Elements of Medieval Morality Plays
Having in mind the time span, one would say that medieval morality plays have nothing in common with XX century modern literature and modern plays. However, this work will try to show the connection through comparative analysis of most popular medieval morality plays Castle of Perseverance (around 1405) and Everyman (around 1485, printed 1529) and three Eugene O'Neill plays The Hairy Ape (1921), Days Without End (1933), and The Iceman Cometh (1939). This work will not only look into the similarities in creation of characters, religious motifs and themes, but it will also explore the differences in structure and approach in presenting the idea and objectives on the stage.
Morality plays, which represented more developed form of early drama 'evolved' from liturgical Latin drama, were performed in the vernacular and were intended for uneducated people who did not understand Latin. As a genre the morality play portrays a fictional world (as opposed to the Biblical world of the liturgical plays) in which the principal character represents humankind or some segment of it. Morality plays are ideologically serious because their themes include general and ethical questions. Very often they criticize extant society and contain elements of satire. In later morality plays there were primitive elements typically found in the early XX century realistic dramas. Some personifications satirized the characteristics of real people, especially character Vice, who are turned into typical representatives of human characters prominent in the local medieval community presenting the play. For example, character ‘Vice’ can be a drunkard, a glutton and a wastrel - representative of animalistic drives in a human. At the same time, Vice can be seductively cheerful and congenial, which are the same characteristics Hickey has in The Iceman Cometh.
The action of a particular morality play derives from those postulates of moral psychology developed over centuries over Biblical exegesis and moral analysis which produced comprehensive schemes of man's life known as the Ages of Man, and which produced as well detailed and subtle analyses of the processes of man's soul. One of the things of crucial importance is to make a distinction between Catholic and Protestant morality plays. In Protestant morality plays there is a pattern of innocence, fall, death, damnation and merciful redemption, while in Catholic morality plays the pattern is innocence (or ignorance), fall and absolution. The terms often used in reference to the Protestant morality plays is 'plays of damnation' and for the Catholic morality plays 'plays of salvation' (Everyman and Company, 8). Moral plays in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England are termed “salvation plays.” Since Eugene O'Neill's family religious background was Catholic and having in mind his exposure to it in the early childhood, the pattern that will be used here for discussion and analysis of his plays would be that of Catholic morality plays.
The original goal of Catholic morality plays was to teach a moral lesson by means of allegorical personifications. Although a moral play may repeat or abridge the generic structure or pattern, its narrative close must demonstrate the efficacy of penance.
The protagonist in morality plays, as described by Donald Gilman, is surrounded by characters that personify the good and bad influences most frequently encountered in life. The central action of the morality play is the moral choice or choices that the hero must make in the face of competing demands, i.e. the obligation to do good versus the temptation to do evil. Essential to the morality world (as opposed to the farce world) is the existence of an external power to reward good and punish evil. Essential also is the hero's knowledge that his behavior has personal consequences beyond his immediate concerns (Everyman and Company, 76).
Even though the concept of morality play – an enacted allegory of the human condition as a spiritual process or pilgrimage – might seem essentially medieval, similar concept (to a certain degree, though) can be found not only in Eugene O'Neill's plays. Very often stage characters face a problem or a situation when they have to choose among two things which are not necessarily good or bad. Sometimes the characters are lost in the world and unable to find their place in it. The process that the human mind goes through prior to making those decisions can be torturous. Medieval morality plays with their educational purpose were overly simplified attempts to represent everyday dilemmas and questions so that even uneducated members of the public can understand them: there is good and bad, black and white, God and Satan. However, real life as human psyche experiences it is more complicated than a battle between two opposites. Once there are developments and changes in a society the battle becomes even more complex. Furthermore, life cannot be observed from just two perspectives. There is no duality in real life. Nothing is black or white. Because of these gray areas the human psyche's inner struggles can have more spiritual and emotional dimensions. Finally, O'Neill himself said in a letter to Malcolm Mollan in December 1921 that he 'loved naked life.'
On the other hand of the playwriting spectrum, Eugene O'Neill was a modern playwright free of many of the restrictions forced by the Catholic church on the writers of the Middle Ages. However, O'Neill was like medieval playwrights in that thematically he was fascinated by the human psyche and its eternal quest to find the answers to life's questions.
