Summoning all sinners
Medieval morality play gets modern translation and dance interpretation for Chico State theater production
In 21st-century America, morality is maybe too diffuse and subjective to be an issue of national concern. But, 600 years ago, addressing how screw-ups and good works affected society was, in many places, at the very top of priorities.
In late-15th-century England, the Catholic Church was in no mood to suffer the bad behavior of its largely illiterate flock, so among the didactic tools employed to educate on the perils of sinful living was the now famous work, by an anonymous cleric, titled The Summoning of Everyman. It’s a morality play about the fall and rise of the sin-filled character Everyman (even non-Bible-reading peasants could understand this meant “every” man), who has to change his wicked ways to make it into heaven.
Written in late-Middle English (that still very foreign-sounding form between Old and Modern English), the play would be a hard sell in today’s Chico. In order to get the most out of the old script, Chico State’s School of the Arts is presenting a translated version filtered through the immediate, visual form of dance for its second spring production, Everyman: Dance of Death.
“You know, it’s a job. You start at the beginning, and you go to the end.” Spoken like a true teacher—that’s Ernst Schoen-Renà, English professor at Chico State and translator of Everyman from Medieval English into a more modern version.
“I took it piece by piece,” he continues, “Translation is wonderful fun.”
Sitting in the News & Review offices, which he often visits in his role as the paper’s classical-music critic, he’s clad in a Kafka T-shirt and his trademark shorts with black socks. The slender, affable Schoen-Renà talks about his role in getting this play from the Catholic Church of the 15th century to the hands of Professor Sue Pate in the present-day Department of Theatre Arts.
Schoen-Renà worked closely with Pate last spring, writing original music for the school’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but this time around he’d be handing off a translated script for Pate and her troupe of dancers to interpret as they saw fit.
“Ultimately I became more interested in making what I thought was a good contemporary translation than I was in what she was specifically going to do with it,” he says.
While dance didn’t figure into his translation (the “dancerly” interpretations were naturally up to Pate and her company), dignity did. “I appreciate that dignity [of the original], and the language—I want to maintain that dignity as much as possible.”
Seeing this as a work that “can be a play of considerable power,” Schoen-Renà compares Everyman to the classic tragic stories such as King Lear and Oedipus, wherein the central character has to lose everything before seeing the light, so to speak.
“That’s why I say it’s really the earliest archetypal tragedy,” he explains, “even though whoever wrote it did not think of it necessarily as tragedy. They thought of it as a story with a lesson.”
To give a very small example of what is involved in this kind of translation, consider the words of Death explaining to Everyman what God wants from him:
Original medieval English: “That shall I shewe the/ A rekenynge he wyll nedes haue/ Without ony lenger respite.”
Schoen-Renà's translation: “An accounting He wants—this very day,/ Come, come! No waiting! No delay!”
In his notes on the translation, Schoen-Renà explains that the original is written (mostly) in “four-stress rhymed couplets,” and that he made modifications to break up what could have made for a “sing-songy and tedious” play for a modern audience. For example, instead of speaking in verse form, “Everyman’s speech, up until the time of his reformation, [is made up of] brief bursts of prose that reflect his despair and anxiety at being called to judgment.” After his repentance and redemption, however, he falls into the four-stress form of the original.
Other modifications include the character of Fellowship speaking in an almost rap cadence, and Goods sprinkling in appropriate cash-register sounding “ka-chings” and “ka-chungs” at the end of lines to rhyme with the “ings” and “ungs” that punctuate his speech.
Schoen-Renà's own Episcopalian upbringing, combined with his professional familiarity with medieval Christianity, influenced his decision to focus on the importance of that point where Everyman has had everything stripped away and at this low point realizes the only way back up is through repentance—to go through the same pain Christ went through.
“That free choice is where [Everyman] begins [his] transition into some sort of hope.”
Sue Pate looks like a dancer. She’s dressed in black from head to toe on a riser in the still-bare giant box of the Wismer Theater. The petite and expressive professor gets easily caught up in the excitement of the project at hand and rushes her descriptions of beautiful costumes and delicate movements accompanied by the appropriate hand gestures.
“It’s such a blessing to have a good script to work with,” Pate enthuses, adding that her intention with Everyman is “to put the action of the play into dance. I love that visual statement. … Why not use dance as the communication?”
With a cast made up of 10 women, all of whom combine the newly formed Minor in Dance program with their majors—some theater, some music—the production is a combination of the lush and flowing dances, music (from Bach to Pink Floyd), costumes and sets (by Sandra Barton and Marty Gilbert, respectively) and the play’s straightforward dialogue and almost blunt characterizations (Everyman = every man; Kindred = family; Goods = material things).
When asked if she thinks audiences will get the message, Pate believes that simple characters speaking simple words and the immediacy, “visually,” of dance movements should hold people’s attention. Plus, the play’s timing of showing during Easter week won’t hurt.
“I think it really depends on where individuals are in their evaluation of their lives,” she says.
Professing a more modern Methodist upbringing, Pate says her heart is tugged more toward the redemptive end of the play than Schoen-Renà's penitent leanings. Even though she appreciates the tough trials Everyman faces en route to heaven ("My dad was a bomber pilot in World War II, and he always said, ‘There are lots worse things than death'"), one of the only changes she made to the translated script was to a section where Schoen-Renà had Everyman giving himself a good flogging with a scourge.
“I said [to Schoen-Renà], ‘We’re going to do a whole dance of confession,’ and he said ‘No flogging?'”
“With the music, plus the dancing, I almost felt myself come to tears,” explains Ellen Wilcox (who plays Everyman) about how the different elements of this production combine for one powerful effect. The young theater major moves from mark to mark unconsciously; all the dancers appear pulled to their spots by invisible magnets attracted to their jazz slippers.
Wilcox explains that, while dialogue morphs and changes depending on the actions and reactions of her fellow actors, the dancing is ruled by “muscle memory,” and “once you memorize it, it’s there.”
The cast are in the rehearsal stages of the production when I visit the theater, warming up their bodies and voices beforehand ("She stood upon the balcony, inexplicably mimicking hiccupping") and letting out nervous energy with kicks and stretches regular humans would pull muscles attempting.
As they move into rehearsing, every move and expression is picked up on, and suggestions and adjustments are made all night long ("There’s a lot of power when you have your head down"). The message is attended to as well—the cast members I speak with admit to having intellectual discussions about meanings at every rehearsal.
“It’s an interesting piece of history presented in a new light,” shares Katherine Nelson, who doesn’t dance but plays multiple characters, including Messenger, Death and Priest.
In our interview, Schoen-Renà speaks about how the audience might interpret the play’s religious message.
“Sure, it’s a play written in Christian terms for a Christian audience, but it rises above that. Like King Lear and Oedipus, it’s also a play about how it is to be a flawed human, the prices we have to pay for our stupidities, and the necessity of regeneration.”
Pate describes a multi-layered scene at the end, where Everyman is being led to his maker by Death in a “three forward and one back” tribunal step in one line of action; mourners dance slowly, oblivious to Everyman in another line; and angels dance before Everyman in a third line of action, gently laying scarves in a path to heaven.
“It’s got such a great message," she says quietly. "Get your stuff together and make that walk. It sort of gives everybody hope."