Director’s Notes: The Missing Hell-mouth

There’s something about medieval hell-mouths. I think it may be the fact that, in so many manuscript illustrations, they look a little like confused puppies. Evil puppies, eating the souls of the damned, but you still want to scratch their ears and say, “Good hell-mouth. Who wants a soul-cookie?”

When initially planning for this production of Mankind, we imagined some form of a medieval hell-mouth, from which Titivillus and his minions could appear. Although we don’t know that there would have been one during any fifteenth-century productions fo the play, there are certainly modern-day precedents for such staging. This is not without logic: Mercy has his church; to give the demons something equal and opposite would seem to create a balance, and a spatial vocabulary for the forces of good and its antithesis. A hell-mouth evokes the medieval iconography, giving a sense of the era, and there is something charming and comical about the sort of demonic creature that is often pictured in manuscripts. It seems to fit well with the amusing evil of the Vice characters.

Choosing to stage the play in a modern idiom, however, a medieval hell-mouth felt out of place. Moreover, the more we thought about the play, the less sense it made. The Vices who dominate the play- Nowadays, New-guise, and Nought- may be demons, but they are, importantly, worldly demons. They aren’t lurking about in a nether world with pitchforks at the ready, they are the temptations of man’s everyday life. Though they speak of mayhem and murder, what we see of the Vices is their enjoyment of a kind of childish annoyance, at worse a distinct penchant for blasphemy. Most importantly, they are easy for Mankind to fall into because they are all around, constantly: daily irritations, pleasures out of reach. They can’t seem too overtly evil, or Mankind would, we presume, see through their games. (This is why the Vices only stay masked amongst those who are ‘in the know’- their own kind and Mercy. Mankind only sees them as people.) They need to be a bit sneaky, not announce their arrival from the fiery depths.

Additionally, Mercy is well outnumbered. The fact that Mankind includes one holy person and five evil ones has often been discussed, and is one of the reasons that early scholarship considered it a ‘corrupt’ play- surely something was missing, for the virtue to stand solitary against such overwhelming odds. There isn’t much need to balance the demons against Mercy with a hell-mouth when they are already, numerically, in the majority. Giving Mercy a specific location- a church, a lectern- lets him argue from a position of strength, while the Vices come and go, unmoored. There may be more of them, but Mercy is the stonger character. The Vices, without a ‘home’ of their own, may try to usurp Mercy’s position, in Mankind’s life and physically, but they do not succeed. Even Titivillus, the strongest of the demonic characters, must go invisible, be everywhere and nowhere- and Mankind still returns to faith, to Mercy and his church. Mankind, too, needs a place to return; we trust that the demons will go off and find others to torment.

So- no hell-mouth. I still want to build one someday, but I’ll have to listen to Mercy’s advise, exercise patience, and wait for the day when we get to do a Last Judgement from one of the medieval mystery cycles.

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.

Mankind: a Very Brief Annotated Bibliography

A lot of reading and research goes into our productions! This is just a fraction of the books and articles we’ve looked over in working on Mankind, but if you’re curious to know more about the play and its history, here are some places to start.

Adams, John Quincy, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, pp. 304-324
From 1924, this book gives an interesting perspective on how scholars used to consider Mankind- the vices’ song is missing, for example, cut for being too obscene for print.

Carpenter, Sarah, ‘Morality-Play Characters’, Medieval English Theatre 5:1, p. 18-28

Cawsey, Kathy, “Tutivillus and the ‘Kyrkchaterars’: Strategies of Control in the Middle
Ages”, Studies in Philology, v. 102, No. 4 (Autumn 2005), pp. 434-451
A consideration of the traditions of the character Titivillus and his role as the collector of idle gossip or chatting during church, this article really brings home another reason why the power of language is at the heart of Mankind.

Coogan, Mary Philippa, An Interpretation of the Moral Play Mankind.
One of the only full-length studies of the play, Sr. Coogan’s monograph has been very influential on study of the play, and she makes a convincing argument for Mercy being interpreted as a friar.

