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Groupe de recherches du Centre de Recherches Anglophones, EA 370
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

Everyman et le théâtre médiéval

Richard Hillman

Gained in Translation: Theatrical and Theological Transformation in the Englishing of Everyman


Texte intégral

1It has become common critical practice to contrast Everyman with its Dutch original Elckerlicj on several well-defined points of significance for doctrine and dramaturgy. These include the specific naming of Good Deeds (the Dutch makes her more generally Duecht ["Virtue"]), the sex of Confession (feminine in Elckerlijc), the listing of the sacraments (the English rectifies the omission of Penance from the list of seven). Instead of returning to these prominent issues, this paper will concentrate on a number of less conspicuous details, especially linguistic choices, which, when taken together, enable a coherent, if succinct, revaluation of the translator's approach. Such an examination confirms, in fact, that "translation", even in the broad sense required by the late medieval context, is an inadequate description of his role. My conclusion will be that the Dutch text has been profoundly, if often unobtrusively, transformed through its Englishing in ways that reveal at once theological sophistication and an impressive sensitivity to dramatic possibilities – in sum, a theatrically oriented literary sensibility.

2That the English adapter – that term seems as good as any for his role as I perceive it – had the theatre in mind is supported by a variety of local touches. As an example, let me single out one particularly deft change which, unlike the others I will be mentioning, can have had no other rationale: the management of the re-entry of Everyman (772) after receiving communion and extreme unction off-stage.1 The time of his absence has been passed, of course, by the famous discussion of priesthood and unworthy priests, which is concluded in Elckerlijc when Vijf Sinnen (Five Wits) declares the subject closed: "Laet dit wesen nied meer vermaen [Let's not talk about this anymore]" (725). Duecht then remarks, simply, "Elckerlijc coemt [Everyman comes]" (726). Evidently, the adapter saw a technical opportunity here – or perceived a technical need – to dynamise the action, for he presents Five Wits' injunction to silence as a response to his glimpse of Everyman – "Peas, for yender I se Everyman cume" (769) –  whereupon Good Deeds confirms, "Me thynketh it is he indede" (771).

3More structurally telling, as well a support to the didactic impact, is the apparent addition of the Messenger to open the play. So Peter Happé, for one, has pointed out in a recent essay, adding this feature to the other points of divergence from the Dutch mentioned above; Happé draws attention to the language of performance in the Messenger's speech ("se" [17], "here" [19, 21]).2 Conceivably, the adapter might have been working from a lost variant of the Dutch play in which the Messenger was included, but such a caveat seems overscrupulous, given the addition elsewhere of performance markers characteristic of the contemporary English drama. Certainly, the Messenger's mediation of the spectacle, combining a call for attention with insistence on the lesson to be gleaned, seems to presume the same broad public indicated for, say, The Castle of Perseverance and Mankind, not to mention the Cycle pageants.

4That the adapter had in mind the type of theatrical experience he knew at first-hand makes an obvious enough generalisation, but the implications can be quite specific. Such is the case with the key speech of God, which anchors the entire play. Here comparison with the original shows the adapter to have drawn his material in the direction of English Cycle-play models, so as to foreground, as they often do, the concept of the divinity as Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. This is recurrently, of course, the language of Revelation (1:8, 11, 17; 2: 8; 22:13), which the Cycles regularly adapt for pageants of the Creation, thereby signalling the position of God at – and as – the beginning and the end of the created universe, while vividly displaying the mystery of the Trinity. Everyman, in effect, overlays this dimension on the Dutch version, and supports it by further developing the speaker's subtle oscillation between God the Father and God the Son. An English audience could have been counted on to recognize the dramatic dynamic and to register its theological import.

