‘Everyman’ Anchors Drama at the Salzburg Festival

Greed is bad.

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Greed is bad.

That, in a nutshell, is the message that the audience takes away from the one-act morality play “Jedermann” (“Everyman”), performed annually at the Salzburg Festival. Written by Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it’s staged in front of the Salzburg’s 17th-century cathedral, and the bells of the city’s churches ring out to mark the play’s closing moments.

“Jedermann” had a tepid reception at its premiere in Berlin in 1911. So in 1920 — the year the Salzburg Festival began — it was restaged in the city, to greater acclaim. In the near century since, it has been performed more than 680 times and become a festival staple, drawing sold-out audiences to Cathedral Square, while countless Austrian households tune in to watch it on television.

What explains the lasting appeal of a morality play inspired by a medieval English mystery?

The play was “a kind of peace project — the whole festival was,” said Bettina Hering, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival’s drama department. The festival’s founders believed that “culture can heal some wounds, and at the same time, it can show you different worlds.”

Because “Jedermann” touched on universal themes such as mortality and good and evil, it resonated with a population that had just emerged from a world war, she said. The fact that it was performed in the heart of Salzburg made it “more than a play: It was a part of life.”

From 1938 to 1946 — from the annexation of Austria to the end of World War II — “Jedermann” disappeared from the Salzburg stage; by then, Hofmannsthal, along with a founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt, who as a Jew had escaped Austria during the war, had died. So the production was revived as a way of celebrating those two men and erasing the war years.

“Jedermann” is the story of a very rich man — a “turbocapitalist,” as Hering put it — who leads a highflying, extravagant life. He has an enormous house and a retinue of servants whom he treats with contempt. Despite his mother’s calls to marry, he prefers to have a much younger lover whom he showers with gifts. He has few, if any, friends and refuses to help the needy.

God is dismayed by Jedermann’s immorality and instructs Death to pay him a visit and summon him to face judgment. One evening, as Jedermann is hosting guests at an extravagant dinner party, Death appears at his doorstep. Jedermann begs for time so that he can seek a companion for his final voyage.

Given that greed and extreme wealth are the play’s core subjects, “Jedermann” has taken on particular relevance since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Hering acknowledged that economic events provided a timely context.

“On the one hand, you have the global crisis, and on the other hand, you have the big questions of fate, of religion,” Hering said. “The morality play tells you how to behave,” she added, but “do we still believe in that? Is this still relevant for our day?”

This year’s “Jedermann” production stars Tobias Moretti in the lead role and Stefanie Reinsperger playing his young lover. More than a dozen performances of the play are scheduled throughout the 2018 festival.

Reinsperger said that as an Austrian, she grew up with the play and watched it every summer on television; her family always knew which famous actors were playing Jedermann and his lover, but they could not afford tickets to a live performance. Today, tickets to the play range from 10 to 175 euros (about $12 to $205).

The production itself could move with the times, Reinsperger suggested. She said this year’s staging included a scene that was in the original English medieval mystery, but that Hofmannsthal cut from his play — in which Jedermann’s lover, Paramour, speaks out and refuses to accompany Jedermann to his death.

Paramour “is a really small part, and you really have to read between the few lines that she has,” Reinsperger said. “There is this cliché, of ‘She’s this Lolita woman, and it’s all about the sex.'”

“I wanted to play a strong woman who can talk for herself,” she added.

The true “revolution,” she said, would be to have “a woman playing Jedermann. We could change the genders a bit.” Better yet, she said, women could play all the male roles.

But that would probably take a decade, she said. Salzburg ticket holders don’t like surprises, and it was hard for actors such as herself to “compete with the traditions.”

One male role was actually played by a woman in recent years: the role of Death. That year’s director, Christian Stückl, felt that death was “not really gendered” and that there was no reason to associate it with men, so he made the switch, Hering recalled.

“The public reacted well: They were surprised, but not shocked, and very curious,” she said.

Hering said the play will be staged until at least 2020 to mark the centenary of the Salzburg Festival. And beyond that, “of course it has a future.”