In morality plays the battle for the human soul is external and explicitly shown on stage through dialogue occurring between allegorical personifications of virtue and vice. In modern drama exemplified through Eugene O'Neill, the conscious and subconscious replace good and evil and that battle occurs as a battle within the characters themselves. O'Neill employed the use of masks to emphasize a character's inner struggle and also to make a more dramatic effect. The main characters both in morality plays and in O’Neill’s plays are led through life by conflicts and decisions which bring them to an epiphany at which moment they understand their life questions and are ready to accept the consequences. Similarities can be found in some of O'Neill's writings and in morality plays that depict typical representations of human characters and yet are named after the quality that they represent. The same characteristic can be found in some of the Eugene O’Neill's plays to be discussed, when characters are depersonalized.
Besides the battle between virtues and sins, popular theme was a debate between evangelic virtues - Charity, Truth, Peace and Justice – and Death’s claim for a human soul. The example of morality play which encloses all those themes is The Castle of Perseverance which depicts the moral development of the character of Mankind (Humanum Genus) from birth till death. It shows character Mankind's rambling from Good to Evil in this world, Soul’s reprimands to Body for its weaknesses after death, its presence at the last trial when it is asked for mercy, but the austerity too. In actual performances of The Castle of Perseverance, in the afterlife, character of Mankind is played by another actor, and his soul is judged and deemed worthy to join God in perpetual bliss. In the final scene of The Castle of Perseverance, the soul of Mankind was told by God to sit on his right side, which shows that character Mankind has eventually been forgiven and rewarded because he made right choices in his life. His soul can rest in peace after the journey ended.
Before being translated and widely spread and accepted in English speaking world, Everyman first appeared in Dutch language under the title Elckerlijc. This famous morality play was written at the end of XV century and printed in 1529. Its theme is the death of a man and it was written in verse like most morality plays. The moral of Everyman is that Everyman's Good Deeds are the only important thing in his life. Everyman's Good Deeds (character in the play) follow him on his last journey to which Everyman is taken by Death and all his old friends (Beauty, Strength, Goods, etc). Eventually, one after another desert him. Sins were Everyman's faithful friends during his life. However; they betrayed him on his last journey. Everyman, like The Castle of Perseverance, was written to persuade men to live a life of good deeds and morality. This play incorporates and reflects the sacramental teachings of the Catholic Church.
One of the characteristics that is of a particular interest in the Everyman morality play is the order of characters Everyman pleads to accompany him to death – Fellowship, Goods and Knowledge (the sacramental and moral means of salvation). These three could be interpreted as the conditions of 'the human individual in each of the traditional Three Ages of Man. Fellowship represents the sins of the flesh, Goods those of the world, and Knowledge brings in the last Age, that of repentance and death' (English Morality Plays, 112). In that simple allegory there are traces of true pathos and at some points good character development (Fellowship), but this play is interesting mostly because of its theme and not because of its form.
Since morality plays depicted personified abstract and allegorical characters of vices and virtues, they were represented on stage by actors wearing robes of different colors or masks. In Castle of Perseverance and presumably other plays there was a color symbolism (in which the liturgy and rubrics of the Church were so rich): white for mercy, red for righteousness; truth was appareled in 'sad grene', and the spectator saw 'Pes all in blake' (Medieval Mystery Plays, 16).
Although there is not enough extant historic information about staging of medieval morality plays, it is more than obvious that characters playing the roles of vices and virtues were masked. Sometimes characters could be differentiated one from the other by color, sometimes their name would be called out in a dialogue, and yet, sometimes narrator would announce their appearance. Finally, allegorical personification is of itself a form of masking.
As a dramatic allegory, both Everyman and The Castle of Perseverance are morality plays that move around the central image of the 'pilgrimage' or a spiritual journey to be undertaken by Everyman. The protagonist in Everyman serves as a warning to Christians not to ignore the universal predicament – our inevitable and ever approaching mortality. Although the play does not show Everyman's life prior to Death's call, some of his actions show that he was more inclined to vices than to virtues during his life time (e.g. the scene in which he offers 1000 pounds to Death to delay the final day). Although God has rewarded him with 'free will', during the course of his life Everyman misused God given power – by following the more seductive, pleasure oriented advice given by Fellowship, Goods, Strength and Beauty. After Death's appearance, Everyman is terrified. This can be seen in the stage directions describing Everyman while addressing Death: troubled and surprised, visibly shaken, stunned by the impact of sudden realization; in a state of bewilderment; wildly looking about in panic (Medieval Mystery Plays, 200-202). Everyman's fear is depicted as naked terror as he then realizes that all these afore mentioned characters were not his real friends. As a consequence, he feels lost and abandoned.
