Director’s Notes: Wrapping Up “Mankind”

Finishing up a show is always a mixture of feelings. Accomplishment. Pride. Exhaustion. And the process of looking back and analysing what went well, and what lessons were learned along the way.

Mankind had numerous highlights. A few weeks ago we noted some along the way, as they’d manifested thus far in the rehearsal process. Many of them carried through to the end. The absolute commitment and enthusiasm of the cast comes in first for mention, as it was both unwavering and crucial to the play’s success. Medieval plays can be hard going for actors: the wording is unusual or foreign, there are lots of long monologues, it’s not always evident what is happening. Our cast did a brilliant job of overcoming any confusion, and the progress with which they learned their lines and characters was remarkable. Every single rehearsal we saw improvement, and their best performance was the one in front of an audience- just what you want to have happen! I’m still in awe of how quickly they assimilated changes and adjustments: these were amateur actors and for the most part they did this as well or even better than many professionals. They brought ideas and tried them out, remained flexible in their thinking, and managed to make it look as if they hadn’t been working flat out for weeks. I really couldn’t be more proud of them.

I also just plain liked our cast as people. It often seems to me that the theatre attracts an unusually high number of interesting, intelligent, kind, generous, and dedicated people. Maybe that’s just the nature of the thing. But it makes work that much more enjoyable. Theatre friendships can be funny- because you all go on immediately to other things, people often don’t stay in touch, but whether we do or not, I consider myself fortunate for having had these people’s lives and work collide with mine, even for a short period of time.

We asked the audience for feedback, as we are in a process of determining where to move forward as a company. Their reception of Mankind was beyond my expectations. I’m especially pleased with the comments from those who don’t know medieval drama and who had come along warily, and were surprised by how accessible and engaging it is. That is exactly why we do this: to share the past in ways that surprise and delight. Any time someone says they learned something new- especially if that something is how interesting historic drama is- I feel like we’ve had a success.

In short, Mankind was everything we’d hoped it could be. If you didn’t have a chance to see it… It’s the kind of play I could certainly keep coming back to. Who knows? Maybe someday it will have another incarnation. And if it does, I can only hope it will be as much fun as this version was to create.

Updating the Style, Keeping the Substance

Translating an archaic script, as previously discussed, is time consuming and requires a bit of effort, but it’s not terribly difficult. The translation that does become a challenge is finding modern idioms, of cultural elements, that are analogous to those appearing in a historic script. The meaning needs to be similar, but the issues that resonate in one period often don’t a few centuries later.

Mankind presents this most particularly in the scene where the Vices try to re-style his jacket into something more up-to-date. Making him an absurdly short coat is only mildly funny today: unless you spend a lot of time on historic costume, you probably won’t realise that ultra-short jackets were the cutting edge of trendiness in the late fifteenth century. For men, the more wealthy and ostentatiously stylish you were, the shorter your jacket was. The trend-setters of the day would have been the younger gentlemen of the court, some of whom may not have come from old, well-established families, and who would be anxious to prove that they could fit in- what might snobbishly be referred to as “new money” today. The playwright of Mankind was parodying both the short style of coats, and also the sort of men who might wear them.

Simply cutting up Mankind’s coat doesn’t mean as much today, though, so we looked for an analogous stylistic language. What is considered trendy today, that might also be singled out for a bit of gentle teasing? What symbolises youth and ambition? Thus were born the hipster Vices. “Hipster” may be a bit difficult to define, but it’s written about as a subculture of young, relatively affluent people who consider themselves nonconformists (but are often noted to do so in the same way as one another), and are criticised for being pretentious; they strive to have a down-market, vintage look but have no aversion to the newest technology.

We didn’t choose this style to be critical of those who embrace it, but because it seemed a good, easily identifiable modern analogy to the ostentatiously trend-setting courtiers of the late medieval period, something that is sufficiently established as a culture/style but also comes in for castigation by others. It also seems to be defined from the outside: not many whom others might consider “hipsters” would self-identify as such, rather like Nought, who worries that he “might well be called a fop”, when clearly he is something of a dandy. And because the hipster style is quite identifiable, it seems likely that it will end up being very dated and of our particular era, much like the short jackets of the era in which Mankind was written.


There are always some imperfections in trying to update a concept which is particularly tied to a time and place, but we think that this one makes a lot of sense. It helps ground Mankind in the world of today as much as that of the past, reminding us that people don’t really change that much, and the world of the Middle Ages is not entirely unlike our own.



