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Episodic Structure in Four Tudor Plays: A Virtue of Necessity John W. Yelz A decade ago, David Bevington showed in a major work of imaginative scholarship that the structure of plays “offered for acting” to professional troupes in the Tudor period is directly traceable to the personnel of those troupes.1 He explained the episodic arrangement of the Tudor morality play as a necessity for small professional acting companies forced to make efficient use of actors by doubling roles. The tendency of characters to disappear from the action of Tudor morality plays either perma­ nently or for long periods of acting time reflects, according to his convincing analysis, the repeated costume changes made neces­ sary by this doubling of roles. Bevington’s achievement is to make us see practical causes for effects that once were generally attributed, quasi-mystically, to a putative medieval cast of mind which saw events as disjointed fragments of linear time.* For Bevington the implications extend well beyond morali­ ties and well beyond the fact and cause of episodic structure. He suggests that criticism should look at “the manner in which an indigenous structural heritage was employed and transformed by Marlowe, Greene, Dekker, Shakespeare, and their contempo­ raries” (p. 199). Despite this implicit invitation, it still remains, largely, to explore the aesthetic implications of Bevington’s his­ torical scholarship. One such implication is that though the prescribed structure must control dramatic art it need not defeat it; in the imagination of a highly talented dramatist the necessity of episodic structure could become a thematic virtue. This paper will make such a claim for the unknown author of Everyman, * The sections of this paper treating Everyman, Richard III, and Julius Caesar were read in a different form at the Seventh Conference on Medieval Studies, The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 2, 1972. 87 88 Comparative Drama whose theological theme is in perfect harmony with the structure he had to adopt; for Marlowe, who in Tamburlaine Part I em­ ploys the necessary episodic structure to set up a tension between the hero’s vision of himself and metaphysical reality; and for Shakespeare, who seems in Richard III and Julius Caesar to have made interpretations of his historical materials that are best con­ veyed by the episodic structure of the Tudor dramatic tradition.2 The tradition was still a living one in the 1590’s, of course, since acting companies continued to be smaller than casts. I Everyman has seventeen speaking parts, but fewer than half that many actors could easily mount a production. Only Every­ man appears constantly through the play; most other characters have one brief scene with him and then leave the stage perma­ nently. After the Messenger’s prologue, God opens the play with a complaint against Everyman and an order that Death summon him to an accounting. God is heard no more after this speech, and once the summons is given to Everyman, Death is not heard from again either. Before this nine-hundred-line play is two hundred lines old, two actors (and the Messenger) have been liberated to play new roles. The pattern is systematic through the play: in the first half of the action the externals Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods enter in succession, make protes­ tations to Everyman of their loyalty, but abandon him perma­ nently when they learn that his journey is to the grave; in the second half of the play his own inherent attributes, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits, repeat this process of protes­ tation and desertion almost exactly. It would be both feasible and effective to underline the analogy between the two sets of desertions by having the actors who abandon the hero and the stage in the first 462 lines of the play double as the second set of deserters in the last half. It is in this sort of theatrical and dramatic possibility that the artistic excellence of Everyman lies. The theme of the play is in perfect harmony with its episodic structure—in fact theme and structure are, in this play, synonymous.3 The structure of Everyman, in which characters are separated one by one from the action and from...


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pp. 87-102
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