Context of the Everyman Drama

Power and Dissatisfaction

With the creation of the “Holy Roman Empire” under Charlemagne in 800, the Catholic church became the most powerful political institution in Europe: control over Land, Wealth, & Afterlife by combining the western Roman Empire, Germania, Boehemia, and Frankish Kingdom. However, the Catholic church had very little effect on daily life of the “common man” except for taxes and war (crusades). This became a problem as the "common man" began to grow in strength through, both in numbers and wealth. The Fourth Lateran Council (13th century: 1245) introduced regularized worship and religious practices in order to connect with the people. Examples of this are prayers--Apostle’s creed; Pater Nostre; Ave Maria--that now must be memorized in Latin, though almost no one spoke or read Latin.

Early printed edition of Everyman late 15th century

These introductions, however, did little to increase individual spirituality: Latin in church (Foreign Language); memorized phrases; unfamiliar rituals (communion/baptism). Ironically, the Ars Moriendi (preparing one’s soul to die) was the most common religious practice throughout the Middle Ages given the life expectancy was 32 years old. The nearness of death, however, meant that the church had power over the after life: 100 years war (1337-1453), plague, famine, and lack of hygiene. A growing dissatisfaction with the church crossed estate divides and effected both nobles and commoners alike: indulgences, priest corruption, power located in Rome, church impotence in relation to Plague, War.

Even though there was a growing dissatisfaction with the church, the common man lacked tools for protest even thought they began questioning the relevance of Church doctrine. The first formal protest appeared through John Wycliff in the late 14th century. He was the founder of Lollardy (mumbler, uneducated follower). Jan Huss followed in Prague in 1420. By the 15th century, the French church had declared itself independent of papal authority (1438).


In addition to dissatisfaction, the church also had to deal with the issue of relevance: Guilds were allowing the common man to rise in power through wealth. The afterlife, which is very appealing in times of trouble, becomes less important when life becomes more bearable. In order to increase membership, the Catholic church encouraged guilds to participate in religious worship (thus educate followers) to mollify the discontented. The miracle plays and morality plays were staged by guilds as a chance to be publicly known and demonstrate their new found wealth and moral virtue. The church used guilds to educate the population and require participation.

Genre & Form of the Everyman drama

  • Drama (visible action) to an audience (vs. imagined narrative of an oral story): Aristotle’s poetics was not available in Europe until the 16th century.

  • Dialectical performance: Both challenging and reinforcing Church Authority.

  • Audience shifts from nobility to common men (think of romance for nobility).

  • Morality Play: imitate proper social behavior. Usually took place in the Church (church yard) or in the Town square.

  • Mystery Play: Cyclical performances by the church about a holy saints or Biblical story.

  • Characters: Frame: God, Messenger (Death), Everyman, Allegories, Doctor.

  • Plot (Action): Death has arrived: One has to prepare to die. How does one do this? Very basic action structure based on dialogue.

  • Modern character types: Round, Flat, Stock, Static, Dynamic. Do these character types fit?

Public performance


  • Performed by a troupe of actors (often guildsmen), probably outdoors with rudimentary costumes and scenery.

  • A mass audience of people from all the estates.

  • No longer in the court of a castle performed to nobility.

  • Church liturgy was in Latin and thus inaccessible to the commoners/ Romances were often in French. These plays were specifically made for an English common audience.

  • Everyman has no ACT or SCENE divisions: not yet a reintroduction of classical drama techniques from Greek theater. What is the standard act division of a classical drama (Plot structure) (Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement). Does everyman have this? Give an example.

Structure of Drama


(1-185) Intro to characters and conflict

(185-520) Everyman loses his companions

(520- 750) Everyman's penance

(750-886) Digression on the priesthood and bodily progress toward death

(886-900) Everyman and Good Deeds Descend into the Grave

(900-920) Doctor recounts the Moral