the atonement, we’ve got a church that’s preaching the doctrine and you’re just ignoring it,” in some ways, the purpose of Christianity from a sort of medieval perspective. And maybe just generally is that you talk about the law and you talk about it even in harsh terms, but you do it in order to drive home the point that you need the atonement. You need Christ. That without Christ. That’s exactly what we would get.
We would get a God who would just say, “sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.” So, even though the play comes across as harsh that way, and it’s not an attractive sense of God, you know, I think you can trust the audience to know that it’s a way of reinforcing what I even think the Middle Ages was more familiar with more comfortable with even was that as Paul says, the law kills.
That spirit gives life. And that, of course, the law confronts you as the Old Testament, in particular, confronts you with what you can’t do on your own. You can’t keep the commandments. What kind of God gives you commandments that you can’t keep? Well, people watching the drama, aren’t going to get into the abstruse, uh, theology about that kind of thing.
But they have been preached to about the fact that they need to come to terms with the fact that they should try to keep the commandments. But they’re not going to be able to do it. And so what they need to do is repent, repent, repent, and that’s why the Catholic church has all of these rituals set up: regular confession, regular partaking of communion in the mass weekly, or even more than weekly church attendance.
We built churches to handle the whole group and we have little church, little chapels off to the side where individuals can pray. And so, you know, the whole architecture physically, as well as, uh, more organizationally and theologically is, this is the gospel of repentance we’re talking about here. You need here, how harsh God would be if there weren’t at the time.
And so, I mean, that’s sort of my answer to the contrast between this judgmental God, and you know, my buddy Jesus, that we sometimes are kind of, we kind of go in our own church because sometimes, you know. I love the idea of a loving, merciful Savior, but you know, we’re studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year. That’s not my buddy Jesus. Right. It’s “I’m sorry, Joseph. You weren’t perfect. And so you have to repent again and you’re no better than anybody else.” So–
LB: Yeah. I mean, that’s part of what Everyman is also about. It’s like, no one is perfect.
JP: Right. Which is kind of nice with the way you titled it. Right? Everyone. I mean, on the one hand, everyone sounds like everyone shows up before God, but the play is all about just one, but at the same time, your title just sort of makes everybody, especially people who know the play kind of, think that, well, it’s not every man. It’s not every woman. It’s every one. Yeah. There’s a little bit of a difference, but it’s a productive difference. I think I like it.
LB: It is. And in part of it, it’s just the way that our language has evolved, you know?
LB: And how we’ve evolved as a society and how we’re using English. Beforehand, everyman would have been, you know, everyone is implied, but for us, um, everyone feels so much more inclusive, right?
Which is one of our big things is we want everyone to see themselves, in the story, regardless of how specific it is. Even though we have an all-women cast, everyone should be able to see themselves in it.
JP: And then what you’re doing with having an all-women cast, I mean, that’s just, yes, because that’s just a way of saying let’s be forceful about this. Let’s just really drive home the point that it’s everyone. I mean, you could imagine starting to stage this kind of play regularly. In one year, it’s all women. One year, it’s all Hispanics. You know, for good and ill reinforcing some of the racial distinctions we make and there would be problems with that.
I understand that, but, I just appreciate the way you’re asking people to just kind of getting us out of our little ruts. Sort of think about what it really means that all of us have to show up in front of God. So yeah.
LB: Yeah thank you. With the last couple minutes that we have, what do you take away, from the original play Everyman? What do you think is… what is special or important about it to you? What, what do you learn from it?
JP: I appreciate the place honesty in a Christian vein. It’s just honest. Yeah, it doesn’t give me room to wiggle out of anything. Now I confess that I’m a Catholic fan, a medieval Catholic fan.
One problem is a disembodied God, this sort of hostility to the body. That’s always a problem for me. And so, you know, I, I never love that kind of idea. But given what I think the play is ultimately trying to think about, I just appreciate that kind of honest confrontation, the way it makes you experience what it would be like to confront that essential life purpose. Having to account for what you’ve done and who you’ve become, and that the play literally figures the possibility of change. And so, it’s in the face of that honesty, the honesty, the certainty of death, the death represents judgment. That change is absolutely requisite. So, I just love the honesty about those kinds of things that, that doesn’t let me get away with my partial changes, my reluctances, my resistances, and my laziness, and all the rest of that stuff. So that’s what I take away from it. A very intense, powerful experience with what Christianity is ultimately about.
LB: Yeah. And I think for even our non-Christian viewers, that they’re going to see something that’s going to make them think–because there is one thing that is certain, which is that we’re going to die. And so whether or not you believe that you’re going to be judged by, an eternal being, a God, or you’re going to be judged by the people who are still living, there’s this idea of you want to do the best that you can in your life. And that requires change.
JP: Yeah. I mean, again, we start early with a friend and that friend is happy to be a friend if you go do “bad things” we’ll call it. Yeah. And the fact that no, you–I love what you just said–that there will be a way in which you’re judged, because if people remember you after you’re dead and, and whether it’s people that don’t believe in an afterlife or some other kind of conception of an afterlife, you’re going to be remembered by your friends.
And if all you’re remembered by as a good gambling partner, a good sex partner or something like that. That it’s…no you want to be remembered as somebody who did good deeds, who did have the capacity to change for the better. Absolutely. That’s the legacy. Every all of us would want.
LB: Well, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
JP: It’s been a pleasure.
LB: Yeah. Do you have anything you want to plug?
JP: I want people to get away from thinking of the middle ages as the dark ages. I see that the middle ages are thinking very hard about very, very essential questions that matter to us. And then they do it with a lot of honesty, but there’s a lot of beauty. There’s a lot of interest in human beings, just being human beings. You know, their medieval plays can be done with a lot of comedy and things. And so it’s not like everybody walked around as Everyman does towards the end of the play, you know?
It’s a great world to inhabit, not to just sort of mystify it with myths of everybody’s all religious and they’re all that different from us. I just hope that people will come away from what you’re staging, as I’ve said, I want to look a little closer at the middle ages. I want to see what they have to say to me. And not just think of it as a different time when everybody was religious and thought differently than me or they weren’t a whole bunch of knights running around saving, you know, fighting dragons and stuff like that, that it was a time of real people.
LB: Beautiful. Well, thank you so much. And I hope you have a wonderful day.
JP: Okay. Thanks.