CAPTAIN AMERICA DESCRIBED IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR DISCOVERING CAPTAIN AMERICA IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

Marvel fans have long been familiar with the figure of Captain America. His conception dates back to the beginning of World War II, 1941, when America needed an example of bravery and fortitude against tremendous odds. I’m sure his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, genuinely believed they were penning a brand new image to inspire a determined America during that time of great peril, as she fought against the evil of tyranny: the Axis in general and Nazis in particular. Inspirational Cap is. Original he is not.

I was doing research for a play set in the Medieval era and came across a book written in 1474 by a man named William Caxton. Caxton is thought to be the first English printer and retailer of printed books and his Game and Playe of Chesse, (and no those are not misspellings but Anglo-Norman English) is believed to be only the very second book ever printed.

In the book there is a passage which anticipated and described the character we know as Captain America with great precision.

The premise of Game and Playe of Chesse is of a tutor instructing a monarch. By way of guide the tutor explains the ideal virtues of each of the gentry on which the piece is based: fairness of a king, faithfulness of his queen, good judgement of his “alphyns” (which in Old German means chaser or wolf and meant as a reference to a judge, which eventually morphed into the modern day chess token of Bishop).

Then the description of the idealized knight.

As a side note, the Anglo-Norman looks strange to the modern eye but with a bit of practice becomes surprisingly easy to parse out. One especially unusual feature is the letter that would soon morph into our familiar “s”, which, in Anglo-Norman English, looks like a lower case “F” with a shortened cross-bar. I do not have that character on my keyboard, and even if I did I would hesitate to use it without an editorial emphasis of some kind because they are, in the jumble of text letters, at first glance (as well as second and third) very difficult to distinguish from our conventional modern “f”. Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I have indicated that medieval “s” as an italicized “f”.

The knyghtes ought to be ftronge not only of body but alfo in corage. Ther ben many ftronge and grete of body – that ben faint and feble in the herte – he is ftronge that may not be vaynquyfshid and ouercomen – how well that he fuffryth moche otherwhile – And fo we beleue that they that be not ouer grete ne ouer lityll ben moft courageous & befte in batayll.

And my amateur/layman’s translation:

The knight should be strong, not only in body but in courage. There have been many large and powerful men who have been faint and feeble of heart. But he is strong who can not be vanquished, discouraged or overcome in spirit no matter how much he suffers.  And so we believe it is not the physical size of a man, no matter how big or small, that matters, but that it is those who have courage who will do best in battle.

So, out of history’s echo, comes the prescient description of America’s example of the perfect knight, 467 years before Cap’s first iteration in Marvel Comics. The physically frail Steve Rogers who, with the help of Dr. Erskine’s Super Soldier formula, becomes the first Avenger, not because of his height or strength, but because of the greatness of his heart – his kindness, his sense of justice, fair play, common decency and courage. And if Cap’s motto while confronting overwhelming odds: “I can do this all day,” doesn’t summarize Caxton’s otherwise flowery prose into a simple and pragmatic maxim, then I do not know what does.

THE SUMMONING OF EVERYMAN – WISDOM FOR THE AGES AT MCNEESE’S TRITICO THEATRE – BUT, ALAS, ONLY THIS WEEKEND!!

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely, one-act, historic cautionary tale on what ultimately matters most at the end of one's life.

WHO CAN GO:

Appropriate for all audience members.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

The Somonyng of Everyman – no my keyboard does not need a new battery and I have not let my spell check run wild – is the original spelling of a 600-odd year old play, transliterated into modern English as The Summoning of EverymanCharles McNeely has wisely chosen to direct this cautionary morality play, and it is to the edification of his cast, his students, McNeese University, and the Lake Charles theater going community at large, where this play succeeds magnificently. The story is about "Everyman", a representative for all of humanity, who must, as we all do, eventually make an accounting of his life. In The Summoning of Everyman this accounting is before God. But even those without faith, if considering their own mortality, might find themselves making an analysis of the way they have spent their years, and the lessons of Everyman are well advised.

It is a common modern warning than in your final hours you are unlikely to regret not spending more time at the office. There is wisdom in this philosophy too. That when on the threshold of what Hamlet called the "undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns," it is only in the recollection of those deeds of generosity, kindness, and expressons of love you are likely to find comfort.

In Everyman, the main character confronts his failings in relying on the fickle and often devious worldly concepts, each personified by a different actor: Sin, Fellowship, Kinship, Worldy Possessions, and even Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Five Wits (the Inward of which are not listed specifically in the play's script but were well known at the time as: Common Sense, Instinct, Imagination, Memory and Fantasy, OR could also be interpreted as the Outward Wits of the Five Senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste), all of whom abandon Everyman in his hour of need as he approaches the Throne of God for Judgment.

Written during the Tudor period (between 1485 and 1603), the script is in Middle English with author unknown, though likely a churchman or several churchmen, possibly based upon a series of homilies. Rendered in simple, child-like, rhythmic, rhyming poetry, the language is rich in lyricalness, imagery, and a sense of historical context.

The play was composed during a period of relative peace, just after the threat of Black Plague had finally begun to decrease, as the feudal system was ending, literacy was on the rise and the Catholic Church was at the center of everyone's life. Subsequently, there was opportunity for the civilized European world to reflect with a certain quietude upon the meaning of existence and what it means to prepare for death. Not that this culture did not already keep such considerations at the forefront of their lives, but with an island of historic comparative tranquility, the population at large could meditate thoughfully in a manner in which it had not been able to for some generations.

Everyman at last seeks out his Good Deeds and Knowledge. It is only when together, they lead him to repentance and Confession, that he begins to see the path to redemption.

The stage is sparse and appropriately vague, creating a historically universal atmosphere with ragged, cobwebby drappings on several levels of risers. The actors are in modern casual dress as an "Everyman" might present him or herself. Most of the performers portray more than one character and the character of Everyman is portrayed, during different confrontations with his own failings, by a succession of actors and actresses. This too lends a subtle conceptual air of ubiquitousness – that ALL or any of us are Everyman who must some day, possibly quite unexpectedly, come to an accounting.

More or less in order of their first appearances: Himshree Neupane introduces, then at the end dismisses, us as the Messenger and also plays Fellowship, Beauty and takes a turn as Everyman. Essense Means is one of those who demonstrate sin and Everyman, as well as Goods. Sean Hinchee is one of those who struggles against sin in the introduction and personifies Confession. Hannah Jolivette is Death and takes a turn at Goods. PZ Stanford lends his voice to the portrayal of God, stands in for Everyman at one point and personifies Discretion and the Five Wits.  Jennifer Tolbert portrays another aspect of sin, as well as Kin, and plays the key character of Good Deeds.  Ariel Pete takes a turn at Strength. Madeline Smith is on stage for sin and characterizes Knowledge. Markell Jolivette helps introduce the World of Sin. All gift the stage with their enthusiasm and energy.

In the end, it is bluntly spoken, that only your Good Deeds will companion you into the afterlife, and I think this can be agreed upon as a Universal maxim among believers and unbelievers alike.

CS Lewis cautioned against chronological snobbery – the bias against the old in favor of the new. This 600 year old play is a shining example of Lewis' persipacity, as much enlightenment can be gleaned from this simple, poetic, one-act, six-centuries old play, which you will discover if you are wise enough to attend this beautiful play at McNeese's Tritico Theatre, 4205 Ryan St Lake Charles, LA 70605, this weekend.

So click to get your tickets at: the McNeese Box Office or call 337-475-5040.