Tag Archives: morality play

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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Tudor Morality Plays in Modern Cinema: Ritual in morality plays and Repo Men


This post continues the series on Tudor Morality Plays and their ongoing presence in modern cinema. The earlier posts, entitled Set, Costumes, and Dance of Death, and Central Character can be read in these links. The issue of ritual to morality plays are also present in modern cinema. Throughout the series I have chosen to employ the film Repo Men as representative of modern cinema. If you are unfamiliar with the film, perhaps this article would be more meaningful after reading the plot summary linked above.

Ritual in medieval drama visibly symbolized an invisible ‘spiritual’ action performed in reality.[1] The plays make visible the desired spiritual trait or activity. Through this ritual, “a collective articulation is being celebrated; from past experiences and individual responses, a collective attitude is formulated.”[2] The morality play served the audience by reviewing right attitudes set in a contemporary scenario. Potter explains that, “By rehearsing in an articulated and formal sequence the correct attitudes, ritual causes the truth to ‘come true.’”[3]  Ritual then functioned to integrate general truths out of the particulars of human experience. The plays make a connection “between this outer world of events and the inner world of feelings.”[4]

Repo Men followed the sequence of plot development found in morality plays. As stated above, Remy found redemption of sorts through the rescue of Beth from her life of drugs. These truths are further recounted in Remy’s typed cautionary tale. He states,

“So what is it that I am writing? It is not some crappy memoir or even an attempt for apologizing for everything I have done. This is a cautionary tale– A hope that you might learn from my mistakes. ‘Cause in the end, a ‘job is not a job,’ it’s who you are and if you want to change who you are, first, you have to change what you do.”[5]

It is in the details of Remy’s human experience that he is able to draw out particular truths for the audience. The moral of Remy’s tale reflects biblical concepts that one’s acts reflect what their heart desires most.

Origins of the structure of morality plays remain uncertain.[6] However vague the origins it is certain that, “the morality play, an archetypal example of the theater of demonstration, is both didactic (in the sense of teaching Christian doctrine) and ritualistic (in the sense of ‘proving’ it). These interwoven strands of didacticism and ritual together provide the origins of the morality play.”[7] Repo mendemonstrate teaching in Remy’s narrations throughout the movie, calling viewers to take heed of his story and change their ways.


[1] Gordon Kipling, Enter the King: Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1998), 19.

[2] Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, 10.

[3] Ibid.,  11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sapochnik, “Repo Man,” 1:02:38-1:03:17.

[6] See Potter (1975) 12-13. He suggests, “There are indications that at least the structure of the morality play (as distinct from its intellectual substance, which is medieval and Christian) can be traced to similar origins in fertility ritual. The link which connects morality play and ritual is a folk ritual drama known as the mummers’ play. Exactly what the mummers’ play was like in the Middle Ages we cannot be certain, since it is an orally transmitted form (like the ballad) which went officially unnoticed until folklorists began to record it in the eighteenth century.”…“However three facts are abundantly clear: the mummers’ play is an ancient outgrowth of fertility ritual; it existed in some form in medieval times; and it influenced the developing medieval drama.”…“Its central act, a battle of champions to the death, with a miraculous revival, reproduces the ritual battle of winter and summer, the rhythm of death and regeneration, the ritual burial of winter and the resurrection of life” (12). However the similarities between the mummer’s play and morality play should not be overstressed. “Medieval scholars are justifiably cautious about ‘pagan’ myth and ritual, and its supposed dominance in Christian works of literature” (13).

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

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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.

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