5The motif of the Judgement Day is not notable in Elckerlijc, but the adapter has added two explicit allusions to it – fittingly, as part of the concluding moral lesson. The angel who welcomes Elckerlijc's soul into heaven merely issues a bland assurance that heaven is accessible equally to all (853-54); in Everyman the promise is attached to an admonition and a condition, as, after all, better matches the moral: "Unto the whiche all ye shall cume / That lyveth well before the Day of Dome" (900-1). This warning is then seconded by the "Doctor" – again, the term is drawn from English dramatic tradition, the Dutch counterpart being neutrally identified as "Die Naeprologhe [The Epilogue]" – who adds the point that "If his rekenynge be not clere whan he do cume, / God wyll saye, "Ite maledicti in ignem eternum" (914-15). The citation (of Matthew 25:41) is calculated to echo the Judgement plays, where it invariably figures in the formal sentence passed by the Doomsday Christ. The result, as A. C. Cawley puts it, is that "the theme of the particular judgment of Everyman merges into the general judgment of all mankind, when the soul and body are reunited".3Everyman hardly confines itself, then, to the moment of their separation.

6What may usefully be added – or at least emphasised, since the basic resemblance has been observed4 – is that God's opening speech initiates this merging by likewise echoing the Judgement plays. Amongst the surviving texts, the closest parallel is to the initial self-presentation of God in the York version. To bring out the point requires quoting at some length:

Firste when I this worlde hadde wroght –
Woode and wynde and wateris wan,
And all-kynne thyng that nowe is oght-
Fulle wele methoght that I did thanne.
Whenne thei were made, goode me thame thoght;
Sethen to my liknes made I man
And man to greue me gaffe he noght,
Therfore me rewis that I the worlde began.

To lange and late methoghte it goode
To catche thois caitiffis oute of care.
I sente my sone with full blithe moode
Till erthe, to salue thame of thare sare.
For rewthe of thame he reste on roode
And boughte thame with his body bare;
For thame he shedde his harte-bloode-
What kyndinesse myght I do thame mare?

Sethen haue thei founde me full of mercye,
Full of grace and forgiffenesse,
And thei als wrecchis, wittirly,
Has ledde ther liffe in lithirnesse.
Ofte haue thei greued me greuously,
Thus haue thei quitte me my kyndinesse;
Therfore no lenger, sekirlye,
Thole will I thare wikkidnesse.
Men seis the worlde but vanité,
Yoitt will no manne beware therby;
Ilke a day ther mirroure may thei se,
Yoitt thynke thei noyot that thei schall dye.
All that euere I saide schulde be
Is nowe fulfillid thurgh prophicie,
Therfore nowe is it tyme to me
To make endyng of mannes folie.
I haue tholed mankynde many a yoere
In luste and likyng for to lende,
And vnethis fynde I ferre or nere
A man that will his misse amende.
In erthe I see butte synnes seere.5

7The progression of God's thought obviously cleaves closely to that of his counterpart in Everyman. So does his conclusion, all the more clearly so because he now summons, if not Death as his "myghty messengere" (63) – an expression not present in the Dutch text, by the way – certainly the original divine messengers, and commands them to confront, if not "Everyman", at least "Ilke a creatoure" (cf. "Elckerlijc"):

The tyme is comen I will make ende.
Aungellis, blawes youre bemys belyue,
Ilke a creatoure for to call….6

8Conversely, in Everyman the sounding of the Doomsday trumpet is assimilated to Death's message by the protagonist, when he complains of his desertion by Beauty, Strength and Discretion: "For whan Deth bloweth his blaste, / They all renne from me full fast" (843-44). This image, too, is original with the adapter; Elckerlijc says flatly, "als coemt de Doot [when death approaches]" (798).   

9God's use of the term "creatoure" in the York Judgement is far from casual – "Ilke a creatoure" is echoed by the Second Angel, as well as by Christ in the act of judgement7 – and it points to the essential way in which the adapter of Elckerlijc has produced a recapitulation of God as Alpha so as to imply, in the sending of Death, his intervention as Omega. The first lines of the Dutch and the English are quite different in this respect:

Ick sie boven uut mijnen throne
Dat all dat is int smenschen persone
Leeft uut vresen, onbekent.

