A grand historical book, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, about a band of poor travelers, performing plays in the times of the Middle Ages, stumbling into a crime scene that will place them in unforeseen circumstances....
Thus, taking place a dozen years after the Black Death hit England, we have the backdrop of Barry Unsworths gripping novel of a band of traveling players, including a renegade priest turned player (the storys narrator) entering a town and, half-starved, resorting to playing out the towns current event: the murder of a twelve year old boy by the name of Thomas Wells. 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. 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. 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 Beasts 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. I cant imagine a more powerful and compelling story of what it was like to actually live in the wake of the Black Death.
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. They decide to stay in the nearest village and perform a play out of their usual repertoire which includes Biblical stories. "....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. Here, Martin, the leader of the company, decides to break the rule and perform the murder of a young boy. 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. Nickolas' thoughts and his interactions with Martin and the King's Justice provide much food thought on psychological and social issues. I wanted to see a rounded closure to the stories of the players, to the fortune of the village and the justice performed.
Nicholas has had to learn this new trade very quickly, and he also observes how the players in the group interact: "And it came to me then that all the members of this company were playing parts even when there was no one by but themselves. It is soon decided by the players to perform not the traditional miracle plays, but to perform a play of the events that have taken place in the town. Soon it becomes a question of what is reality and what is not as the play becomes interwoven with the story of the events that had taken place in the town. Let me conclude by saying that there is some horror (echoes of the Gilles de Rais story) and the Black Death, but there is also some humour to be found, particularly in the descriptions of the players dressed up for their acts and the execution of the plays.
While it's true the members of the troupe of players (the word 'actor' is never used), along with a woman who travels with them, delve into the mystery as if they were almost detectives, the novel is also a reflection on the nature of art, of storytelling, how it can get at truth even if all the details are not accurate, even if the ending is unknown, even if a first motive is profit.
Barry Unsworths Morality Play proves to be equal parts Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael and learned explication of medieval life. Hollywood today cant resist a brutal murder, nor could these medieval players, who adapt the story into a play of their own a very novel move in Northern England at the time.
this was my introduction to the historical novels of barry unsworth and i really appreciate his idea of telling a story set in the past.
The book takes place in late fourteenth century and tells the story of Nicholas, a fugitive monk ,who joins a travelling troupe. Unsworth moves very well within the constraints of the world view of the times, and his characters are accurate representations of medieval mentality where fear is the most familiar feeling of all. In Morality Play there was at least a pretty good story to back it up. Yet, the troupes bellies are empty and the promise of money together with a challenge that playing something new and original would present are enough to convince the players to give it a go. Morality Play is what you call a cracking read, and would be a lot better if Unsworth didnt constantly interrupt to drone on about how we all wear masks, and we get so into our roles that we forget that they are roles, and the world is a stage and we are all actors, and it is all so unbelievably revelatory, Barry. I still fail to see what the big deal about him is, but Morality Play was fairly enjoyable and I would even recommend it.
I thought Morality Play was written in a very school book way. Well this book repeatedly handles this idea: that in a way we are all actors in our own plays, subject to roles and actions we are not always entirely capable of mastering (even when we recognize them). It warns us that we must be careful to not slip into a 'role' we think genuine in our own real life, because "we can lose ourselves in the parts we play and if this continues for too long we cannot find our way back" (pg.206). This theme is resourcefully explored in Morality Play, all while being wound up in writing that is more than capable of emulating the variety of human nature, at least as much as can be expected for a novel set in the Middle Ages. The brilliancy of Unsworth's writing is visible in the way he can get you captivated about the actual morality plays being performed.
A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British Council, at University of Istanbul,Turkey for British Council, lived as a Writer in residence, Liverpool University, England, and also at Lund University, Sweden. Among my earliest influences as a writer were the American novelists of the deep south, especially Eudora Welty, and some of that elated, grotesque comedy stayed with me." Other novels include Mooncranker's Gift (1973) (winner of the Heinemann Award), Stone Virgin (1985), and Losing Nelson (1999). Unsworth did not start to write historical fiction until his sixth novel, Pascali's Island. Pascali's Island (1980), the first of his novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is set on an unnamed Aegean island during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. This is more difficult, I think, which may be why I find writing novels so challenging and exacting." Awards: Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1974, for Mooncranker's Gift; Arts Council Creative Writing fellowship, Charlotte Mason College, 1978-79; literary fellow, Universities of Durham and Newcastle, 1983-84; Booker Prize (joint winner), 1992, for Sacred Hunger; honorary Litt.D., Manchester University, 1998.