Director’s Notes: The Fiction Behind Mankind

On these posts I try to give you some insights into the plays we’re working on- the backstory, the history that informs our work, and the occasional behind the scenes “here’s how we we’re doing it and why” perspective. This might give you the idea that the HIDden approach is a very academic, as well as theatrical one. There’s a fair bit of truth in that, but I don’t want you to think that everything is ultra-erudite or heavy going. Sometimes, the things that inspire us or make things click into place don’t have footnotes, and that’s what I wanted to share today.

Every time I am faced with medieval characters whose primary definition is “being a medieval peasant”, there is a book I grab off the shelf. It’s fiction- well informed, heavily researched fiction, but the point isn’t that it’s true or not, but that it speaks to something evocative that sometimes historical documents can’t reach. The book is called Down the Common, by Anne Baer, and almost twenty years after I first read it, I still absolutely love it for its non-romanticised, down-to-earth story of life in a medieval village. And it’s the first thing I will turn back to when working on the character of Mankind.

The people in the story are ordinary: some are more clever or introspective (Mankind might have understood them) and some are foolish; some are looking for adventures and some never want to leave their patch of earth. All of them are engaged in the everyday struggle to keep body and soul together: getting in the harvest, surviving the cold of winter, bringing up children who know how to behave in ways that won’t be destructive to the community. Their lives are in so many ways completely different from ours, but the getting on with every day is what most of us do today, too.

I think about those fictional peasants when I try to imagine Mankind’s life on an ordinary day, when maybe he hasn’t just heard a sermon in church and isn’t quite so anxious about the state of his soul. After all, despite his initial self-abasing monologue, we also see him carrying in with the plowing and planting of his fields, so we can assume that he does not spend all of his time bemoaning the state of his everlasting soul! It’s also easy, though, in reading this tale of the struggle of medieval peasantry, to see why someone like Mankind might yearn to achieve whatever behaviour will earn him a place in a heavenly afterlife. Their bodily existence is not one we modern folk would consider pleasant.

But neither are their lives unrelieved misery, which is something we may forget if we think of the Monty Python mud-peasants when we picture everyday medieval life. The Vices are the extreme end of the spectrum, but to use Mercy’s favourite word, within measure they represent the amusements- singing, dancing, joking, drinking, festivals, celebrations. The other thing I love in Down the Common is the delight people find in little things that today we would probably overlook. A sunny day means more. Freshly baked bread is a genuine treat. Someone like Mankind, clearly of a naturally spiritual turn, might find God in those moments- and perhaps he will value those things more, now that he knows what excess can bring.

I can’t tell you what will be in an actor’s head when playing the character (nor should I try!), but in directing it, the world created in that book is in the back of mine. It’s also just a really good read, and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you’ve ever wondered what’s going on way, way behind the scenes in “director brain” during the process of putting together Mankind.