[I see from my throne above/that all that is of human kind/lives without fear of God, ignorant.] (1-3)

I perceyve here in my majestye
How all creatures be to me unkynde
Lyvynge without drede in worldely prosperytye. (22-24)

10While the Dutch does no more than situate God spatially,"majestye" (reiterated by Death – "From God out of his majesytyé" [91], where the Dutch merely has "Van Gode uut des Hemels pleyn [by God from Heaven's plain" [75]) announces the glorious posture and attributes conventional in pictorial representation and regularly associated with the godhead in the Cycles. Next comes the interpolated term "creatures", encoded, for medieval spectators and readers, with the entire sense of humanity's obligation to its Creator. In the context, the complaint that men are "unkynde" takes on the sense of "unnatural", offending against nature as an expression and reflection of the divine thought and so as effectively initiating a universal rebellion ("all creatures") against the very principle of Creation. (This implication is absent from the Dutch, so the modern translator's use of "human kind" for "smenschen persone" is regrettably misleading.) Consistent with this is another change towards the end of the speech. Whereas God in Elckerlijc is angry at mankind for not appreciating his blessings – "Hoe menich goet ic hem vry heb verlent [How many goods have I freely lent them]" (40) – the root of the offending ingratitude in Everyman, as regularly in the Cycle plays, goes as deep as the spurning of life itself, "theyr beynge that I them have lente" (56-57).

11The adapter's typological enriching of his text is not limited to the Last Judgement paradigm. He effectively adds another symbolic layer by supplying a metaphor for the sinful state of mankind that is not in the original: "the people", in his rendering of God's complaint, are not merely "blynde" but "Drowned in synne" (26). Surely, for those attuned to the Cycles and their underlying theology, the effect would be to activate a resonance with the Noah pageants, in which God typically resolves to punish with death by drowning the ungrateful rebels against his creative beneficence. Thus the Wakefield deity complains in very similar terms about "Euery man":

Syn I haue maide all thyng that is liffand,
Duke, emperour, and kyng, with myne awne hand,
For to haue thare likyng bi see and by sand,
Euery man to my bydytng shuld be bowand
Full feruent,
That maide man sich a creatoure,
Farest of favoure;
Man must luf me paramoure
By reson, and repent.

Me thoght I shewed man luf when I made him to be
All angels abuf, like to the Trynyté;
And now in grete reprufe full low ligys he,
In erth himself to stuf with syn that displeasse me
Most of all….

I repente full sore that euer maide I man;
Bi me he settys no store, and I am his soferan.
I will distroy therfor both beest, man, and woman:
All shall perish, les and more. That bargan may thay ban
That ill has done.8

12The story of Noah, of course, is a lesson not only in divine justice but in divine mercy, as sealed by the covenant, and it carried particular typological resonance with the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. To evoke it, therefore, is to prepare more thoroughly than is the case in Elckerlijc for God's adoption of the voice and identity of Christ:

My lawe9 that I shewed whan I for them dyed
They forgot clene, and sheddying of my blod so redde.
I hanged bytwene two theves, it cannot be denyed;
To get them lyfe I suffrede to be deed;
I heled theyr fete, with thornes hurt was my heed.
I coulde do no more than I dyde truely,
And now I se the people do clene forsake me. (29-35)

13Such imagery effects a substantial elaboration of the doctrinal point drily made by God in Elckerlijc, who, in the corresponding passage, merely cites the fact that he "hier te voren / Die doot heb geleded doer tsmenschen profijt [heretofore / had suffered death for the profit of man]" (8-9).10 Whether or not Everyman's God actually reveals bloody wounds at this point, clearly implied is an element of theatrical self-display that would add visual impact to the speech. The display of the wounds is reserved, in the York play, for the separate apparence of Christ as Doomsday judge,11 but it is anticipated by God the Father in his opening speech ("Ther schall thei see the woundes fyve / That my sone suffered for them all"12), and his voice at this point modulates, like God's in Everyman, into that of Christ: "Mi blissid childre, as I haue hight, / On my right hande I schall thame see …".13 In turn, as is also the case in Everyman when the hour of "justice" (61) is announced, the pageant's conclusion has the Second Person of the Trinity reverting to the voice of the First, as the Omega of Creation is signed, sealed and delivered:

