Morality play

by Barry Unsworth

Paperback, 1995




New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, c1995.


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)

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
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
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Barry Unsworth writes literary historical fiction. Now there's a sentence that sounds as much like a challenge as a description, by which I mean his writing lifts the genre above clanging swords and abundant décolletage.

Morality Play is a murder mystery set in 14th century England. Our narrator Thomas is a Benedictine brother "outside his diocese without license"; enticed by the delights and promise of a spring day, he wandered off and is still wandering months later when he comes across a band of players in the woods arguing over what to do with a dead body. The dead body is not a murder victim, but rather a deceased member of the troupe.

After Thomas is allowed to join the players, they make their way to a nearby town. When the standard Play of Adam fails to fill the coffers, their poverty drives them to a startling innovation: they adapt the "morality play" and base it on real events, to wit a play based on a recent murder of a young boy by young woman. Medieval morality plays portrayed good versus evil with characters personifying attributes on one side or the other. Unsworth's play includes God, Mankind, Death, Devil, Justice, Good Counsel, and Truth to name some.

With only hours to prepare, the players must ad lib and they soon find that their assigned roles organically guide them toward a critical examination of the supposed facts of the crime. After the first performance the troupe spreads across the town to find out more for their evening's performance. Before all is said and done, they get very near the truth and find that they have mightily displeased the local lord.

Aside from giving the reader an interesting mystery, Unsworth also takes us literally backstage in the life and work of a traveling medieval theater group. He also convincingly recreates life and the social order of 14th century English town with the threat of plague and famine on Earth followed soon thereafter by hellfire. Unsworth's key insight, however, is found in his exploration of the way that roles can confine and define human behavior. Morality Play is a highly entertaining and stimulating read.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
The historical setting was good, and the characters were believable. The narrator's voice, somewhat naive and simplistic, reminded me of the narrator of Eco's The Name of the Rose. One of the major themes is that we are all actors, whether we are in a play or not, and all find ourselves with roles to play - it brings into question how much control we really have over our own actions. A good, quick read.… (more)
LibraryThing member technodiabla
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member bodachliath
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.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
When the lead player of a troupe of wandering actors suggests to his company a new way to make some money, they are astonished. A young boy has just been murdered, and the weaver's daughter has been accused of the crime.

"Play the murder?" he said. On his face was an expression of bewilderment. "What do you mean? Do you mean the murder of the boy? Who plays things that are done in this world?" ....

"The woman who did it is still living," Margaret said. "If she is still living, she is in the part herself, it is hers, no one else can have it." ....

" this one there is no common acceptance, God has not given us this story to use, He has not revealed to us the meaning of it. So it has no meaning, it is only a death. Players are like other men, they must use God's meanings, they cannot make meanings of their own, that is heresy, it is the source of all our woes, it is the reason our first parents were cast out."

But already, looking around at their faces, I knew that my argument would fail. They were in some fear perhaps, but it was not fear of offending God, it was fear of the freedom Martin was holding out, the license to play anything in the world. Such license brings power... Yes, offered us the world, he played Lucifer to us there in the cramped space of the barn. But the closer prize he did not need to offer, it was already there in all our minds: the people would flock to see their murder played. And they would pay."

And the troupe of players becomes a troupe of crime investigators as well as the local news. Unsworth has put his readers into a time of flux during the 14th century. The absolute power of both the church and the nobility tower over the common people. Everyone is intimate with death made even more present with the scourge of the plague. But cracks are beginning to appear with decay and corruption.

No longer protecting the people, the nobles play at arms in tournaments. Monks wander the countryside acting as agents for those who will pay them and prey on the gullible rather than following the rules of prayer and labor set down by St. Benedict. And now players stray from the words crafted by the church to illustrate their teachings to the unlettered to create plays from the tales of their own lives. It is an adventure fraught with grave danger and magnificent potential.… (more)
LibraryThing member .Monkey.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kasthu
In the late 14th century, a young, errant cleric comes across a troupe of traveling players. One of their party has recently died, and the cleric, Nicholas Barber, steps in to play parts. Their travels take them to a town where a woman of the town has recently murdered a young boy, apparently. Although players in the middle ages only focused on religious subjects, this troupe decides to stage a theatrical version of the murder as a Morality Play. But as they perform it, they discover that the truth is far from what they thought it was.

