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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Morality Play (original 1995; edition 1996)

by Barry Unsworth

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934289,334 (3.79)144
Title:Morality Play
Authors:Barry Unsworth
Info:Penguin (1996), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library

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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (1995)


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bookshelves: autumn-2013, film-only, published-1992, medieval5c-16c, britain-england, play-dramatisation, mystery-thriller, lit-richer, historical-fiction, booker-longlist, bdsm
Read on November 28, 2013

Film is called The Reckoning. Blurb from IMDB: A priest on the lam takes up with a traveling band of actors, who then discover a murder has occurred and try to solve it by recreating the crime in a play.

The film alludes to the evolution of the theatre arts from what was strictly Biblical morality plays in the period to dramas based on real or non-Biblical fictional subjects.

Paul Bettany ... Nicholas
Marián Aguilera ... Nicholas' Lover
Trevor Steedman ... Jealous Husband
Simon McBurney ... Stephen
Tom Hardy ... Straw
Brian Cox ... Tobias
Willem Dafoe ... Martin
Gina McKee ... Sarah

Fantastic, a mediaeval mystery up there with The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red and, if you muster all the Cadfaels together to count as one entrant, that too.

5* Sacred Hunger
5* Morality Play
4* Stone Virgin
3* The Hide ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
This was a random library find, and I'm glad I stumbled over it. It's a very different kind of story than any I've read before (14th century historical fiction murder mystery, anyone?), and was also my introduction into the concept of the "morality play." I get swept up in it right away. It was simply written, and pretty short (under 200pgs), but quite enjoyable. It's written as a sort of memoir-style tale looking back over events that happened, so you get some hints and clues about what events were more significant, comments like "I didn't realize it at the time" and such, but you don't get why they were meaningful until that comes up as events progress, so you're left trying to figure out the "clues" along with the characters. I admit I did suspect two big things early on, but it didn't matter, the story still had plenty of mystery to uncover and little twists to throw out. It was a good read, and I'd happily pick up another title by Unsworth. ( )
1 vote PolymathicMonkey | Nov 12, 2013 |
Being Nicholas Barber, priest, his record of the happenings surrounding the death of Thomas Wells at the hand of Sir Richard de Guise.

Nicholas does find himself peradventure the latest member of a troupe of players who, commonly schooled in the presentation of the Plays of Adam, Noah &c., now in search of novelty, take it upon themselves to play for their audience the events leading to the recent murder of a boy of their parish, young Thos. Wells.

The making of the new play before long becomes an investigation into the truth of the matter, and into the Truth of matters. People, masked and unmasked, characters, those on the stage and those on the ground, those even in the palace, those serving the will of the lord, or the king; all are revealed to be Players in the Play of Life, all under ultimate direction of God.

And though all is told as vain fiction, so all in the end is revealed in truth and justice. ( )
  jtck121166 | Oct 28, 2013 |
This brief and beautifully written novel creates such a sense of foreboding from the very first sentence that, about a third of the way through, I could barely put it down. I read it because of the wonderful review below, and I also marked the section quoted there.

Briefly, the story is narrated by a young priest who walks away from his work copying a boring manuscript (a punishable offense) because the birds are singing in the trees and, through chance, joins a wandering, down-on-their-luck group of players. It is the 14th century in England, the plague is mostly but not completely gone and lives on the memories of the survivors, and hereditary lords rule the population. Because their standard plays are not bringing in much money, the group's leader, Martin, convinces them to do a new kind of play, based on what is happening in the town which, as it happens, is the murder of a young boy and the immediate imprisonment of a weaver's daughter for the crime; they will create some of it, borrow some speeches from existing plays, and improvise. As the players seek information by wandering through the town and talking to people, they begin to doubt the official explanation, and their exposition of their doubts, in their performances, leads inexorably to trouble.

Not for one moment as I read this book did I doubt that it was all taking place in the 14th century, in a bleak wintry landscape in which the word of God and the rule of the aristocracy and the ever-present need for money and the very real presence of what they would call sin are always there. But things are changing, both in that world and in the way theater is presented. One of the reasons Martin tries something different, even if he is not conscious of it himself, is that he knows the life of traveling players, as it has been, is doomed. The characters of the different players are fascinating, and the way they work together and at odds with each other, and I was very intrigued by their multiplicity of hand signals for communicating on stage and at other times when speaking would be a bad idea. There is a lot of symbolism in this book as well, some of which undoubtedly went by me, from the real fool (as opposed to the theatrical fool) who nonetheless provides a vital piece of information to a vision of death riding on a horse.