Donald Gilman gives an interesting explanation and claims that the characters of the dual-protagonist plays are exemplars of human tendencies toward good and evil. The moral conflict is largely externalized in that it is projected onto allegorical personifications representing these two opposing forces. The characters of the single-protagonist plays are less abstractly idealized, since they incorporate both tendencies. Here the moral conflict is largely internalized, though the allegorical personifications play an important role as symbols of an internal strife. In spite of the constraints imposed by the two dramatic structures, there is enough flexibility to allow for wide variations in the portrayal of morality heroes. These variations are not random, however, and one may discern among the shifting styles of morality heroes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a deeper concern with the nature of the human will and an emerging new concept of the human person (Everyman and Company, 76).
Eugene O'Neill portrayed the similar spiritual journeys in his plays. In modern society, with growing industrialization and alienation, the human soul is portrayed as lost without the God and religion. People find themselves in a constant search for something new to believe in. According to sociologists and behavioral sciences scholars, people have a religious instinct. In the end, some of the 'lost' characters make mistakes trying to find a new deity which would comfort them or replace their 'old' God.
For instance, in O'Neill's The Hairy Ape the protagonist realizes that he was totally invisible to some segments of society. Yank is a stoker on a cross-Atlantic ship. He is proud of his job and he lives happily until one day his self-image is shattered. This occurs when the socialite Mildred refers to him as a 'filthy beast.' Because of Mildred's comment, Yank's self-image is destroyed. He seeks to exit the social prison he is in. Like Everyman, he goes from one group to another; he makes stops on his journey from one point to another. He discovers that he no longer belongs to the stokers - those who were his social class and who shared the same identity (like Fellowship in Everyman). During Yank's 'pilgrimage' he discovers that he does not belong on the Fifth Avenue or to the newly unionized 'Industrial Workers of the World'. He is seen in both social worlds not as a person but as an ape. Yank feels helpless because all his efforts to take control of his life remain useless. All his attempts fail.
In a book Medieval Mystery Plays, Morality Plays and Interludes Vincent F. Hopper and Gerald B. Lahey also found parallel between characters depicted in medieval morality plays and characters Eugene O'Neill depicted. They claim that when O'Neill presented his version of the contemporary Everyman seeking to recover from the lost myth of his own significance, he gave us the allegory of The Hairy Ape. The allegorical form is irresistible to those whose purpose is more didactic than dramatic. Like Everyman, these modern allegories are constructed as a succession of episodes or scenes, not as the conventional five-act structure. In all of them, dramatic effect is produced by the progressive disillusionment of the main character, who becomes more baffled and distraught. Contrary to modern pessimism, Everyman is optimistic. Its spiritual triumph over death is so facile that this fact may constitute something of a barrier to modern sympathy. In the modern allegories of Everyman by O'Neill, the hero is rigorously denied any slightest crust of salvation with which to sustain himself (Medieval Mystery Plays, 50).
The inevitability of Death forces Everyman to take his final pilgrimage. In O'Neill's plays, the protagonists want to take their spiritual pilgrimage of their own free will. Because Eugene O'Neill wanted to bring modern elements in his plays, the protagonists are envisioned in a modern way. In The Hairy Ape, Yank is not completely passive or pessimistic, which is a typical reaction of modern characters in modern literature. After Yank's encounter with Mildred, he realized that his illusion of being in harmony with the world disappeared. He launched a quest to validate his identity in society. In a way, his quest has a religious aspect – he wanted to restore peace and comfort. Although he discovered that others do not see him as a human being, he did not fall into despair. He does not accept that as a perception of a fact. He started his 'pilgrimage', or a journey, to find out where he belonged.
At his final stop in the Zoo and a gorilla cage and after talking to the gorilla in its cage, Yank thinks that he has come to the realization that he has found where he belongs. He thinks that he and gorilla are the same. However, in the final scene gorilla kills him. As Yank dies, he calls out Christ's name.
Even though Yank did not call for the Christ for religious reasons as most Christians might do on their death beds and knowing O'Neill and how carefully he chooses words and details, as portrayed by O'Neill Yank seemed reconciled to his destiny. In fact, he embraced it. This is exactly what protagonists in morality plays do. There is no fear of Death. As their journey comes to an end, they are peaceful. The only thing that is different from morality plays is the mockery in Yank's last words. On one hand, his last words can be interpreted as mocking his rejectors because they do not find the same sanctuary as he does. On the other hand, his last words can be interpreted as self-mockery because Yank has discovered that he belongs at last - to the apes. Ironically, Yank's return to Nature, source of human origins, defies the scientific notion of evolution as advancing humanity.