I thought it was a great idea—and I love everything related to the middle ages, so I thought I would love this book. But I didn’t really. It’s a short book, but it drags in places due to the author’s laborious attempt to sound like a medieval person. There’s a heavy-handed amount of foreshadowing; I stopped counting how many times the narrator repeated the words “if we had only know…” or something to that effect.

But in other aspects, the author recreates the late 14th century very well—this was just after the plague had hit Europe again and as a result everything changed. The sense of confusion that people felt at that time is perfectly reflected in the characters and the setting of this novel. At the same time, though, the book seemed suspended; only references to the recent plague give the reader a general idea of the time. Still, though, I didn’t feel myself getting invested enough in the characters or what happened to them; as a result, I found myself skimming the book.
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LibraryThing member tymfos
I don't know a lot about medieval traveling players, but from all appearances Unsworth researched his subject carefully; there are references to and descriptions of a variety of practices used by actors of the day. Nicholas Barber, a runaway priest, is our narrator; the book seems to capture the attitudes and sensibilities that a priest of that time might have. He is believable as a man of his time and background.

The story kept me reading and guessing how the whole mess was going to turn out -- and these players do get themselves into quite a bit of trouble (I don't think that's a spoiler -- the narrator makes it clear from the start that there is trouble coming in his tale. As the story progresses, the reader can SEE it coming!) A fascinating book that explores the roles people play in life as well as art. Four stars.
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LibraryThing member bridgetmarkwood
Well researched and written. Having a theatre background, I found it an exciting read. Unsworth unravelled the mystery well. Disturbing ending, but well done.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
I was rather disappointed by this. The author takes great care to describe the details of the lives and performances of the Medieval players, but for me the story never really caught fire and I did not find myself interested in any of the characters. Bit of a slog, despite being a short novel and firmly within an area of my interest.… (more)
LibraryThing member shamille
This book tells the story of Nicholas Barber, a young runaway priest, who joins a players' troupe. His world is turned around with one murder, then turned around again.
Nicholas joins the troupe when a previous member dies. The other players reluctantly accept him as the other player's replacement. He learns to become a player despite of his shame because being a player was considered blasphemous in those days (medieval-or-so England).
When someone else dies, a boy called Thomas Wells, the players have a plan to get more money by playing the death of him. The plan works, but then the players slowly learn the truth of the murder through their acting.
This book was pretty good, I read it for summer reading. It's a shorter book, 206 pages was my edition, but it took forever for me to read. The book explored the concepts of justice, like, God's justice and the Kings justice... and several people thinking they were... *ahem* above justice. With the murder, first you think something is fishy, then you think you've totally solved it, then YOU ARE BLINDSIDED. yes you are. But the ending is good, which is always important. I recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member evergene
Almost nothing disappointed about this book. The language, the characters, the plot, the pacing -- it all worked. There are moments of sweet humor, and a brilliant kind of dawning of self-awareness driven by discovery. It's been labeled a "murder mystery," and in some respects perhaps it is, but it's equally an exploration of personal and group ethics. The was one element that to me was a bit weak, having to do with an certain aspect of the perpetrator, but to reveal it here would be a spoiler.… (more)
LibraryThing member amanderson
It's been eons since I read this literary mystery, but it has stayed with me. It had a real sense of time and place to it. It immerses you in the time period, the medieval ages, and gives you a real sense of how different people's outlooks on life were back then from our own, rather than simply transposing characters who feel modern into a historical setting like so many books do. Plus, it's a good mystery story.… (more)
LibraryThing member bodachliath
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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member elucubrare
Not as deep as it thought it was; otherwise enjoyable.
LibraryThing member jtck121166
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.
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LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
"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.

" 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.
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LibraryThing member brownsica
Interesting but strange.
LibraryThing member bhagerty
The story itself is pretty gripping, though the characters are not quite three-dimensional. The writing style, however, is self-consciously antique. Through this style, Unsworth partly succeeds in placing the story in the fourteenth century. But it's not elegant or pleasant to read.
LibraryThing member Mouldywarp
As a Barry Unsworth enthusiast, I find this the best of all his novels. Tightly dramatic and well themed I would infinitely prefer it to the Booker-winning 'Sacred Hunger'.
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
What a great book! I loved the dive into the middle ages - such intrigue and color. Very nice, quick read.



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