This is not quite a perfect book. I had a suspicion who the real killer was long before the characters did, and the ending seemed a little pulled from a hat and overly convenient. Of the only two female characters in the book with more than a bit role, one is a temporarily reformed prostitute and the other has physical limitations (which I won't detail so as not to spoil the surprise); of course, this is probably reflective of the world of the 14th century. But all in all I loved the world that Unsworth created, the way the world of the theater reflects the outside world, the way disguise and theater create a different kind of power from the power of the church and the lords, and the different masks worn by the players on the "stage" and the "players" in the world. This won't be the last Unsworth I read.
8 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 27, 2013 |
Set in the 14th century Unsworth's novel stands or falls by the authors ability to transport the reader back into those turbulent years. It stood very tall for me especially as the story is not based on recorded historical events and its subject matter is not the upper echelons of society. The story is told in the first person by an apprentice cleric who has absconded from his monastery and falls in with a small band of travelling players who are faced with the problems of burying one of their number who had just died and of earning enough money to keep themselves alive. The troupe including Nicholas the cleric stumble upon a small town, which is reeling from the news that another young boy has been murdered. The players find lodging in an inn and put on a performance of their usual repertoire in the inn yard, but barely make enough money to cover their costs. Martin the leader of the troupe then has the idea of making a play based on the recent murder of the young boy and sends the players out amongst the local people to gather information. The performance the next day packs out the yard but the players enquiries have led them deep into a mystery that is in some important peoples best interest to keep hidden. The players are skilful enough to improvise when they run out of story line but their playing uncovers facts that puts them all in danger for their lives.

An enticing murder mystery develops that Unsworth never allows to become more than believable with his inspired depiction of a few days in the life of a travelling group of players, who push their luck just a bit too far. Martin is the charismatic leader of a group who all leap off the pages in well drawn character studies, but it is Unsworth's ability to get inside the mind of Nicholas and tell the story from a seemingly authentic fourteenth century viewpoint that makes this book so interesting. I don't think he puts a foot wrong; nothing jarred with me in a sustained piece of story telling. This is an example of the young Nicholas trying to make sense out of the troupe's willingness to follow Martin on his dangerous path:

"They were in some fear perhaps, but it was not fear of offending God, it was fear of the freedom that Martin was holding out, the licence to play anything in the world. Such licence brings power........Yes, he offered us the world, he played Lucifer to us in the cramped space of the barn. But the closer prize he did not need to offer, it was already there in our minds: the people would flock to see the murder played. And they would pay. In the end it was our destitution that won the day for him. That and the habit of mind of players, who think of their parts and how best to do them, and listen to the words of the master-player, but do not often think of the meaning as a whole. Had these done so, they would have seen what I, more accustomed to conclusions, saw and trembled at: if we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions, He will leave us in the void without the comfort of His Word."

Unsworth raises some interesting themes in this short passage, themes that would have troubled any thinking person in the fourteenth century, who needed to come to terms with the fear of not following the Word of God as interpreted by religious leaders, however Unsworth is content to raise these issues and does not explore them to such an extent that they will get in the way of the central subject matter of his book which is the murder mystery. It cannot be considered as great literature, but it is certainly very good literature. What Unsworth has written is a superb historical work of fiction; dripping with period detail that explores the thoughts and actions of a group of travelling players, who push their envelope further than is advisable in the society in which they struggle to live. There are plenty of insights into the world of nascent dramatics and a world view that makes this reader appreciate the comforts and freedom of the 21st century. But what of the murder mystery at the heart of the novel? Is it a good one? It is well worked with no loose ends and thoroughly in keeping with its period, there are some surprises, but most lovers of such stories will have got to the denouement well before the author. I found it satisfying enough, although at the end of the day it lacked some excitement as the danger to the characters was resolved off stage with their story being recounted second hand, nevertheless a four star read ( )
8 vote baswood | Jul 31, 2013 |
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It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on.
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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393315606, Paperback)

The national bestseller: A medieval murder mystery full of the wonders of the time—and lessons for our own time—by a master storyteller.

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:48 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A novel about a group of travelling players touring England in 1390 in the years following the Black Death. Tired of presenting the usual mystery plays they decide to re-enact a murder that has recently taken place in the town they are visiting. This has unforeseen consequences as they are forced to confront the real story of death.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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