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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Morality Play (original 1995; edition 1996)

by Barry Unsworth

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935289,321 (3.79)144
Title:Morality Play
Authors:Barry Unsworth
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (1996), Edition: 1st, Paperback, 206 pages
Collections:Your library

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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (1995)


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Sometimes the best discoveries start as chance events. I saw this book in a second hand shop and thought little more than "oh Barry Unsworth, he's the one who wrote Sacred Hunger, that might be interesting". As it turned out this was an inspired choice.

This is on one level a tautly plotted murder mystery, secondly fourteenth century social history, and thirdly and perhaps deepest an investigation of the birth of modern theatre.

The narrator, a fugitive monk bored with his work, stumbles upon a group of travelling players whose trade is in religious mystery plays, and joins their company to replace a dead man. Their need for money in a strange town leads them to improvise a play based on the murder of a local boy, and as the play and the story evolve, a dark truth emerges. ( )
  bodachliath | Jul 30, 2015 |
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 |
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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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W.W. Norton

An edition of this book was published by W.W. Norton.

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