“Nothing in the canon of English drama sounds more dreary or uninviting than the ‘morality play’.” So writes Ron Tanner. (‘Humour in Everymand and the Middle English Morality Play’, Philological Quarterly, Spring 1991, p. 149). I’m hard-pressed to argue with him. The word ‘morality’ has all the sparkle and excitement of unsalted porridge. We associate it with something preached at us, generally from a place of judgement rather than suggestion; morality is what your elderly grandmother wanted you to have. On the whole, modern society has come to view the word ‘morality’ as the antithesis of ‘fun’.
Up to a point, the character of Mercy would agree with that. His argument- which Mankind misses or ignores for the majority of the play- is that there are more important things than amusement and instant gratification. But Mercy isn’t really an old fuddy-duddy, intent on making everyone miserable in the name of seeking virtue. “Distemper not your brain with good ale nor wine wine,” he says before adding, “I forbid you not the use. Measure yourself ever.” It’s okay to have a good time, to drink and be merry. Just don’t let that be the thing that drives you. Quite apart from theological implications, Mercy’s recommended pattern of living- moderation in all things- is entirely sensible.
Particularly for those who don’t make a study of history, it can be hard to remember what has come in between the writing of Mankind and today. The writer, performers, and audiences who saw it originally didn’t have the Puritans and the Victorians standing between them and the material. We do. In the Victorian and Puritan worlds, ‘morality’ was a rigid code of behaviour, thou shalts and shalt nots, in a completely different sense than existed for medieval people. Our notions of the dullness of ‘moral’ behaviour have been coloured by those intermediary lenses. So while it’s true that, even by medieval standards, Mankind had its share of bawdiness, that wasn’t at all incompatible with a moral lesson.
Thus we get a play full of the kind of jokes that would today earn it at least a rating of ‘parental guidance suggested’… and it’s still about how a man finds his way to faith and goodness. Perhaps it succeeds even better than a dull sermon (which it parodies in Mercy’s opening speech) because it is willing to embrace the reality that people like a good off-colour joke now and then. By drawing the audience in and engaging them through humour, however “inappropriate”, it entertains us long enough to stick around for the ending.
Mankind is the “unporridgey” morality play. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a very good starting point, and it might just surprise you.