Morality play: A medieval drama using allegory to make a moral point. Morality plays, which arose in the late fourteenth century, combined the religious dramatic tradition of mystery and miracle plays with the allegorical form. The genre flourished in England in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and was also popular in continental Europe, especially France and the Netherlands.
Morality plays typically were religiously oriented, with a protagonist who represented humanity and a cast of other characters including angels, demons, and personified vices and virtues struggling for the protagonist’s soul. Intended to cultivate Christian character, morality plays didactically portrayed the quest for salvation and the lure of temptation. Over time, they became increasingly secular, addressing social and political issues, giving a comic face to the initially sinister characters Vice and the Devil, and influencing the development of later comedy and the interlude. The genre began to decline in the mid-sixteenth century and largely died out by the century’s end.
EXAMPLES: The anonymous morality plays The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425) and Mankind (c. 1465—70); John Skelton’s Magnificence (c. 1515—16). The anonymous Everyman (1510), generally believed to be a translation of Peter van Diest’s Elckerlijc (written 1470; published 1495), has itself been the springboard for numerous works, including Walter Browne’s play Everywoman (1908), subtitled “Her Pilgrimage in Quest of Love”; Hugo von Haufmannsthal’s play Jedermann (1911); and Philip Roth’s novel Everyman (2006), in which the protagonist, like his medieval analogue, must confront death and, in so doing, reexamine his life. Cinematic takes on the morality play include Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) and Ben Affleck’s Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), based on Dennis Lehane’s 1998 novel of the same name.