Nowe is fulfillid all my forthoght,
For endid is all erthely thyng.
All worldly wightis that I haue wroght,
Aftir ther werkis haue nowe wonnyng.14

14Exactly where those deserved dwellings are situated is also made explicit. If the adapter of Elckerlijc elaborated the flat reference to "der enghelen gheschal [the sound of angels]" (844) into a rich evocation of the heavenly choir jubilating over Everyman's blissful ending – "Me thynketh that I here angelles synge / And make great joye and melodye" (891-92) – he might well have expected his audience to remember that, when the ending of all mankind arrives, "Thei that wolde synne and sessid noght, / Of sorowes sere now schall thei syng".15 The formidable symmetry of divine justice will finally be inescapable, and thanks to the Angel's – and the adapter's – qualification ("That lyveth well before the Day of Dome"), the upbeat finale of Everyman's central character is not allowed to obscure the lesson, anymore than happens in the Judgement pageant. There God's closing note is likewise the message that only "thei that mendid thame whils thei moght / Shall belde and bide in my blissing".16 Finally, then, it is theatrical representations of the judging of the quick and the dead (an event which, like the death of the individual, may arrive at any hour) that the adapter of Elckerlijc appears to be counting on to translate the relatively static ars bene moriendi he inherited into a more richly signifying, and dynamic, ars bene vivendi – or else. For where the Dutch play is less strongly minatory, even strangely reticent, about the timeless consequences of failure to clear one's reckoning in time, Everyman minces no words; Elckerlijc's appeal to Virtue, "Ic bid u troost mi tot mijnen orboren, / Oft ic bin eewelijc verloren [I beg you to help me to my advantage, or I will be lost forever]" (462-63) takes on a distinct tinge of terror in the Englishing: "Good Dedes, I praye you helpe me in this nede, / Or els I am forever damned indede" (509-10). It is as if in his own mind, as doubtless in the theatrically conditioned and prompted imaginations of the "creatures" he represents as their mirror, the demons lie doubly in wait – not just around the death-bed, but also just around the eschatological corner.


1 My citations by line numbers of the English text, the Dutch original, and the modern translation of the latter are taken from the invaluable composite volume, Everyman and its Dutch Original Elckerlijc, ed. Clifford Davidson, Martin W. Walsh and Ton J. Broos (Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS by Medieval Institute Publications, 2007).

2 See Peter Happé, "Is Everyman a Morality Play? An Exploration of Genre and Provenance", CD-ROM Everyman, Actes des Journées d'Études les 10-11 octobre 2008, ed. Richard Hillman (Tours: Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, Université François-Rabelais de Tours, CNRS/UMR 6576, 2008), p. 5.

3 A. C. Cawley, ed., Everyman, Old and Middle English Texts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961), p. 38, n. to 915.

4 Cawley, ed., Everyman, p. 29, n. to 29.

5 Play 47, The York Plays, ed. Richard Beadle (London: Arnold, 1982), ll. 1-61.

6 Ibid., ll. 64-66.

7 Ibid., ll. 89, 229.

8 Processus Noe Cum Filiis, The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. A. C. Cawley, Old and Middle English Texts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), ll. 73-95.

9 On the argument for emending "lawe" to "loue", with the support of the Judgement plays and the Wakefield pageant of Noah, see Cawley, ed., Everyman, p. 29, 29n.

10 A subsequent mention, "Daer ic so minlijc om sterf die doot [for this I died the death out of love]" (33), also goes without development.

11 Play 47, ll. 245-52.

12 Ibid., ll. 71-72.

13 Ibid., ll. 75-76.

14 Ibid., ll. 373-76.

15 Ibid., ll. 377-78.

16 Ibid., ll. 379-80.

Pour citer ce document

Richard Hillman, «Gained in Translation: Theatrical and Theological Transformation in the Englishing of Everyman», Quarto [En ligne], Publications, Everyman et le théâtre médiéval, URL :
mis à jour le : 06/11/2013.

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Université de Tours, CESR/CNRS UMR 6576