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Morality Play

by Barry Unsworth

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1,1853611,832 (3.8)204
The time is the fourteenth century. The place is a small town in rural England, and the setting a snow-laden winter. A small troupe of actors accompanied by Nicholas Barber, a young renegade priest, prepare to play the drama of their lives. Breaking the longstanding tradition of only performing religious plays, the groups leader, Martin, wants them to enact the murder that is foremost in the townspeoples minds. A young boy has been found dead, and a mute-and-deaf girl has been arrested and stands to be hanged for the murder. As members of the troupe delve deeper into the circumstances of the murder, they find themselves entering a political and class feud that may undo them. Intriguing and suspenseful, Morality Play is an exquisite work that captivates by its power, while opening up the distant past as new to the reader.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
A combination historical novel, mystery, and comedy.

Our hero, Nicholas Barber, has escaped the confines of his church to indulge in some pleasures of the body when he comes upon a troupe of players. They are tending to one of their band who has just died. Struck by their humanity and by his own need to find another path, Nicholas joins the band. They take him in because he can sing.

The troupe is on its way to a certified paying gig, as they are owned by a lord in another city, but he does not pay them except when he orders a performance from them. To make ends meet, the group stops in a village and plans a performance. While there, they learn of the murder of a boy and the arrest of a woman for his murder.

After taking in little from their standard performance one of the team persuades the others to take on the story of the murder and to act it out. To do so, they set out in the village to learn what they can about it, and soon develop a play.

What do they learn and how do they learn it? Who else learns from it? Who benefits and who does not? Aha. The mystery.

Told in more-or-less period English, the story is nonetheless easy enough to read and to enjoy. It's fresh and even fun, but actually does have a morality play within. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
Being footloose and fancy-free is a fine thing to imagine, but the reality is rather less splendid when it’s the mid 14th century and winter is coming. Errant cleric Nicholas Barber thinks Fortune might be looking kindly on him when he stumbles across a group of travelling players in the woods, who are burying one of their number. They need a sixth man in their company, and Nicholas can sing and read and write, as befits a clerk. Perhaps he can hold off starvation a while yet, and enjoy some adventure along the way. And yet, as the group moves northward, hoping to reach Durham by Christmas, Fortune has a few more tricks up her sleeve. When circumstances divert them to a country town, they find the community buzzing with news of a murder, and the forthcoming execution of the culprit. But is the supposed murderer really guilty? Nicholas and his colleagues are about to find that a very simple murder is anything but… and in trying to come to the truth of the matter, they might be courting grave danger...

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2019/08/24/morality-play-barry-unsworth/ ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Oct 7, 2019 |


The Black Death gripped Europe in the years 1348-1350, wiping out nearly half the population in cities and frequently every man, woman and child in villages and towns. People could be healthy in the morning, feverish at noon, covered in boils, spitting blood and writhing in agony in the evening and meet their death that very night.

Not even close to understanding the true biological cause of this blackest of plagues and perceiving the ugly, stinking buboes popping up on family and neighbors as the wrath of God, inhabitants of Europe lived in a collective psychological paralysis.

The aftermath of the great pestilence left the surviving population in chaos: fields lay waste since there were fewer peasants to farm, murdering brigands terrorized the countryside and the traditional protectors of the oppressed, nobles, knights, monks and priests, frequently became the oppressors.

Not surprisingly, disease and the fear of disease did not go away; rather, more fears piled up: fear of being the victim of such things as famine, torture, rape or hacked to death by bandits or soldiers. All very real, ongoing possibilities. In a word, not a happy, feel-good time to be alive.

Thus, taking place a dozen years after the Black Death hit England, we have the backdrop of Barry Unsworth’s gripping novel of a band of traveling players, including a renegade priest turned player (the story’s narrator) entering a town and, half-starved, resorting to playing out the town’s current event: the murder of a twelve year old boy by the name of Thomas Wells.

Unsworth’s tale has the intrigue, suspense and pace of a hard-boiled detective novel, a storyline simply too good to give away any of the details. Since Mr. Unsworth did his homework on the historical facts and fine points of the fourteenth century, I will focus on several colorful scenes the author includes in his portrayal of these turbulent times.

Decked out in their costumes and ready to take the stage, the band of actors has to deal with some medieval competition. We read, “While we were preparing to put on our play a band of jongleurs came to the inn to the sound of drums and bagpipes, and began at once to set out their pitch against the wall of the yard, opposite the entrance – the best place. Jongleurs traveled in groups and entertain people wherever they can, in great halls, at tournaments and archery contests, at fairs and marketplaces. In this they resemble players, but unlike us they have no leader and there is no general meaning to what they do, they can combine together or break away.” Darn, life is tough for a poor, starving acting troupe; if it isn’t abuse and scorn from the innkeeper and town officials, it’s another band of entertainers invading your space.

Sitting around a fire at night, the head player, Martin by name, recounts how small traveling groups of players such as theirs are being squeezed out not only by jongleurs but by all the big, powerful, wealthy acting guilds who stay in one place and perform an entire cycle of elaborate plays. Rather than playing a set piece like The Play of Adam, Martin comes up with a new idea; he tells the group they should play the murder of Thomas Wells.

