Morality Play

Morality Play

2.5 2
by Barry Unsworth

View All Available Formats & Editions

Booker Prize Finalist

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,


Booker Prize Finalist

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A portentous opening sentence-``It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on''-sets the tone for Booker Prize winner Unsworth's (Sacred Hunger) gripping story. Indeed, a larger spectre than those two deaths hangs over this tale set in 14th-century England. The Black Plague is abroad in the land, and here it also symbolizes the corruption of the Church and of the nobility. One bleak December day, young Nicholas Barber, a fugitive priest who has impulsively decamped from Lincoln Cathedral, comes upon a small band of traveling players who are burying one of their crew. He pleads to join them, despite the fact that playing on a public stage is expressly forbidden to clergy. His guilt and brooding fear of retribution pervade this taut, poetic narrative. Footsore, hungry, cold and destitute, the members of the troupe are vividly delineated: each has strengths and weaknesses that determine his behavior when their leader, Martin, suggests a daring plan. In the next town they reach, a young woman has been convicted of murdering a 12-year-old boy, on evidence supplied by a Benedictine monk. Desperate to assemble an audience, Martin suggests that they enact the story of the crime. This is a revolutionary idea in a time when custom dictates that players animate only stories from the Bible. As the troupe presents their drama, many questions about the murder become obvious, and they improvise frantically, gradually uncovering the true situation. This, in turn, leads to their imprisonment in the castle of the reigning lord and their involvement in a melodrama equal to the one they have acted. Among the strengths of this suspenseful narrative are Unsworth's marvelously atmospheric depiction of the poverty, misery and pervasive stench of village life and his demonstrations of the strict rules and traditions governing the acting craft; underlying everything is the mixture of piety and superstition that governs all strata of society. Though sometimes he strays into didactic explanations, Unsworth searchingly examines the chasm between appearance and reality and the tenuous influence of morality on human conduct. Author tour. (Nov.)
Library Journal
The author of the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger (LJ 7/92) brings 14th-century England to life in this imaginative medieval mystery, which will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (LJ 4/1/83). Its narrator is Nicholas Barber, a young monk who has forsaken his calling and joined an itinerant troupe of players that gets caught up in the real-life drama of a small-town murder. The crime presents Barber and his fellows with an opportunity to attract a larger-than-usual audience, and they turn sleuths, weaving the bits of information yielded by their investigation into an improvised play that eventually reveals the surprising, sordid truth. Rich in historical detail, Unsworth's well-told tale explores some timeless moral dilemmas and reads like a modern page-turner. Recommended for fiction collections.-David Sowd, formerly with Stark Cty. District Lib., Canton, Ohio
Janet St. John
Locating his "play" in fourteenth-century England, Unsworth dramatically portrays murder and deceit in this engaging new novel. Nicholas Barber, a 23-year-old monk, having broken his chastity vows, flees the wrath of his bishop and fellow monks. On the road, he accidentally witnesses the death of a traveling player and his subsequent mourning by fellow troupe members. Barber is discovered spying but is eventually initiated into the troupe, becoming a player himself. The troupe performs its standard morality play in a small town that winter before hearing of a young boy's murder and a deaf-mute girl's imprisonment for the crime. Attempting to portray the story as a drama for the town's entertainment, the players uncover the true story and find themselves in the middle of a corrupt power-play, and a morally twisted cover-up. Unsworth is quite skillful in revealing, by degrees, possible truths, plausible murderers, and the facts behind the players' drama. He subtly brings to the forefront the issue of an artist's rights and moral concerns in basing his or her art on reality. The novel is original in the way Unsworth depicts both actor's and playwright's sensibility as he unfolds this dark tale, but the popular appeal is in the ways it occasionally mirrors "Name of the Rose" and Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries.
Rich Nichols
Nicholas Barber, a young priest in flight from his tedious labors as a copyist at a cathedral library, and from the husband of the latest "hot and hasty" woman he has taken solace with, falls in with a ragged band of traveling players. The lot of such a troupe, in 14th century England, a time of plague, is hard, but it offers Nicholas both a rough sense of freedom and a chance to indulge his pressing curiosity about life. ("Always," an exasperated judge will later say to Stephen, "you ask the why of things.") The troupe comes to a town where a murder has recently been committed and a deaf-and-mute girl condemned for it. The lack of interest in their plays (although Nicholas gets a laugh for his part in a sketch about Adam), prompts their leader -- a man in whom Nicholas sense "a willingness to transgress" -- to create a play about the murder. The actors spread out through the town, asking questions, piecing together a drama based on the events. But the more they investigate, the more apparent it becomes that the young woman sentenced to death is innocent of the crime.

Then the local nobleman, Lord de Guise, a mysterious and quite possibly lethal figure, summons them to his castle for a command performance. This is an ingenious idea, and Unsworth, who writes with force and wit, works a number of surprises into what might at first seem simply a murder mystery. Many of his previous novels, set in other periods, have used exotic settings to probe the ways in which we either flee from or stubbornly pursue the truth. Nicholas, who discovers that the hankering to know the truth, and to tell it, can drive one to exceptional struggles, is one of his most winning characters. This deceptively simple work is a resonant, sophisticated, moving meditation on evil and redemption. --Salon

Janet Burroway - New York Times Book Review
“Morality Play is a bravura performance. . . . The novel is a thought-provoking comedy on the eternal sameness of disaster and the recurrent uses we put it to in art. On the way we toy with morality and also play our way to the truth.”
Charles Nicholl - Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Morality Play is a book of subtlety, compassion, and skill, and it confirms Barry Unsworth's position as a master craftsman of contemporary British fiction.”
Linda Simon - Boston Globe
“A historical novelist of rare talent. . . . A spare and disquieting tale that, like a morality play itself, urges us to question the allure of Murder One, Prime Suspect 3, and our most recent trial of the century.”
Brian Finney - San Francisco Chronicle
“The entire novel is brilliantly imagined. . . . It is a dramatic meditation on the relationship between life and play.”
Rick Quackenbush - Houston Chronicle
“In Morality Play, [Unsworth] has created an entertaining, thought-provoking work of remarkable scope and detail.”
Dan Cryer - Newsday
“A gem. . . . Morality Play resonates with meaning for our own time.”
Julie Myerson - Independent on Sunday [London]
“A perfect novel. . . . This book dazzles on every level. Its lyrically surprising, unforgettably credible, darkly challenging. You succumb happily on page one and stay in thrall right up to the quick, bruising end.”

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali's Island and Morality Play and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Morality Play 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Glad this was only 159 pages. I read this because it got good reviews. What are some people thinking?