Director’s Notes: Mankind: First Rehearsals  


Mankind is approaching swiftly, and all of us at HIDden are running about making sure things are in order. The weeks leading up to a production are always exciting, and busy, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the more delightful aspects of our process thus far. It’s a snapshot of a bit of our “behind the scenes” life. Here are a few of my favourite moments:

  • While everyone works on Latin pronunciation, during blocking rehearsals we all just shout “Latin!” where a big chunk of it is in the script.
  • Trying out lots of different characterisations for Titivillus- because demons can be just about anyone.
  • Those moments where actors you’ve worked with before manage to take their work to a new level and surprise you with an even better performance than expected.
  • Getting to know and witness the incredible talents of new (and personally very lovely!) people.
  • When, as the director, I’ve read a line so many times and yet an actor comes in and reads it with a totally new delivery, and it brings out extra layers of meaning I hadn’t imagined.
  • Falling back in love with the play. By the time we hit rehearsals I’ve read it so often it’s lost a lot of its freshness, but as soon as it’s in the hands of the actors, I remember all the reasons I loved it in the first place.
  • That instant where I know that an actor understands their character perfectly and is bringing it to life in all the subtle and colourful ways that make it real.
  • Watching the cast bond. You always wonder, “Will this group work well together? Will they be able to support and challenge one another?” It’s always exciting to see that come into being.
  • Being constantly impressed by how quickly the actors weave little adjustments and ideas into their characters, and how it instantly clarifies things.
  • Group enthusiasm. Everyone’s been off learning lines and thinking about their characters; the energy of getting everyone in one room and starting to put it together is always special.
  • The surprise that comes when we hit the somewhat more bawdy parts of the play. Not all the actors had realised that medieval plays could be quite so “colourful”!

There is much left to do, but everyone is working really hard, and I think we’re all enjoying the process. I can’t wait to see what the next week will bring- and I hope you’ll join us at the performance, because all the signs thus far are pointing to a really great production!

How It Translates, Our Artistic Director’s Approach

When people find out that I’m working on a medieval play, almost always the first question is, “Are you doing it in modern or Middle English?” These days the answer is almost always modern, because despite enjoying it myself, I’ve come to recognise that Middle English is really challenging for audiences, and, unfortunately, often cuts them off from really getting to grips with the play they’re seeing. The next question tends, from academics, to be “Which edition did you use?”, and from non-academics, “How did you translate it?”

Despite how different it looks on the page, Middle English is not actually that difficult to get your head or tongue around. In fact, sounding words out aloud, the way kids learn to read, is a good way to make sense of it on occasion; the spellings will be peculiar, but once you hear it spoken, you’ll usually know what it means. So I’m never entirely sure that it’s really a “translation” proper. But, if you’ve been curious, here is how it happens.

First I go through the script and change any archaic letters into their modern equivalent. (For example: something that looks rather like the modern lower-case “y” is actually a “th”- it’s where we get “ye olde” from; it would have been pronounced as “the”.) Then I change all the really obvious words into modern spelling, which will usually be about three quarters of the text. Next come the words that are definitely in Middle English but whose meanings I have come to know over the years of working with it. I usually spend the better part of a day with a thesaurus, trying to find the closest word in meaning and colour, that also keeps any rhyme schemes and meters that might be present. About half the time, I can find a good translation that keeps the poetry and alliteration intact. When I can’t, I have to make some executive decisions. Will the audience make sense of an unfamiliar word from the context? How important is that particular word, or is the primary meaning conveyed elsewhere in the line? In some instances, I’ll leave the Middle English word in, feeling pretty sure that it won’t be detrimental to conveying the story or characters. In others, I’ll have to make the decision to disturb the carefully wrought meter or alliteration for the sake of clarity.

The biggest challenge is tracking down the words that I don’t know. Middle English can be difficult to look up (absent having a university library’s resources at your fingertips, and I usually work at home) because the spellings are so capricious; in some cases the word’s definition might actually be speculative and uncertain, and in others there might have been a clerical error which muddles the picture. There’ll usually be one or two that completely stymie me, which warrants a call to medievalist friends to pick their brains. In the end, it’s pretty rare not to track down some idea of what a word should mean. With that done, I repeat the process of trying to decide if I can keep the ancient word, or wrestling through trying to find an appropriate substitute if I can’t.

Invariably, there will be a bit of Latin. This is one area where I suffer as a medievalist: my Latin is virtually non-existent. That’s more time with dictionaries, Latin translation webpages, and usually some phone calls to colleagues who don’t mind helping me with tricky bits. (The up side to this is that I’ve picked up a bit more of the language than I would probably know otherwise.)

Only when I’ve got it pretty much solidified will I pull the editions off the shelf. My purpose in doing so is simply self-editing: I want to check that I haven’t misunderstood anything, that their glosses on words match my translations. I always look at as many as I have or can get my hands on, because sometimes they don’t agree on specific words, and sometimes one will have a more precise meaning that I need to contemplate. A lot of editions will also have commentary on parts of the play, which might clue me in about why a particular scene is written in a specific way.

It’s only after the script has been brought into the twentieth century that I start contemplating any necessary changes or cuts. I know that to some people this is anathema, and it may seem to go against my earlier assertion to trust the text with which I’m working. That trust doesn’t mean a play is perfect, though, or that as it has come down to us it is perfect for what we’re doing. It does mean, however, that I can tell you exactly why I’m changing things, and how I’ve done it; I don’t just go in and start chopping. Our rearrangement of the Vices in our current production of Mankind is a good example of this: it may be unorthodox, but I think that it helps make the play a little bit neater for this production. (If “re-creation” or “authenticity” were our intent, I would not have made that sort of change.)

