Tudor Morality Plays in Modern Cinema: Forgiveness of Sins

[see previous posts on Tudor Morality Plays: pt 1, pt 2, pt 3]

The morality plays have frequently been mistaken for naïve treatises on virtue. They are in fact the call to a specific religious act.[1] In the thirteenth century, the friars preached on penance and virtue and vices to the general populace.[2] Potter suggests that, “The mixture of doctrine and realism in the morality play has its origins in this preaching tradition, and the immediate sources of allegory in the morality play are almost invariably found in medieval sermon literature.”[3] Throughout this period, preachers devoted themselves to “to moving their listeners to take up the penitential process of contrition, confession, and satisfaction to gain forgiveness of their sins.”[4] This theme of penitence and forgiveness dominates morality plays.

After receiving his heart transplant, Remy displayed penitence and sought forgiveness in several scenes. First, his sorrow for his past actions is recognizable in his acknowledgment of the humanness transplant repossession victims. He realized they have a name and family. Even in the underground, he confronted a person that scavenged dead bodies for transplant organs. Discussing what remains of dead bodies, he in disgust asserts, “What do you do with your clients when you are done with them, chop them up for dog meat?[5] Second, Remy sought forgiveness through the rescue of Beth and ultimately himself. In bringing her on the road to redemption, he is bringing himself to redemption. He found his forgiveness (though in the cautionary tale he admits not fully) through the process of redeeming Beth from the Union in the final scene.

A significant connection existed between the morality plays and the concept of the seven deadly sins.[6] Most did not entertain all seven, earlier moral plays seemed to center on the examination of one vice in particular, Castle of Perseverance on Avarice, Mankind on sloth, and Pride of Life on pride.[7] The medieval period produced a corresponding set of cardinal virtues, but the traditional seven virtues did not accurately correlate since they were of a different origin.[8] Nuess suggests that, “To supply this lack, medieval homilists prepared a series of lists known as remedia or cures for the seven deadly sins. It is to this tradition that the ‘virtues’ of The Castle of Perseverance belong.”[9] Personified virtues, a central figure or figures that will epitomize the human condition, and the devil as tempter.[10] Therefore, “a fundamental rhetorical separation between the play world and the real world, as players take on the roles of qualities, e.g. Mercy; supematural beings (Good Angel); whole human categories (Fellowship); and human attributes (Lechery).”[11] Players were differentiated on stage through attractiveness and comedy. Wertz explains that, “Vice is far more attractive on the stage than virtue, which appears rather stuffy and dull. The comic, undignified devils of the mystery plays, become the ‘vices’ of the moral play, who degenerate from supernatural demons into riotous clowns.”[12]

Penitence was employed for those transgressors of the seven deadly sins. One instrument of penitence included recitals of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer retained seven distinct petitions: (1) hallowed by thy name, (2) The kingdom come, (3) Thy will be done, (4) give us daily bread, (5) Forgive us as we forgive, (6) Lead us not into temptation, and (7) Deliver us from evil. Potter explains that,

‘Hallowed be thy name’ is a reminder to resist pride, ‘thy kingdom come’ warns against envy; and so forward through wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lechery. The relevance of the petitions to the sins is sometimes strained (eg., ‘give us … daily bread’ is a remedy for sloth), but these allegorical interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer appear frequently in collections of medieval sermons and other penitential literature.[13]

He continues, “The esoteric remedia of the Paternoster against the deadly sins thus became public knowledge, as part of the educational campaign which sought to implement the institution of the sacrament of penance.”[14] The public preaching of penitence, teaching of the need for forgiveness of the seven deadly sins, and the exhortation of the life of virtues created a natural relationship for implementation of these concepts into morality plays.

Repo Men reveal several vices but the one most prominent is the vice of greed. Prior to the heart transplant, Remy displayed this vice well. In an opening scene, he confronts a transplant for repossession. The person stated he can now pay. Remy responded, “That’s not my department.” He then proceeded to render the customer unconscious to extract the organ.[15] Jake also displayed greed in attempting to keep Remy in the repo department. He put him at risk through sabotaging the defibrillator so that Remy would need a new heart which would put him in need of the income of a repossession agent. Jake asserts, “You thought it was fate? A sort’a cosmic plan to get you right with the world, is that what you thought? …All you had to do is to keep working, you and me doing our thing… I tried to save your life” [by keeping Remy from a sales job].[16] Jake’s greed carried him to extract an overdue organ in a waiting taxi in front of Remy’s house during a barbeque. Jake explains to an apprehensive Remy, “It’s a double commission, I’ll give you half.”[17] The Union corporately is based on greed. The transplant recipients are faced with the decision of death by organ failure or insurmountable debt. A salesperson outlines the terms to potential clients, “Now if you can’t afford the full payment of $618, 429.00, we can offer monthly installments at an APR of 19.6% standard for a generic pancreatic unit.”[18] The general disregard for human life because of greed is the predominate theme of the movie, bodies are ravaged and left to die so that company assets can be recovered and resold to the next victim.

[1] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 16.

[2] H. Leith Spencer, English Preaching in the Late Middle Ages (Oxford [England]; Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1993), 145.

[3] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 20.

[4] Larissa Taylor, Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early Modern Period (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2001), 359.

[5] Sapochnik, “Repo Man,” 1:18:29.

[6] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 21.

[7] Paula Neuss, “The Pardoner’s Tale: An Early Moral Play?,” in Religion in the Poetry and Drama of the Late Middle Ages in England(Cambridge, England: D S Brewer, 1990), 119.

[8] Historically the seven deadly sins are classified as three spiritual sins (Pride, Envy, Wrath) and four corporal sins (Accidia (Sloth), Avaricia/Cupiditas (Greed), Gluttony, Lust. The original seven virtues are classified as three spiritual virtues (Fides (Faith), Spes (Hope), Cartias (Charity) and four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice). However, these do not directly correspond to one another so the remedial model formed at virtue to cure the vice. Therefore, Pride corresponds to Humility, Envy to Charity, Covetousness to Largess, Anger to Peace, Sloth to Patience, Gluttony to Abstinence, Lechery to Chastity.

[9] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 21.

[10] Robert Potter, “The Ordo Virtutum: Ancestor of the English Moralities?,” in Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen(Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Inst Pubns, 1992), 32.

[11] Pamela King, “Morality Plays,” in The Cambrige Companion to Medieval English Theater, ed. Richard Beadle(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 241.

[12] Dorothy Wertz, “Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 13, no. 4 (1969): 439.

[13] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sapochnik, “Repo Man,” 2:44-2:47.

[16] Ibid.,  1:23:54-1:24:44.

[17] Ibid.,  18:38.

[18] Ibid.,  7:54-8:08.


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