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Mischief and Mercy–the Morality Play “Mankind”

The contemporary Evangelical finds Everyman to be a fairly accessible read for several reasons, not the least of which are its late Medieval date and its clear allegorical presentation. This accessibility has left Everyman as the most read morality play, but it is hardly the only example of the genre or the most typical. Probably the next most read morality play is Mankind, which has been put forward by no less an authority than David Bevington as perhaps the oldest extant text for a professional troupe.

The rather pedantic Everyman has a great deal to recommend it: solid structure, diverse characters, and a genuine plot conflict. These virtues, however, do not make the play all that entertaining. The simple reality that one understands whether looking at a Hieronymous Bosch painting such as the “Last Judgment.” As appealing as the idea of eternal bliss in the presence of God might be, when portrayed through any medium available to the human artist, it comes off looking rather dull. By the same token, the various characters whom Everyman attempts to recruit to accompany him into death wind up seeming a lot more fun than the protagonist.

Whoever wrote Mankind, probably more of an entrepreneur than a cleric, sought to cash in on the fact that sin, when portrayed through human arts, is typically more engaging than virtue. The play revolves around a series of negative portrayals of various human sins as taking place within the general conflict between Mercy and Mischief, each of whom seeks to win the soul of Mankind to his eternal side. After opening with a rather tedious span of piety by Mercy, the character of Mischief makes his first appearance, mocking Mercy. (Quotations are taken from a modern English adaptation available through Rick McDonald at Utah Valley University.)

I beseech you heartily to leave your flattering, leave your chaff, leave your corn, leave your silliness.  Your wit is little but your head is big. You are full of predication. But sir I pray answer this one question.  Mish-mash, driff-draff some was corn and some was chaff, some was corn and some was crap Unshut your lock and take a halfpenny.

One can easily imagine the clowning that would accompany this speech as well as the reaction that the crowd would likely give. As the play proceeds, three clowns, New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought, draw the audience and Mankind into complicity in a series of general sin categories. In each section, the three “N” brothers launch into a series of humorous assaults bawdy enough that Joseph Quincy Adams’ early twentieth-century edition of the play excised many lines with footnotes condemning them as unprintable. Soon after the unprintable bits, Mercy will often appear to condemn their folly.

The dramatists, it seems, seek to have things both ways. They want to enjoy the benefits of titillating the audience with their coarse humor at the same time that they gain the social approval that comes from condemning it.  This, perhaps more than the collection that Bevington cites, reveals the professional character of the troupe who put Mankind on the stage.

In the end, Mankind the character and Mankind the play reach the same sort of feel-good conclusion as Everyman. Mercy’s concluding speech, delivered after Mankind has been swept off to heaven, typifies the good vibrations:

Worshipful masters I have done my intention.  Mankind is delivered by the graciousness of the Father.  God preserve him from all wicked men.  And send him the grace to resist his sensual desires. Now, for His Love who redeemed mankind search your consciences for faults.  Think and remember that this world is but vanity which is proved daily by its constant changing.  Mankind is wretched, he has proven this.  Therefore pray that God grant his sweet mercy that you may one day be play-fellows with the angels above  and receive your portion of eternal life.

Yet even in that closing, we see the exploitation of the script. The very “sensual desires” from which Mercy prays us deliverance have been used as fodder for crowd-pleasing humor. Some critics attempt to ascribe very sophisticated psychological efforts to this playwright as he makes the viewer complicit with the characters. Instead, I would suggest that he’s simply cashing in on the baser desires of his audience.

Posted in English Literature, Medieval.

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