- The Summoning of Everyman
The morality play The Summoning of Everyman (1485) gains its perennial power by focusing on the moment when we are forced to see our lives under the aspect of eternity. Faced with his imminent death, its protagonist learns that for all the years he has spent on earth, he has embraced faulty values, and that he must now, with the fact of death before him, reshuffle his worldly assumptions in order to thrive in his new spiritual economy. As the only human being in the play, the protagonist—like many a Greek tragic hero—comes to learn the meaning of his life in its closing hours.
Because morality plays are allegorical, it is tempting to perform them broadly and rhetorically, but it would be an error to do so. The character Fellowship, for example, symbolizes the transience and limitations of human friendship, but he is also a person, a literal friend who is understandably unwilling to die prematurely merely because his boon companion must. Those elements have to be kept in balance. Everyman, on the other hand, is more concretely human. Though an abstraction himself—a representative human, prosperous, gregarious, attractive—he is a mortal and will not live on. Everyman must come across as a living person, like us. It is a great virtue of Douglas Morse’s sturdy, accessible, and emotionally effective film that the leading role is played by Paul Barry, a [End Page 45] seasoned performer who lets us track the path of this ordinary man stunned by disorienting news, assimilating much information and adjusting quickly to his altered circumstances as best he can. The uncluttered mise-en-scene (the film was shot mostly at Fort Tryon Park in New York, home of The Cloisters) allows us to focus on Everyman’s search for companions to accompany him on his fatal journey. By making the play’s characters fully human the production better realizes the protagonist’s symbolic dilemma.
The film establishes several physical locations for the action of Everyman, all of them ready-made. (An art director is credited for the film, but not a set designer.) God inhabits a cathedral, next to which is The World (a holiday location—“the New York Renaissance Faire,” according to the credits) where maypole dancing, jousting, and belly-dancing represent the daily round of human activities. There, Everyman makes a sexual liaison with a sensuous belly-dancer (the very taking Bina Bora). It is on a park trail (in New York’s Fort Tryon Park) that Death apprehends Everyman, who then wanders other trails and roadways in search of companions for his voyage. Between his disillusioning encounters, Everyman visits various holy sites to ponder his situation: chapels, altars, and (at one point) a museum exhibit of holy artifacts. The play ends in a cemetery containing the grave into which he must descend.
The film does not update the play in costume and setting but instead fully respects its ecclesiastical foundations. God is an Englishman in bishop’s garb, while Death (an intimidating Seth Duerr) wears the robes of a monk. When Death puts his mark upon Everyman, it is a bruise on his chest, a reminder that he has been marked for the grave. Fellowship (a jovial George McGrath), to whom Everyman first turns, is truly fond of his pal: they wrestle affectionately and swap frat signs and gestures. Fellowship will fight...