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How Many Somebodies Does it Take to Make Everybody? Or, "What's Love Got to Do with It?": Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's EVERYBODY

December 6, 2018

By Pancho Savery

Last season, Artists Rep produced Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, his 2014 modern-day adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 The Octoroon, a play about ante-bellum American slavery. This season, we are presenting his Everybody, a 2017 adaptation of the 15th century play Everyman, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Although there is some controversy about which came first, Everyman appears to be a translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc, first published in 1495. Everyman is a morality play in which God complains that humans are “blind,” “unkind” to Him, and “drowned in sin.” He therefore decides to call Everyman to a reckoning or kind of test. And in this form, the play has similarities to several texts in the Hebrew Bible: the Lord’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their “very grave sin,” and Abraham’s debate with the deity about how many righteous people it would take to save the cities (Genesis 18: 20–33); the story of the Tower of Babel, in which the Lord “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city… [and] the Lord confused the language of all the earth” because the people wanted to build “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:1–9); or the story of Job, in which the Lord takes everything away from Job to test Satan’s theory that Job is only “blameless and upright” because he has everything; and that with nothing, “he will curse you [the Lord] to your face” (Job 1: 1–11).

This kind of text is often referred to as “wisdom literature,” and can also usefully be compared to ancient Egyptian texts such as The Tale of Sinuhe, The Dialogue of a Man and His Soul, and The Tale of Khety. The purpose of all these texts is to teach humans how to live the proper kind of life.

In Everyman, God sends Death to lead Everyman on the journey to the grave, where he will have to make a reckoning of his life and prove to God that he is worthy of salvation; in other words, that his virtues are greater than his vices. God believes that He must call this reckoning in order to do justice. And in the way he confronts Everyman, Death acts as God’s enforcer, promising “In hell for to dwell, world without end” for anyone who cannot pass the test. Like the much later Ebenezer Scrooge, Everyman will have to relive his life. Afraid and unprepared to take such a journey alone, Everyman calls on a series of friends to accompany him. While Death leaves to get ready, Fellowship, who says he will die for Everyman, quickly flees when he realizes there is no return from the grave, leading Everyman to the realization that only in adversity do you find out who your true friends are. Kindred and Cousin next promise to accompany Everyman, but flee after hearing the details. Cousin would prefer bread and water for five years and complains of a toe cramp; while Kindred offers his maid in his place. Here, Everyman has learned the lesson of the false ways language can be used. He next tries to persuade his Goods and Riches to accompany him because he has always loved them. Goods reveals, however, that love of him is contrary to real life, and that his purpose is to trick and deceive, and bring many to hell, which causes Everyman deep shame. With this realization by Everyman, Good-Deeds, who has been “cold in the ground” because of Everyman’s sins, tries to rise; but failing, sends his sister Knowledge to take Everyman to “that holy man, Confession,” who provides the way to penance, including Everyman’s scourging himself, which empowers Good-Deeds to rise and accompany Everyman on the final stage of his journey. Good-Deeds brings along for the final part of the journey Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five-Wits. After receiving Communion and Extreme Unction, Everyman continues to the grave, where he is abandoned by, in order, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, Five-Wits, and finally Knowledge. As Everyman enters the grave, his only companion is Good-Deeds.

To make sure there is no missing of the moral, the play has an epilogue spoken by a Doctor, who reminds the audience that all you can take with you to your ultimate reckoning with God is your record of good deeds, that all else is ultimately unimportant; and that if that record is not good, you will be condemned to eternal fire. If, however, your record is clear, you shall be crowned “high in heaven.”

While Everyman is a morality play about the necessity of living a good life by doing good deeds, this message is couched within a strongly Judeo-Christian context. It is God who sets the process in motion. The rewards are heaven or hell. Everyman must scourge himself and receive the sacraments before he is ready to go to the grave. Near the end of the play, there is a mini-sermon by Five-Wits on the fact that “the least priest in the world” is “more important than any emperor, king, duke, or baron.” This religious message also needs to be seen in the larger religio-political context of the time.

Assuming the 1495 Dutch Elckerlijc is the original version of the play, only twenty-two years pass before Luther’s 95 theses, tacked to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, start the Protestant Reformation. Everyman is presumably published some time in this interval, and is therefore a major document in defense of traditional Catholic doctrine, that said good works and the sacraments were necessary in order to be saved. Luther, who felt that Catholicism was corrupt because of the selling of indulgences, argued that faith alone, “sola fide,” was all that was necessary for salvation, and thus we continue to have two major separate branches of Christianity. Christianity is not, however, the only religious/spiritual tradition referenced. God’s anger and jealousy are mirrors of the god of the Hebrew Bible; the play also references Adonai, a Jewish name for God; and Judas Macabee, Jewish priest and hero of the revolt against the Selucid Empire in the 160s BCE, whose removal of Greek statues from the Temple in Jerusalem and its rededication is commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. And last, there is a very Buddhist orientation of the message, namely that life is transitory, everything is impermanent, and things and material possessions do not matter.

This is the backdrop for Everybody. The first thing to take note of is the title change. In the same way that Jacobs-Jenkins changes Boucicault’s title from THE Octoroon to AN Octoroon, noting that the main character is not unique but one of many, the change from Everyman to Everybody makes a similar, and non-sexist, point. This is not, however, a mere stylistic or linguistic point that Jacobs-Jenkins is making. He makes the point theatrically in two interesting ways.

