Tudor Morality Plays in modern cinema: Set, Costumes, and Dance of Death

A set diagram from the 15th century morality play "Castle of Perseverance."

Medieval period morality plays arose out a desire to educate the common person about moral values based on biblical principles. The basic concepts of morality plays are clearly evident in Elizabethan plays through the time of Shakespeare and remain evident in modern drama even today. However, what about their influence on motion pictures? Can the basic concepts of medieval morality plays be found in film too? The Bible greatly influenced western culture. In the arts by way of the morality play, some of this biblical legacy remains influential in modern day motion pictures. Characteristics of the content found in morality plays are evident in motion pictures such as Repo Men. This post is intended to introduce morality plays with following posts comparing them to the cinema movie Repo Men.

The earliest extant morality play is a fragment called, by its modern editors, The Pride of Life. The text is written in the blank spaces of a roll containing the accounts of the canons of Christ Church, Dublin, for the years 1333-46.[1] Morality plays rose out of a need to educate the common man about spiritual issues. This new emphasis on teaching and didacticism, “was the practical result of earlier reforms designed to produce laymen better educated in spiritual matters.”[2] Dorothy Browns suggests that, “The broader concerns in the later moralities were generally those of sins and abuses detrimental to man and society and were not focused specifically on religious dogma.”[3] Morality plays impacted theater long into the Elizabethan age. Williams suggests that, “Morality play dominated the theater, extended and adapted as it was to a variety of purposes, religious controversy, social satire, political propaganda, and even the dramatization of history.”[4]

The extant morality plays are few. While fragments of others remain, the primary morality plays include, The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom (or Mind, Will, and Understanding), Mankind, and Everyman. Only fragments remain from The Pride of Life but its plot is preserved in summary through the speech of the Prolocutor at the beginning of the play. Davidson summarizes that plot as, “The King of Life, assisted by his counselors Strength and Health, is a strongly masculine champion of pride which defies all fear, including that of death.”[5] The Castle of Perseverance “especially stresses the alienation from God and from the ideal life of religious devotion and virtue that occurs when one submits himself (or herself) to the social and political pressures of the time.“[6] Wisdom (also called Mind, Will, and Understanding) “extends the allegorical treatment of the human condition in the direction of mysticism.”[7] Mankind presents the standard morality play sequence of innocence/fall/ redemption (in this play probably repentance) in less than an hour and a half.[8] Everyman begins with the prologue that states, “Here beginneth a treatise how the High Father of Heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.”[9] The theme of Everyman alludes to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.

"Remy" as played by Judd Law in Repo Men

For those not wishing to see Repo Men [I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it fit the project here] The plot of Repo Men as summarized on IMDb: “In the future humans have extended and improved our lives through highly sophisticated and expensive mechanical organs created by a company called “The Union”. The dark side of these medical breakthroughs is that if you don’t pay your bill, “The Union” sends its highly skilled repo men to take back its property… with no concern for your comfort or survival. Former soldier Remy is one of the best organ repo men in the business. But when he suffers a cardiac failure on the job, he awakens to find himself fitted with the company’s top-of-the-line heart-replacement… as well as a hefty debt. But a side effect of the procedure is that his heart’s no longer in the job. When he can’t make the payments, The Union sends its toughest enforcer, Remy’s former partner Jake, to track him down.”[10]

The set of Repo men displayed similarities to sets in morality plays. First, the plot generated two distinct categories of people segregated by wealth. The plot, in a sense, moves from the Union company backdrop of wealth to the underground cityscape backdrop of poverty and need. Second, the majority of the movie took place at night. This provided a very dark atmosphere to the content of the movie. Third, displays of dead bodies throughout the movie along with the repeated death scenes provided a reminder similar to the open sepulcher in Everyman. Fourth, the movie drew the audience into the movie much in the same way as morality plays. The content related to present day culture that is fascinated by the marvels of the medical field. In the present culture, there is a surgery or a prescription for everything in today’s world. The movie also confronted the audience with the most basic desire, which is to continue to live at all cost.

Dance of Death, Paris 1486.

Death is a common character in morality plays. The character of has several important elements.[11] First, in a “dance of death,” death is portrayed as coaxing his victims to hop on the instrument of death, such as a spear. Second, iconography revealed that Death has multiple instruments from which to inflict fate on his victims. In many plays he is dramatized as “the dance of death.” In the “dance of death” Death, portrayed as a skeleton, plays his fiddle as Emperor and commoner move to his tune.[12] Williams explained that, “Sometimes a preacher pictures forth the horrors of death as the skeleton summons, one after another, sometimes as many as forty figures representing all conditions of man- and womankind. The Dance of Death has often been connected with the morality play.”[13]

There are two distinct scenes in Repo Men that suggest a dance of death. In the first scene, Jake and Remy encounter a docked ship that contained multiple people overdue organs. They enter the ship to repossess the organs and engage in a fight. The encounter looks like choreographed dance scenes with Remy and Jake fulfilling the role of Death.[14] The second scene in front of the pink door contained more similarities to the dance of death.[15] Jake and Beth must fight their way through several repo men waiting at the door to gain access. After killing three common guards, the repo men, eight in all, move toward Remy to face death by multiple instruments ranging from traditional weapons (knives and pistols) to common tools (hammer and hacksaw). This scene revealed several striking similarities. First, in the same way that the dance of death refered to people hopping on the spear, Remy’s victims hop on his tool of death, coming at him to receive their fate. Second, Death is depicted in these dances as having many weapons and so Remy employs several weapons in his dance.

Therefore, Repo Men displayed similarities to the morality play’s use of space, inviting the audience to become a part of the play through set arrangement and audience location. The movies as well as the sets of morality plays also reinforced the theme of innocence, fall, and redemption found in morality plays. The costumes reminded the audience of the vices or virtues through their elaborate design or their rustic hideousness. Through these tactics, the audience engaged the message of both the movie and the play, which intended to lead to self-evaluation. Next I want to look at plot similarities in Repo Men and Morality Plays.

[1] Arnold Williams, The Drama of Medieval England ([East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1961), 143.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dorothy H. Brown, Christian Humanism in the Late English Morality Plays (Gainesville: Univ of Florida Pr, 1999), 97.

[4] Williams, The Drama of Medieval England, 172.

[5] Davidson, Visualizing the Moral Life: Medieval Iconography and the Macro Morality Plays, 124.

[6] Ibid.,  47.

[7] Ibid.,  10.

[8] Michael R. Kelley, Flamboyant Drama: A Study of the Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, and Wisdom (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 82.

[9] Vincent F. Hopper and Gerald B. Lahey, Medieval Mystery Plays: Abraham and Isaac, Noah’s Flood, the Second Shepherd’s Play; Morality Plays: The Castle of Perseverance, Everyman; and Interludes: Johan, the Husband, the Four Pp (Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1962), 196.

[11] Sophie Oosterwijk, “Lessons in “Hopping”: The Dance of Death and the Chester Mystery Cycle,” Comparative Drama 36, no. 3 (2002): 263.

[12] Williams, The Drama of Medieval England, 147.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sapochnik, “Repo Man,” 21:58-24:18.

[15] Ibid.,  1:37:27-1:40:04.



Filed under Aesthetics, Gospel and Film, Philosophy, Spirituality, Theology