A little later than the Miracle and Mystery plays came another sort of play called the Moralities. In these, instead of representing real people, the actors represented thoughts, feelings and deeds, good and bad. Truth, for instance, would be shown as a beautiful lady; Lying as an ugly old man, and so on. These plays were meant to teach just as the Miracles were meant to teach. But instead of teaching the Bible stories, they were made to show men the ugliness of sin and the beauty of goodness. When we go to the theater now we only think of being amused, and it is strange to remember that all acting was at first meant to teach.
The very first of our Moralities seems to have been a play of the Lord's Prayer. It was acted in the reign of Edward III or some time after 1327. But that has long been lost, and we know nothing of it but its name. There are several other Moralities, however, which have come down to us of a later date, the earliest being of the fifteenth century, and of them perhaps the most interesting is Everyman.
But we cannot claim Everyman altogether as English literature, for it is translated from, or at least founded upon, a Dutch play. Yet it is the best of all the Moralities which have come down to us, and may have been translated into English about 1480. In its own time it must have been thought well of, or no one would have troubled to translate it. But, however popular it was long ago, for hundreds of years it had lain almost forgotten, unread except by a very few, and never acted at all, until some one drew it from its dark hiding-place and once more put it upon the stage. Since then, during the last few years, it has been acted often. And as, happily, the actors have tried to perform it in the simple fashion in which it must have been done long ago, we can get from it a very good idea of the plays which pleased our forefathers. On the title-page of Everyman we read: "Here beginneth a treatise how the high Father of heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come to give a count of their lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play." So in the play we learn how Death comes to Everyman and bids him follow him.
But Everyman is gay and young. He loves life, he has many friends, the world to him is beautiful, he cannot leave it. So he prays Death to let him stay, offers him gold and riches if he will but put off the matter until another day.
But Death is stern. "Thee availeth not to cry, weep and pray," he says, "but haste thee lightly that thou wert gone the journey."
Then seeing that go he must, Everyman thinks that at least he
will have company on the journey. So he turns to his friends.
But, alas, none will go with him. One by one they leave him.
Then Everyman cries in
"O to whom shall I make my moan
For to go with me in that heavy journey?
First Fellowship said he would with me gone;
His words were very pleasant and gay,
But afterward he left me alone.
Then spake I to my kinsmen all in despair,
And also they gave me words fair;
They lacked no fair speaking,
But all forsake me in the ending."
So at last Everyman turns him to his Good Deeds—his Good Deeds, whom he had almost forgotten and who lies bound and in prison by reason of his sins. And Good Deeds consents to go with him on the dread journey. With him come others, too, among them Knowledge and Strength. But at the last these, too, turn back. Only Good Deeds is true, only Good Deeds stands by him to the end with comforting words. And so the play ends; the body of Everyman is laid in the grave, but we know that his soul goes home to God.
This play is meant to picture the life of every man or woman, and to show how unhappy we may be in the end if we have not tried to be good in this world.
"This moral men may have in mind,
The hearers take it of worth old and young,
And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end,
And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion,
They all at the last do Everyman forsake,
Save his Good Deeds; these doth he take.
And beware,—an they be small,
Before God he hath no help at all.
None excuse may be there for Everyman."
Everyman: A Morality (Everyman's Library).