Translating is a rather tedious and fiddly process, but it has the definite benefit that, while I may not have it memorised, I do know the script really well by the time we get into rehearsals, not just conceptually, but in a structural sense, how it is put together as well as what it is saying. And it’s easier to sort out any confusion the actors have with what is still a pre-modern verse piece. In the end, we have a script I’m happy with, which stays fairly close to the original.

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.

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.

Mankind and the Work-Life Balance

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “work-life balance”. It’s the idea that your job shouldn’t take up every working hour of the day, so that you can have things like a family and hobbies. And talking about it, being aware of it, is a pretty new. For most of history, the idea that your job wasn’t the definition of who you were would have made no sense. There’s a reason we have last names like Smith or Tanner: what you did actually did define who you were.

It’s too easy, though, to fall into envisioning the lives of earlier people as being nothing but drudgery. Life in the Middle Ages wasn’t just “nasty, brutish and short”. The very existence of plays from the period tells us that people had their diversions. We know they had games, music, dancing, festivals, celebrations. And consider Mankind.

In a sense, the entire play is a question of finding work-life balance- or any balance, really. While it has (pretty decisively) been argued that the play is an exhortation against the sin of sloth, Mercy’s argument for moderation is not the same thing as moratorium. Mankind is allowed to have fun, he’s just not allowed to neglect his work. Balance. We’re all trying to find it, he’s just unusually bad at it.

And Mankind would not be so easily led astray by the Vices if he didn’t have a sense that life should be about more than just plowing one’s field. He just isn’t very good at finding a balance- for Mankind, it seems to be all work or all play. I’m sure we all still know some people who struggle, as he does, to find a happy medium. Like Mankind, when your day job is not something near and dear to your heart, it can be very easy to prefer to do something- anything- else. (Conversely, if you really love what you do, it’s very easy to forget how to do anything else.)

What’s different for Mankind is that, in a pre-secular society, he not only believes that he has to find a work-life balance, but a work-life-afterlife balance: his religious beliefs mean that he needs to find significant time to invest in acts of faith, as well. This is maybe the hardest part of his thinking to grasp in the modern world, where even those who are sincere in their beliefs tend to slot that part of life into specific, proscribed times- church on Sunday morning, maybe a choir rehearsal or volunteer group on a weekday evening. It can be pigeonholed, scheduled, and worked around, and most people would probably lump it in with “other stuff you do outside of work”. For Mankind it holds a much higher priority… until, of course, the Vices convince him otherwise.

The end of the play leaves us with the impression that the great sin is not so much that the neglect of one’s day job, the work that puts food on his table, but the neglected of spiritual things. Mercy only uses the word ‘measure’ twice, and the Vices once; but that is what the play is really about. We don’t expect that Mankind is going to rush off to join a monastery after the curtain comes down, and devote all of his time to thoughts of God and Heaven. He’s going to back to plowing his field, bringing in his crops, praying in church regularly, and, yes, having the odd drink at the pub.

And he- and Mercy- and therefore, presumably, God- can live with that, because it’s a life in balance.


Revisiting Mankind

Programming upcoming shows is often a challenge; there are a lot of factors that go into the decision of what we’ll be working on (and there are always a lot more ideas in the works than you see at any given moment). We want to find plays that will be interesting for our audience, and which give us new challenges. Particularly given this latter consideration, it may seem counterintuitive to revisit old ground, but on occasion it feels like the right decision.

Our autumn production in York, “Mankind”, is one we’ve played with before. Last February we staged a reading of it for an academic conference in Bristol. (You can read some of our thoughts on that in earlier entries on this page.) After completing that project, we agreed that it would be nice to stage it as a full production. We had a lot of fun with it last winter, and we had a terrific cast who really put a lot into it, but the same circumstances which made it a reading rather than a full performance meant that we felt there was a lot more to be got out of the play. “Mankind” is a pretty physical show- after all, the dichotomy between the desires of one’s earthly being and man’s higher ideals is what it’s about. The demons should really get a chance to interact with the audience, to put into physical being the sense of fun that is so seductive to Mankind.

The nice thing about re-exploring a familiar show is that you have the chance to look at different parts of it, to emphasize different things, and to use what you’ve learned previously. I remain convinced that a sympathetic, approachable, and above all human Mercy is really the linchpin of the play. Without that, Mankind’s despair has no remedy, but moreover, he has no concrete reason to return to Mercy’s precepts. A more restrained set of demons, however, allows for a quieter interpretation of Mercy; with the demons really let off the hook to play, Mercy will have to possess a greater strength, and on occasion anger, to balance them. This is not to suggest that any of the characters should tip over into becoming caricatures; on the contrary, their ability to remain real is maybe even more important, particularly if, good or evil, they are making an attempt on the souls of the audience as much as Mankind.

A second look at a show is another chance to tease out new things. After all, with historic drama, every time a show is revived, it’s getting a new life, a new look, and adding a new layer to its own history. And every show comes with a new cast, and each new group of people bring something different to the table. I’m looking forward to taking another look at “Mankind”, and see what turns up. Chances are, it’s something I haven’t even imagined yet.

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.