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.