How Many Vices?

The “imbalance” of good and evil figures in Mankind is something often noted in academic writing about the play. There are five villainous characters to the sole virtuous figure of Mercy, and given that Mercy does tend to embody some of the issues of which the others make fun, the actor playing him has a tough row to hoe, if Mercy is somehow to come out as a balance to the others.

The other difficulty, though, which is also well noted, is that the three N’s are relatively indistinct. It could be argued that they are an inversion of the holy trinity: three bodies with one essential being, and I think this is the likely reason why there are in fact three of them. But not all theological intention translates perfectly to the stage. If, in fact, the Vices were completely indistinguishable, this feature of the play might be more successful. There are, however, three ‘N’s’ but two characters. Nought stands apart as the “lesser” of the group, the one who is mocked by the others, who seems the most bumbling; Nought also says less than his fellows. Meanwhile, New-Guise and Nowadays are almost impossible to tell apart.

We’ve thrown various ideas around for different ways to work on this issue, most of which are concepts added on; the text just doesn’t support much obvious distinction between them. And somewhere along the way, someone asked, “Did these parts used to be one character?”

There is no evidence to suggest that Mankind had a previous incarnation with only two Vices. I want to state that very clearly. But looking beyond Mankind specifically, plays do get changed, often in terms of character numbers. I daresay it’s less common in the professional world (though I recall seeing a production of Hamlet years ago where the character had been split into three, so it does happen), but certainly in amateur theatre, parts are often split up, or new ones created, if there is a desire to have greater participation. The general consensus is that Mankind was not an amateur production, but a product of the early days of professional, touring theatre troupes in England. And yet it is generally understood that the parts of Titivillus and Mercy can be played by the same actor- and, presumably, can be played by different actors, depending on cast numbers. So while the N’s might not be where Mankind has demonstrable flexibility, there is at least some degree of it built into the play.

So… what would happen if the two indistinct characters were simply rolled into one? Having had the question raised, we decided to play with it. As far as the script goes, the answer is “relatively little”. Because of the patterns with which the three Vice characters speak, it’s quite easy to reassign most of Nowadays’ lines to New-Guise. In a few- perhaps five- cases they work better if shifted to Nought. And it ends up strengthening both remaining Vices as discreet individuals. It also cuts down, at least slightly, the numerical opposition to Mercy.

Auditions, as the first occasion of seeing actors’ spin on parts, sometimes give you brand new ideas. Sometimes they come in to read for a part and have an interpretation that you haven’t thought of, but that makes so much sense as to make you rethink the character altogether. (And this is the collaborative phenomenon that makes theatre so engaging.) We wanted to take that chance… and we saw really good people read. But we didn’t see New-Guise and Nowadays emerge in great difference, which confirmed the feeling that the two characters are just not unique. That’s not a failing in any of the actors who read the parts; it may be argued that it’s a failure on the part of the writer (though neither he nor contemporary audiences likely didn’t see it as important; these are, after all, broad allegorical types). Actors create a role, but they shouldn’t stray completely out of what the text offers them; if the text doesn’t offer anything, it’s fair to wonder if there isn’t a different way to do things.

The result is that we’re being a bit non-traditional in our Mankind, which was never intended to be an attempt at re-creation anyway. We’re going to try to see how the play changes if the redundant characters are merged, and hope that it gives the actors playing the Vices more to sink their teeth into, which in turn translates into more dynamic performances, and a play that’s just that much more entertaining.