Such a unique approach provokes much discussion and debate but the troupe senses all the townspeople will show up for such a play and pay handsomely. From this point, the tension and drama of the novel builds chapter by chapter.

Throughout the story there is telling detail of the way the fourteenth century players acted their parts, which adds real spice to the reading of this novel. For example, here is a description of one of the players, Straw by name, “But there was in Straw an instinct for playing, or rather a meeting of instinct and knowledge, a natural impulse of the body. I do not know what to call it, but is something that can neither be taught nor learned. For the part of the temptress he had devised a strange and frightening way of bending the body stiffly sideways with the head held for a moment in inquiry and hands just above the waist, palms outward and fingers stiffly splayed in a gesture of his own invention. So for a moment, while he made the pause to see the effects of his tempting, he was frozen in wicked inquiry. Then he broke again into sinuous motion, gesturing the delights that awaited Thomas Wells.”

On a road some way from the town, the priest/player/narrator relays what he sees when he looks down the road: “The snow made a mist and at one moment there was nothing but this mist and at one moment there was nothing but this mist and at the next there were dark shapes in it, advancing slowly up the hill, two riders and with them a great black beast whose head rose high as theirs and it had red eyes and above its head there moved with it a shape of red, dark red in the white of snow, and I knew this for the flame of the Beast’s breath and I knew what Beast it was and what manner of riders there were and I crossed myself and groaned aloud in my fear, seeing that the Beast had come and my soul was unprepared.”

Turns out, this is only a knight and his squire and horse traveling to a joust. But the tenor of the times is in the projection -- in his fear, the priest sees the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. I can’t imagine a more powerful and compelling story of what it was like to actually live in the wake of the Black Death.




British author Barry Unsworth, 1930 - 2012 ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."

In 2004, I watched a beautiful film starring Willem Dafoe and Vincent Cassel, among others, titled "The Reckoning". Since then, I was trying to find the book that inspired the movie. It wasn't until 2015 that my search finally ended and two years later, I can say that Unsworth created a very memorable and darkly beautiful novel.

Nickolas is a young priest that has broken his vows of chastity. Running away from his diocese, he comes across a company of traveling players who carry a macabre burden. They decide to stay in the nearest village and perform a play out of their usual repertoire which includes Biblical stories. However, a crime that has caused quite an upheaval in the community becomes the inspiration for a new play. And this is when the implications begin.

"....no one fears players...."

The book is a treasure for those of us interested in the tradition of Morality plays or Mysteries, as they are also called. Through pantomime and verse and with complex -for the time-special effects, the actors used to perform religious themes that would be well- known to the audience, peasants and nobles alike. Depicting local incidents and contemporary events was unheard of and would remain so for quite some time. Here, Martin, the leader of the company, decides to break the rule and perform the murder of a young boy. To do so, the company must investigate the disappearence and murder of young Thomas.

Nickolas and Martin are the main characters. In many ways, they're very similar. They are clever and brave but their morality is dubious. They understand one has to depart from the righteous path in order to eat and to defend those in need during harsh times. The rest of the company are people with interesting background stories, like Stephen and Margaret, but the book is too short and there is very little character development.

The writing is beautiful and powerful. The marvelous, haunting wintry atmosphere is very important to the feeling of the story and I could feel as if I was walking in the medieval market as the snow was falling silently upon the grey tower and the huts. There are many issues addressed in the novel. The Plague carries victims in its passing, but death doesn't come from illness exclusively. Humans are the worst, most ruthless murderers. Poverty makes people obey and bend the knee to every Lord that oppresses them in every level without question. Nickolas' thoughts and his interactions with Martin and the King's Justice provide much food thought on psychological and social issues. The freedom of choice, the notion of duty, the hypocrisy and violence. The crime and the punishment.

As I said, the only negative element is the small length of the novel. I wanted to see and understand more of the characters. I wanted to see a rounded closure to the stories of the players, to the fortune of the village and the justice performed. Apart from that, this is an excellent book that I can't place in one genre. Mystery, thriller, Historical Fiction, psychological study and the list goes on. It is fast - paced, memorable and full of vivid images. However, on my opinion, this is a rare case of the film being more completed and well-rounded than the book. The two complement each other in a perfect way.
( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
Not as deep as it thought it was; otherwise enjoyable. ( )
  elucubrare | Feb 9, 2018 |
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It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on.
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The player is always trapped in his own play but he must never allow the spectators to suspect this, they must always think that he is free. Thus the great art of the player is not in showing but concealing.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The time is the fourteenth century. The place is a small town in rural England, and the setting a snow-laden winter. A small troupe of actors accompanied by Nicholas Barber, a young renegade priest, prepare to play the drama of their lives. Breaking the longstanding tradition of only performing religious plays, the groups leader, Martin, wants them to enact the murder that is foremost in the townspeoples minds. A young boy has been found dead, and a mute-and-deaf girl has been arrested and stands to be hanged for the murder. As members of the troupe delve deeper into the circumstances of the murder, they find themselves entering a political and class feud that may undo them. Intriguing and suspenseful, Morality Play is an exquisite work that captivates by its power, while opening up the distant past as new to the reader.

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