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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Morality Play (original 1995; edition 1996)

by Barry Unsworth

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

Work details

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (1995)

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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 were 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 12 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 14th 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 14th century 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 14th 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.

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Set in 14th century wintry England, a troupe of players breaks tradition and puts on true life murder mystery play, endangering themselves and wreaking havoc in the town. This short novel is not a quick read, but worth the effort. Unsworth lets the story unfold at a measured pace but before you know it you're hooked. You forget if you are watching the play or in it. A must read for theater enthusiasts. I do wish the time/place had been more emphasized than it was. ( )
1 vote technodiabla | Jan 12, 2017 |
Not as deep as it thought it was; otherwise enjoyable. ( )
  elucubrare | Dec 29, 2016 |
Pacing is a little off, sometimes bone dry, perhaps a bit longish for what it is, and feels a tad incomplete, but interesting--roles within roles within roles within roles--and well done--the characters don't exhibit Medieval Caricature Syndrome and the writing is often beautiful. 3.75 stars. ( )
1 vote Michael.Xolotl | Nov 11, 2015 |
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. ( )
1 vote bodachliath | Jul 30, 2015 |
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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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