The character of John in Days Without End is another example of Everyman. He starts his pilgrimage after committing adultery. His spiritual journey begins when John Loving's uncle, the priest Mathew Baird arrives to visit John. Here are the reasons:
This is because long before John became a successful businessman, he wrote articles against Christianity in which he tried to prove that no such figure as Christ had ever existed. Loving expressed that he felt that way. Therefore Father Baird and Loving represent two opposite forces in John's life, one Christian, the other anti-Christian. Father Baird represents Christian virtues and wants John to repent and find forgiveness in faith. On the other side, Loving represents John's embittered and self-destructive side which must destroy even the last trace of love and happiness. Father Baird advises John to do exactly what the character from the story John wrote does:
Simultaneously, John is desperate. He loves his wife and does not want her to die and blames himself for the condition she is in. He even says that the dread of Elsa's death haunted him ever since they married. But he also says that he believes in Love, and he thinks that Love is the only thing that can fight death. In the final scene in the church, at the foot of the Cross, John finally reunited with his other self and becomes John Loving. Character Loving dies because he refuses to believe. Father Baird comes in with the news that Elsa will live and John replied:
Again, as with Yank's acceptance of Death there is in Days Without End the example of virtue defeating vice. Only when John starts to believe in Love, is he able to find comfort and overcome his fear of Death. In this final scene John Loving is similar to Lazarus, who also claims that “There is no death!”
There is an interesting story pattern in Days Without End. John is religious and believes in God until his parents die (innocence). After their death, he rejected faith and God and chooses hatred (fall). In the end of the play, he returns to the faith (absolution). The faith he returns to is not Cristian religious faith, but faith in the redeeming power of love. Innocence – fall – absolution is exactly the same pattern that can be found in medieval morality plays.
People need something to believe in. In most of the cases it is religion or some other form of spirituality that gives them hope and helps them to overcome their fears. In Christianity and in many other religions, that hope is life after death. It is often represented as transition from one form of life to another. However, death is something unknown and therefore the fear of it is even bigger.
Larry Slade, in The Iceman Cometh can be seen as an atypical Everyman character, just as The Iceman Cometh can be seen as the 'anti-morality' play. Yet, Larry is the only one who is converted to death by Hickey's preaching. Larry did not find consolation in life. While other characters return back to their life lies and false visions, Larry welcomes death – it will bring him peace.
It was not only O'Neill who used motifs from morality plays. Another playwright of the modernist movement George Bernard Shaw attributes to the medieval Everyman the inspiration for his own creation of Ann Whitefield, the pursuer of John Tanner in the play Man and Superman. Shaw wrote:
Interestingly enough, the Everyman/Mankind character in morality plays is always referred to as a male. A parallel can be found in Eugene O'Neill's plays. His Everyman/Mankind characters in the plays discussed here are males too. If we add to that that most of the Vices and their helpers are male (except Lechery in The Castle of Perseverance) and Virtues are always female.
And indeed, the spectrum of characters Eugene O'Neill portrays includes all sinful souls or humans with all their imperfections. O'Neill's characters consciously or subconsciously, successfully or unsuccessfully struggle with all the temptations life places before them. For the most part they are lost in social conventions. Many fall and get absolution, not from a formal church, but they either reconcile with the approach of death or they find comfort in Hope or Love. O'Neill's characters almost never find comfort in Faith.
