As a group we went yesterday to see poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s new translation of Everyman with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role and movement by Javier De Frutos. The original morality play called Everyman (written in the late 15th Century) was a play designed to remind people of their mortality. It was designed to make every man and woman realize that life, without an awareness of death, was a life lived unconsciously. But what does that mean? Luckily we have a very powerful representation of what this means in All Quiet on the Western Front in which Erich Maria Remarque presents his hero Paul Bäumer as someone who, because he lives face to face with death, lives with an intensity of appreciation, an intensity of gratitude. All the people that Paul meets while on leave back home seem to him to be living in a dream, half asleep, filled with thoughts about themselves, never listening to others, never truly open to the mystery and wonder of life. Paul is presented by Remarque as awake through living in the face of death.
There is an ancient monastic tradition that asks monks to reflect daily on their impending death, as a way of deepening their grasp and understanding of life, as a way, in fact, of annihilating the fear of death that destructively consumes those who spend their lives trying to avoid this inevitability.
Shakespeare expressed the situation powerfully in his Sonnet 146:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Lord of these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
The soul is potentially the master in the human frame, but is dominated by “rebel powers” that spend all their time and energy on making the “outward walls” of existence “costly gay”. By which, I think, Shakespeare is saying that –as in Everyman- human beings put all their attention on the “beautiful” exterior facets of their lives: how they look, partying, self-indulgence, envy, greed… all the seven deadly sins in fact (that “God” spoke about in the play/film when reflecting on Everyman’s life). Shakespeare continues in this sonnet to prod us (every man and woman) with the question: why do we spend so much time and energy (“so large cost”) on the “fading mansion” over which we have “so short a lease”. By which I understand Shakespeare to be saying again, why do we place so much value on the transient aspects of our existence, paying so little attention to that side of our life which can give us deeper, more sustained satisfaction. And what is that? Is it the inner contentment, the inner sense of certainty and gratitude, freed from all the wasteful yearnings and longings, that can give us a deep sense of the beauty and miracle of our existence and our relation to the universe. Is this not a quality of experience that Paul Bäumer has when he is sharing the cooked stolen goose with his friend Kat with the sounds of the war booming all around them: “we are brothers, pressing one another to take the best pieces.”
So it is for this reason that Shakespeare says
Within be fed, without be rich no more
By which he means, possibly, that there is a quality of life available to us that is deeply nurturing and not superficially titillating, and that if we can in fact make a connection with this life then Death will lose its sting, will no longer be so afeard. Why not? Because it cannot take away this deeply essential, immaterial aspect of our Being. And so, with confidence, Shakespeare can say in his last line:
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
So how does all this relate to the modernized Everyman rewritten by poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy?
I think she has presented powerfully, stunningly, the application of this ancient story to modern life, to a 40 year old yuppy at the top of his game, who is suddenly confronted with a terminal event. Make no mistake this is something that can happen to each and every one of us, indeed will happen to each and every man and woman of us.
Caroly Ann Duffy and her director Rufus Norris portrayed stunningly, powerfully, the excesses of 21st century living – completely devoid of any sense of the divine, of any sense of anything beyond the purely physical human dimension of experience. We were there, in that party with its grog, snorting drugs, abusing sex, hunting pleasure…
And then there was Death, so ordinary, so utterly present, completely unavoidable, and yet so horrifically feared.
I think Carol Ann Duffy’s masterstroke was the irony implied in Everyman’s final naming of Death as “Cunt”. Because at the core of this play there is in fact the realization that an open-acknowledgement of death (as in the case of Paul Bäumer) is in fact the source of an awakening to a new life… Did this awakening come to Everyman? That is a really important question.
Indeed this is the cliff- hanging question that the play leaves us (the audience) with.
There are many traditions in which people are encouraged to face death in life. Most famously the poet John Donne, towards the end of his life had a death mask constructed which he positioned at the end of his bed so that every day he could contemplate the inevitability of his own death. Goulish? Perhaps, but also empowering if one can hear in some of Donne’s last works a powerful acknowledgement of and gratitude for his given life.
The Russian mystic philosopher Gurdjieff, famously, in his major work All and Everything encourages people to recognize that the only way to become fully awake to the richness of existence is to remember each day the inevitability of your own death and to recognize the fact of the inevitable death of everyone that you look on. Goulish? Perhaps, but how else to wake us up out of the dreams, the distractions, the distortions of our thinking. As Paul Bäumer puts it, as he sits with an acquaintance in the pub when on leave, disturbed by their complete lack of understanding: “a part of them is always thinking of something else. They are so fragmented, no one feels it with his whole life…” How true is that of each and every one of us in our relations with others, with what is around us.
We cannot escape the fact that we are Every man and Every woman.
When you get time I strongly recommend you read the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy in the Norton Anthology! Thank you all those who attended last night: it was a great event!
Here are some recent reviews of the production that we saw (Enjoy- and let us know which ones you agree with and why!):