Actor/director Peter S. Case, a Resident Artist of La MaMa E.T.C. and member of the Great Jones Repertory, stages his own five-character theatrical adaptation of Death and the Ploughman (Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, 1400), by Johannes von Saaz. The adaptation, based on the 1947 English translation by K.W. Maurer, is a prose poem that is stunningly lyrical, with a highly polished rhetoric and cadence. The staging is abundant in music and movement, with imagery drawn from medieval illuminated manuscripts and paintings of Bosch and Breughel.
Though written at the cusp of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (literally the plowman from Bohemia) is strikingly modern. It is probably literature's most provocative argument between man and death, and is intensely rewarding to read today. The prose-poem is believed to be inspired by the death of the author's first wife in 1400. The grief-stricken writer introduces himself as a ploughman, whose plow is his pen. Representing Man, he bitterly accuses Death of unjust dealings toward humanity. Death argues back forcefully and sometimes scornfully, eventually reconciling the ploughman to the necessity of dying. Throughout the fiery debate, the ploughman asserts a noble human ideal against Death's more negative view of mankind. The dialogue is free of dogmatic teaching and is an astonishing disputation: the author makes deliberate and frequent use of legal forms and phrases, and the dramatic effect is that Death is on trial. Ultimately God, the judge, gives Death the victory but Man the honor. The conclusion is the Man can overcome the awesomeness of Death only through an active and honorable life, inner peace and a clear conscience.
Peter S. Case's unique adaptation breaks Death into four characters, played by a man, two women and a ten year old girl, each chosen to heighten aspects of Death's arguments for dramatic effect. Case's choice also fulfills, literally, the fact that Death speaks in the royal "we." One of the four Deaths is personified with the beautiful image of the ploughman's wife. The characters are introduced by puppets and then morph into live actors. The music is mostly live: all the actors playing Death play instruments. Some of the text is sung. Only sound effects are pre-recorded.