 Morality plays are sermones corporei, embodied sermons aimed without equivocation or evasion at the moral betterment of their audiences. Their roots lay in the sermons of the medieval preachers, and while they turn during the sixteenth century toward secular issues, they do so with a strong religious bias. Thus success for a morality play is always some form of salvation, religious for the early plays, sectarian, political or broadly social for the later plays. (English Morality Plays, vii)
 I love life. I always have. If, for the superficial, I have appeared not to, it is only because they cannot understand diffident folk who don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. But I don't love life because it's pretty. Prettiness is clothes-deep. I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty for me even in its ugliness. In fact, I deny ugliness entirely, for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation. I like human beings as individuals – (as any kind of crowd from Rotary Club to a nation they are detestable) – but whether I like them or not, I can always understand and not judge them. I have tried to keep my work free from all moral attitudinizing. To me there are no good people or bad people but just people. The same with deeds. Good and Evil are stupidities, as misleading and outworn fetishes as Brutus Jones' silver bullet. (Selected Letters, 160)
 The large pattern is clearly illustrated in The Castle of Perseverance, where the whole course of man's moral life is delineated, his youthful inclination towards worldly pleasure and toward sin, his return to virtue in maturity, his lapse back into sin with the coming of age, and finally his salvation. Almost every morality play follows this pattern or a recognizable variation of it, for the pattern itself conforms to the natural shape of an admonitory sermon. “If you do things of this sort, this is what will happen to you, but you can avoid that fate by behaving in these ways.” (English Morality Plays, vii-viii)
 Yank, the main character, is a stoker on a cross-Atlantic ship and like the other stokers, physically resembles the Neanderthal. Stokers are described in stage directions as 'hairy chested, with long arms of enormous strength and low, receding eyebrows above his small, fierce, resentful eyes' (O'Neill, The Hairy Ape, 207). Nothing bothers Yank and nothing makes him worried, until one day Mildred ruins the image he has of himself. Mildred is a girl from the upper class, dressed in white and of a delicate complexion. Mildred is a complete opposite of everything Yank represents. She is terrified of him and tells him that he was a filthy beast. The fear that he saw in her eyes has destroyed the ideal that he had about himself. Yank starts to look for the exit from the prison he suddenly found himself in. All his attempts for people to notice him in the streets were useless and he ended up in a cage with an ape in the zoo, becoming one with his ape-mask.
 YANK: He got me, aw right. I'm trou. Even him didn't tink I belonged. (Then, with sudden passionate despair) Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in? (Checking himself as suddenly) Aw, what de hell! No squawkin', see! No quittin', get me? Croak wit your boots on! (He grabs hold of the bars of the cage and hauls himself painfully to his feet – looks around him bewilderedly – forces a mocking laugh) In de cage, huh? (In the strident tones of a circus barker) Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at de one and only – (His voice weakening) one and original – Hairy Ape from the wilds of – (He slips in a heap on the floor and dies. The monkeys set up a chattering, whimpering wail. And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.) CURTAIN (O'Neill, The Hairy Ape, 254)
 In Lazarus Laughed, number symbolism and allegorical personifications are more than worth mentioning. Inside the house, on the men's side, seven male Guests are grouped by the door, watching LAZARUS with frightened awe, talking hesitantly in low whispers. The Chorus of Old Men, seven in number, is drawn up in a crescent, in the far corner, right, facing LAZARUS. (All of these people are masked in accordance with the following scheme: There are seven periods of life shown: Boyhood (or Girlhood), Youth, Young Manhood (or Womanhood), Manhood (or Womanhood), Middle Age, Maturity and Old Age; and each of these periods is represented by seven different masks of general types of characters as follows: The Simple, Ignorant; The Happy, Eager; The Self-Tortured, Introspective; the Proud, Self-Reliant; the Servile, Hypocritical; the Revengeful, Cruel; the Sorrowful, Resigned. Thus in each crowd [...] there are forty-nine different combinations of period and type. Each type has a distinct, predominant color for its costumes which varies in kind, according to its period. The masks of the Chorus of Old Men are double the size of the others. They are all seven in the Sorrowful, Resigned type of Old Age (O'Neill, Lazarus Laughed, 273-274).
 Throughout the play we find out what their roles are: Harry Hope is a popular local politician even though he hasn't ventured outside the bar in twenty years; Jimmy Tomorrow is a former journalist; Willie Oban is a brilliant lawyer; Joe Mott is owner of a gambling house; Rocky is a bartender, not a pimp; Larry Slade is a wizened philosopher; Piet Wetjoen and Cecil Lewis are Boer War heroes; Ed Mosher is a circus man, and Pat McGloin is a police lieutenant. That illusion is broken when their friend the salesman Theodore Hickman - Hickey appears in the bar on Harry’s birthday, sober and serious. Hickey thinks that he has finally found peace having faced the truth about himself, a secret that he keeps for himself and yet convinces them that they need to have the same experience – he wants them to take their masks off and look deep into themselves. Everybody except the former philosopher anarchist Larry believes Hickey.
Bogard, Travis and Bryer, Jackson R.. eds. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, New York: Limelight Editions, 1994.
Gilman, Donald ed. Everyman and Company – Essays on the Theme and Structure of the European Modern Play, New York: AMS Press, 1989.
Hopper, Vincent F. and Lahey, Gerald B., eds. Medieval Mystery Plays, Morality Plays and Interludes, New York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1962.
O'Neill, Eugene. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, New York: Random House, 1955.
Pollard, Alfred W., ed. English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes: Specimens of Pre-Elizabethan Drama, Oxford: Oxford University press, 1961.
Schell, Edgar T. and Shuchter, J. D. eds. English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1969.
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