During the medieval era, plays were often read aloud as part of family and community gatherings, serving as instruments for the theology of Orthodox Catholicism. With the second wave of the bubonic plague pandemic, dramatic literature began to touch more on living and life’s impermanence. The 15th century saw The Somonyng [Summoning] of Everyman, a morality play about sin, repentance, and death. Its message that God presents salvation and religion provides the means to salvation was one with implications for how audiences may have imagined the afterlife. Everyman went on to become the most widely read and frequently produced play written in the English language.
While much of its success can also be attributed to the invention of the printing press, Everyman’s redesigned focus on dialogue over action—and the use of characters to represent social concepts—became a framework for future dramatic explorations. Upon exploring “what’s tricky for a group of live people to watch an actor play someone who dies” for a new play adaptation, U.S. playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins found himself wondering: “What if I just tried to make Everyman for the world today?” THAT is the play you are about to witness unfolding!
Everyman sought to understand how the things we did, should have done, and can do might relate to salvation. As we contemplate life with Everybody in a pandemic of our own, we encounter (what is in some ways) a similar search to appease Death’s riddling ramifications centuries later; who are we dying with and what have we been living for?