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.