I’ve been thinking a lot about Death this week. Before you reach for your black ties and canapes, I don’t mean death, but Death, as he appears in The Seventh Seal, The Book Thief and now, at the National Theatre, Michael Frayn’s play Afterlife, based on the life of the German impresario Max Reinhardt. Afterlife interweaves Reinhardt’s life in Anschluss-era Salzburg with text from his epic production of Everyman, the 15th century English morality play, in which God, feeling that Man has neglected him in favour of material goods, sends Death to stir things up a bit. In the original, Everyman is a wealthy merchant who enjoys the finer things in life. Confronted with the reality of his own extinction, he initially tries to bribe Death out of it; then, through a series of encounters, comes to realise that all he can take with him to his final reckoning are his good deeds. Having learned his lesson, he goes on to redeem himself and earn his place in Heaven.
There’s an obvious moral parallel to be drawn between Reinhardt, the solipsistic, sybaritic director and Everyman, but Frayn has written something far richer and more complex than that. There’s the political picture, of an Austria riddled with anti-Semitism and openly flirting with the Death that lurks across the border; there’s the creative picture, of a theatrical genius confronted with the ultimate ephemerality of his work; and there’s the personal picture, confronting the audience, of how much reality we can face. Do we need to see Death conquered to sleep easy in our beds?
Frayn’s Death first arrives on stage in a play within a play within a play (I may have lost count at this point). And yet, with all the artifice of theatre stripped away, the audience still gasped in shock. For all our apparent sophistication, Frayn suggests, the old black magic retains its power. The same is also true of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, which defies decades of parody to remain as clammily compulsive as it ever was. So why, I wondered, coming out of the theatre, is Death such a perversely comforting figure?
First, the Western character of Death is himself a servant, not a master. He’s not vindictive, not judgmental, just an honest Joe getting on with the job. When Bergman’s Knight asks for clemency, Death sighs, “They all say that,” like some infernal traffic warden. Second, he’s the ultimate equal opportunities employer. There’s no glass ceiling, no class prejudice, no skills gap: as Everyman discovers, you can’t buy your way out (although I’m betting Rupert Murdoch has a back-up plan). Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief is narrated by Death. This is how he introduces himself:
HERE IS A SMALL FACT: You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the As. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT: Does this worry you? I urge you — don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.
Third, he often has a sense of humour: laughter in the dark. Bergman’s Death is teasing; Zusak’s world-weary, wanting to be liked; Frayn’s is silent but mocking, puncturing complacency, the ultimate satirist. And fourth, he communicates. Death in life is an event, Death in fiction a relationship. In Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, your Death is fully personalised, following you like a shadow, protecting you until the moment comes.
For many centuries in Western culture, and still in many traditions around the world, Death was a familiar character in fiction, drama and at public rituals and celebrations. But he rarely appears in our contemporary culture, which obsessively conceals the realities of death, and has abandoned long-established traditions of public mourning. And I wondered, watching Afterlife, if, by losing Death, we’re losing something comforting. Because the reason Death the character, in all his ragged humour, world-weariness and lack of judgement, is reassuring is that that Death himself, like all of us, is everyman.