Morality play

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Plays

Adam and Eve

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A one-act play is like a confession'. So writes Steven Berkoff in the preface to the collection of his One-Act Plays. In his introduction to the collection, Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama writes: 'It is the one-act play, however, that most profoundly and immediately amplifies Berkoff’s extraordinary literary and theatrical voice. . . In discussion, [Berkoff's] eyes quite literally light up at the mere mention of the one-act construct. With relish, he outlines the bare-knuckled immediacy of its form and fatal but inevitable blow. Perhaps the very real pleasure in reading these nineteen one-act plays by Berkoff should not be about comparing them to his other plays at all, but imagining them newly and in performance. Berkoff’s theatre continues to refuse smallness of theme and narrative, and defies those who wish to collapse the place of theatre into reality-inspired ‘true’. A reading of these pieces will require the need for a performance alertness, ‘real’ at its very threshold.'

Of his cycle of Biblical plays, Berkoff writes: 'There is something so vital and dynamic about our wonderful biblical stories, myths or parables that they lend themselves so easily to a modern interpretation. Of course their passion speaks directly to all of us and few of us are immune from the same problems and obsessions.'

Adam and Eve tells of Eden's first parents in a comically exaggerated London slang.

The Dutch Courtesan

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The eponymous Dutch courtesan Franceschina, passionate and vengeful, is at the centre of Marston’s volatile morally complex play about irrepressible lust.

The young gentleman Freevill has been intimately involved with Franceschina, but as his marriage to the respectable Beatrice, the daughter of Sir Hubert Subboys, approaches, he resolves to cast the courtesan aside. Goaded into visiting the same courtesan by Freevill’s taunts about his sexual abstinence, the puritanical Malheureux finds himself irresistibly drawn to the enchanting prostitute, despite the promptings of his conscience.

As the two young men scheme to help Malheureux sleep with Franceschina, the courtesan herself plots her revenge upon Freevill, whom she loved sincerely (to the frustration of Mary Faugh, her bawd). Though the play reaches a neatly comic conclusion, there is no room in it for the fiery, controversial Franceschina.

Marston mixes rhetorical debate and furious passion to create a morally turbulent discussion of human desire.

This text is based on the 1605 Quarto.

Everyman

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Everyman is successful, popular and riding high when Death comes calling. Forced to abandon the life he has built, he embarks on a last, frantic search to recruit a friend, anyone, to speak in his defence. But Death is close behind, and time is running out.

One of the great primal, spiritual myths, Everyman asks whether it is only in death that we can understand our lives. A cornerstone of English drama since the 15th century, this adaptation by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was presented at the National Theatre, London, in April 2015.

Everyman (ed. Lester)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Death summons a man to the reckoning of his life, and his journey towards judgement makes up the matter of one of the best surviving examples of morality plays. Everyman, the central character of the play, is not a person but a place-holder representing all of mankind.

As he converses with Knowledge, Good Deeds, Beauty and Goods, striving to secure a favourable account of his time on earth in order to reach everlasting life, a dramatic allegory is woven about the brevity of life and the necessity of living it well. The play is exceptional in its genre for this narrow focus on the last phase of life, and conveys its message with awe-inspiring seriousness.

The play is poised between the late medieval and early modern eras, recalling the medieval Biblical mystery cycles while anticipating the early modern period’s focus on the individual. It is uncertain whether the original text was ever performed in its time, as it may have been read as a religious treatise. However, a hugely popular revival at the beginning of the 20th century led to many more recent productions, often with a woman in the title role, proving that the play’s themes of mortality and spiritual pilgrimage have retained their power and resonance across the centuries.

Faust: Part One

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

Faust: Part Two

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

Mankind

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The eponymous character of Mankind is a plain, honest farmer struggling against worldly and spiritual temptation in a morality play that is remarkable for its bawdy and energetic humour. The instructive sermon from the figure of Mercy which opens the play is soon interrupted by mocking Mischief, the three comedic Vices and the malicious devil Titivillus, who hijack the play and lead the audience through a whirl of lewd jokes, bawdy song and theatrical tricks which compromise the spectators as much as they do the character of Mankind. The competition for Mankind’s soul between Mischief and Mercy allows the play to move between riotous exuberance and careful theological discussion, showing by example and instruction the right way to live a Christian life.

Mundus et Infans

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The whole life of a man is staged in Mundus et Infans, as Child grows up into Manhood and succumbs to Folly in an exemplary morality play structure of transgression and redemption.

The protagonist’s beginning is as ‘Infans’ – or ‘child’ – he is renamed ‘Dalliance’, then ‘Wanton’ and then ‘Love-Lust-Liking’, before he matures into ‘Manhood’. Mundus – or ‘world’ – invests him with a knighthood, but he fails to uphold chivalric values and is led astray from Conscience by Folly, an engaging and mocking villain, into a life of arrogance and debauchery. Notable for the characters’ clearly differentiated idiolects, Mundus et Infans is a vibrant and emphatic staging of moral teaching, a map of human life and a meditation on time and decay. Mundus et Infans survives in an edition from 1522, and is likely to have been composed before 1520.

Round Heads and Pointed Heads

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Round Heads and Pointed Heads began as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Commissioned in 1931 by stage and screen director Ludwig Berger, Brecht's ideas about the play soon took the work beyond straight adaptation, incorporating more and more elements of contemporary political satire.

Of the play, Brecht said 'Round Heads and Pointed Heads is a new creative adaptation of the old Italian tale which Shakespeare used in his play Measure for Measure. Many people think that Measure for Measure is the most philosophical of all Shakespeare's works, and it is certainly his most progressive. It demands from those in positions of authority that they shouldn't measure others by standards different from those by which they themselves would be judged. It demonstrates that they ought not to demand of their subjects a moral stance which they cannot adopt themselves. The play Round Heads and Pointed Heads seeks to propose for our own age a progressive stance similar to that which the great poet of humanism proposed for his.'

Round Heads and Pointed Heads tells the story of a racial conflict between two classes of citizens, those with pointed heads and those whose heads are round – both as abnormal as each other – in the fictional town of Luma. Written in the early 1930s, it finally received its premiere in Copenhagen on 4 November 1936, before being published in German in 1938.

In medieval Europe, a type of allegorical drama in which personified vices and virtues are usually shown struggling for the soul of Mankind. Morality dramas began to appear in about 1400, the first important example being the English The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1405). During the later 15th century the genre overtook the mystery play in popularity. Other well-known examples are the anonymous Everyman (c. 1500), John Skelton’s Magnyfyence (c. 1520), and Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thre Estaitis (1552). The morality play developed into the moral interlude during the later Tudor period.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).