First of all, there is a group of characters called Somebodies, not in the original, and these collectively are all sub-parts of Everybody, which raises the question of how many Somebodies it takes to constitute one Everybody. Secondly, the script makes clear that before each performance, there are lotteries both to determine which Somebody will play Everybody, and which Somebodies play Friendship, Strength, etc., so the actors have to know all the parts. By rotating the roles, Jacobs-Jenkins theatrically emphasizes the collective nature of both the personality and the theatrical enterprise. This, of course, means that there are over 100 possible different acting configurations, and this means you have to see the play more than once to witness this collective statement.

Although Everybody, like its predecessor, is labeled a morality play, the religious nature is immediately undercut when we are told it is “Someone or Something-God?” who sends Death to summon every creature. That the word “God” always appears in scare quotes, on the page and verbally on the stage, posed as a question, makes it clear that this is a different type of morality play. And at various points in the play, someone will ask Death, surprised, “So God is real?” Death always answers ambiguously with something such as, “I’m never really sure how to answer that”; or, “Doesn’t that depend on your definition of ‘real’?” As in An Octoroon, where Jacobs-Jenkins constantly reminded us in a Brechtian way that we are always watching theatre, a devised performance, here we have an overly long speech by an usher that not only tells us to turn off our cell phones, but also soliloquizes on the “Do Not Disturb” function, sore throats, weird-tasting tongues, and the sound of noisy paper or plastic wrappers, and gives us both a brief history of the play and of the Buddhist notion of reincarnation. The character Death emerges from the audience, as do the sleeping Somebodies, somewhat like the Furies at the beginning of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides.

As in Everyman, here, Death summons Everybody to a reckoning, and there is immediate resistance. Everybody first tries to bribe Death to delay the day of reckoning; and when that fails, asks if there can be friends to accompany the journey. When Death leaves to get ready, Everybody then says to the Somebodies, “And that’s when I woke up.” Has everything previous merely been a dream of Everybody’s? Has there been no command by “God” for a day of reckoning? Are both “God” and Death merely the result of Everybody’s bad dream and none of this is real? Is theatre also merely an illusion? Are dreams, and theatre, a form of vision? Does life, in fact, have a point, and how can a life be understood and accounted for without succumbing to Narcissistic Personality Disorder? These existential questions are raised, but of course not answered. While Death is dressing for the journey, Friendship appears and vows to die and to go to hell and back for Everybody, but recants after realizing there is no “and back,” but awards Everybody a trophy for “lifetime achievement” and “dying before me”and then leaves, but implies that he is the author of Everybody, who has made art about his dying friend. We are again reminded that we are witnessing a theatrical performance, a step away from “reality”; and that the performance we are seeing, created by Friendship, a character in the play, and thus another step away from reality, is all part of Everybody’s dream, still a third step away from reality, which then engenders a conversation about the proper use of language in dreams. Specifically, is it okay to use the phrase “whatever you want, homey,” and is to criticize such dream language an example of racializing one’s unconscious? This is, of course, extremely hilarious, and significantly undercuts the solemn tone of a supposed “morality play.”

Having been abandoned by Friendship, Everybody hopes family members will come through as journey companions, but both Kinship and Cousin (who has both a cough and a hurt toe and therefore can’t travel) refuse, along with a little girl from the audience. This causes Everybody to lament that “humans are useless nothings,” and complain that artists, writers, religious figures, and politicians try to convince us otherwise. As a last resort, Everybody tries to get Stuff to go on the journey, but discovers that Stuff’s purpose in life is to destroy humans with capitalist cravings. Everybody claims this is the end of the dream, and then notices an audience member, who turns out to be Love, trying to leave. Everybody tries to convince Love not to leave, and instead go on the journey to God. This confuses things even more because now the journey exists both inside and outside Everybody’s dream. What is real, what is dream, and what is theatre? These are questions the play continually asks us.

In return for Love remaining, Everybody must strip and run around the theatre chanting, “I’VE BEEN VERY DISAPPOINTING BECAUSE MY BODY IS A MYSTERY TO MYSELF,” and, “I HAVE NO CONTROL,” after which Death finally returns (preceded by “La Danse Macabre”) and Love agrees to accompany Everybody on the journey. Of course, Love should have been asked first to accompany Everybody. An usher, now Understanding, arrives, accompanied by Strength, Beauty, Mind, and Senses, who all agree to go with Everybody; but when they see the actual grave, Beauty fades, Strength runs out, the Mind goes, the Senses get lost, and Everybody goes blind. Finally joined by Evil, “all the shitty evil things you’ve done to the world and other people,” Love and Death enter the grave with Everybody while Understanding watches. After Death emerges, Time (sister of Space who formerly dated Death) appears in the form of the previously kidnapped girl from the audience Time and Death exit together holding hands, and Understanding/Usher delivers the “moral,” using some of the same language from Everyman. The morals of the two plays are, however, profoundly different.

Everyman is an exposition of Christian values, particularly Catholic ones, that say that only good deeds can accompany you to the grave, and it is on the basis of them that God will judge you. In contrast, Everybody is accompanied to the grave by Love. One can possibly argue that love and good deeds are essentially the same thing, but Everybody lacks the overall religious context of Everyman. One play’s message is to certain somebodies who espouse a particular religious belief system, and is therefore limited in terms of the potential audience it can reach. The other, more universal than Catholic, is a message for all.

And in a world where women are continually disrespected, dismissed, and demeaned, journalists are body-slammed and dismembered, and racists are called “fine people,” love for all remains the most powerful message there is. Tina Turner once asked, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s answer is, “everything for everybody.”


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