Director’s Notes: Performing Allegory

I’m often surprised by the general perception, even among medievalists, that there must be a very different and particular approach taken to directing or acting in dramas of the period. Apart from getting used to the language, I’ve tended to treat medieval plays in pretty much the same manner I would any modern drama. To do anything else, I’ve felt, is to subscribe to the long-outdated notion that they are somehow radically different and “inferior”.

Allegory would seem to challenge that. How do you tell an actor that he is playing a concept rather than a character… and how does an actor go about doing so? After all, there are still lines, still action; symbolic or representational, the virtues and vices of the play are still embodied beings, and have to be dealt with accordingly. To quote Jon Whitman in his introduction to Allegory, “the more personal attributes we give our personification, the more we turn it first into a mere character type…” We can adhere to a strict interpretation of the personified virtue, leaving an interpretive challenge to the audience and a rather tedious process for the actor, or we can let the character flourish, but lose the strict allegorical correspondence.

Upon first reading it, Mankind seems to be largely impersonal: Mercy is good, the demons are bad; Mankind, the only fully human character in the play, is also the only one to seem conflicted. But the more we played with the characters, the more we found. For example, Mercy can never stray too far from being capable of forgiving Mankind’s transgressions, but he can be, and is, thoroughly devastated by them. Mercy, we decided, thinks like a parent: his love and forgiveness is unconditional, but he certainly doesn’t have to be happy about what Mankind has done, nor do those offerings come without a certain pain. By the same token, the three N’s, though thoroughly amoral, still find themselves seeking the comfort and approval of Mischief and Titivillus, actions which place them firmly within the context they embody (the world): no matter how much havoc they wreak, some of their emotional reactions remain human, as is true of even the worst person.

Staging allegory, then, is all about finding a balance. The play itself seems to acknowledge this: Mankind doesn’t take to a lengthy sermon, but he does respond to the humanity of Mercy. Layers of meaning are what make allegory work, and staging that complexity doesn’t undercut it; instead, dramatising that complexity is what makes the meanings accessible.