Diller, Hans-Jurgen, “Laughter in Medieval English Drama: a Critique of Modernizing and
Historical Analyses”, Comparative Drama, v. 36, iss. 1:2 (Spring 2002), pp. 1-19
Diller considers the comedy in Mankind and what it would have meant to medieval audiences, an important consideration in trying to determine how to approach the play even with a modern audience.

Heap, Carl, ‘On Performing Mankind’, Medieval English Theatre 4:2, pp. 93-103
Reflecting on one of the earlier twentieth-century revivals, this article gives insight into some of the issues that you have to face in producing Mankind. It makes an interesting contrast to our very different production.

King, Pamela, ‘Morality Plays’ in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre,
ed. Richard Beadle and Alan J. Fletcher, pp. 235-264
This is a really good starting point for morality plays, and the entire volume is a great point of departure if you’re just starting to get your head around medieval drama.

Marshall, John, “ ‘O Ye Souerens That Sytt and Ye Brothern That Stonde Ryght Wppe’:
Addressing the Audience of Mankind”, European Medieval Drama, v. 1, p. 189-202
Looking at the moments when the play specifically acknowledges the audience’s presence, the article also looks at who the audience might have been, and where.

Stock, Lorraine Kockhanske, “The Thematic and structural Unity of ‘Mankind’, Studies in
Philology v. 72, No. 4 (Oct. 1975), pp.386-406
Considers the many potential sources and influences in Mankind, arguing that it is very deliberate in its choices; good for considering what information a medieval audience member might have had to influence how he understood the play.

Director’s Notes: Mankind in the Audience

It’s obvious, from the way the characters address them to the eponymous lead character, that the audience is as much ‘mankind’ as Mankind is himself. Mankind’s plight, his indecision between the pleasures of the world and matters of the spirit, crosses boundaries of circumstance and time. The play tells its audiences that they are as at risk of making evil decisions as he is- and that the forgiveness Mercy offers him is more universally available, too.

We decided it would be interesting to not just imply the audience’s complicity in Mankind’s fall and redemption, but to make his journey theirs explicitly. Having the audience reading Mankind’s lines puts them squarely in his shoes, and makes his decisions theirs. To do this, we’ve tried to put as few boundaries between this corporate ‘Mankind’ and the actors as possible. The physical borders of the acting space are completely permeable, and the cast still looks like a part of the twenty-first century. Very non-traditionally, the actors will have scripts in hand, just as the audience will, to make sure that everyone seems to be in the same place. The demons may sometimes look like demons, but they walk among us.

This is quite a departure for HIDden, which has heretofore staged medieval dramas quite traditionally. Performing for an academic conference gives us a unique opportunity to explore the play in ways that might not be possible with a different audience, and we expect that a group of medievalists will bring specialist insight into their participation. Thus far, the cast has been having a lot of fun getting their heads inside of the medieval characters and their writer. Now we’re all looking forward to hearing what revelations might be brought out by our audience/actors.

Mankind Auditions

Auditions this past weekend were great, but we still have a few parts to cast! We’ll be holding another round of auditions this Thursday, 22 January. They’ll be held in the Arts Complex on Woodland Road in Bristol from 2-6 p.m. Please email us for detailed information, readings, and to book an audition spot: auditions@hiddentheatre.com and see https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3amvuzl7g4n0qbx/AAAGjjnviSOaFXITUHdryZpja?dl=0 for the auditions information pack.

Upcoming Production: “Mankind” (Bristol, February 28th 2015)

HIDden Theatre will be staging the medieval morality play Mankind for the Bristol Centre for Medieval Studies Postgraduate Conference, ‘Rule and Recreation’ on 28 February, 2015.

This weekend we will be holding auditions for this upcoming production in Bristol. We’re looking for enthusiastic actors to participate. For details about auditions and readings, please see: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3amvuzl7g4n0qbx/AAAGjjnviSOaFXITUHdryZpja?dl=0