Morality Play

moralityMorality Play
by Barry Unsworth
1996 / 206 pages
read by Michael Maloney 5h 34m
rating – 9.25 /  literary crime (but the narration is very poor)
* read and listened*

Somewhere in northern England one December in mid- to late 14th century  a runaway priest , our first person narrator,  comes upon a dead man’s body, quickly hides,  and then the dead man’s companions show up.   This priest, who goes by the name of Nicholas, has encountered a group of traveling players whose occupation is to present portions of the Bible for the entertainment and enlightenment of various local communities. See  for some background.

But now with their beloved Brendon dead,  who will play the role of the Devil’s Fool?  The priest of course, and he pleads for the role basically because he’s hungry.

In general but they play other roles:
Martin –  the leader,  composer, producer, director and sometimes player –
Straw – a natural mime
Springer –  young women’s parts, ex-jongleur/acrobat
Stephen – big,  plays  “God the Father,”  King Herod, the Archangel Michael
Margaret – with Stephen,   does chores mostly
Tobias – Mankind and he plays some music
Brendon / Nicholas – the Devil

The group comes to a town where the December Feast of Lazarus (rising of dead?) is about to get under way.   The body of Brendon is still in the cart, smelling, and the troop is all dressed out in costume with the priest as the devil,  and  they are bringing Death to town where, sure enough,  there has been a murder recently.  And the priest finds out that

“… the player is trapped in his own play but he must never allow the spectators to suspect this, they must always think he is free. Thus the great art of the player is not in showing but in concealing.” (loc 391)

But now they discover that a man of the village was found dead just two days prior.   It is thought that a certain woman killed him and she has been arrested.  This starts the crime element which predominates as plot.

The group puts on their Fall of Man play for the community and it does not go so well for the impoverished little band.   Later they wonder if it was the fact the audience knew the ending beforehand.   Also there is a brief discussion about if God can be presented as if he were just a part in a play ensues some say yes, others no. To Nicholas it’s a heresy.  To Martin it only makes sense.

And so following his own logic,  Martin develops a plan to present a play for which the audience does not know the ending.  About what?  About the murder. The “man” was a 12-year old boy and they go through other little facts Martin has picked up,  but why was the monk in the house?  It was he found who the money there.

The group presents the play the first time.  They make a lot of money and that gets to them  to do it again – even more real – and then skip town.

But first they observe the burial of Brandon in a cemetery newly filled with victims of a re-occurance of the Black Death.  And certain ideas occur to them

The monk in the town (not the player) is Benedictine which means he’s freer to go where he wants than some of other orders. He is corrupt for sure.  The group has decided to do the play again,  but have to question the townspeople further.

The monk met the woman – ? The monk met the boy? The woman met the boy and took him home?  The boy was found on the road?  So many possibilities for the players to think through for their play.  So many twists as they try to bring a play to reality – in several senses of the term.

This novel has some great tension established by the omission of some details and good foreshadowing – “I am sure now that the intention was already there in him.”  (loc. 782)

That fear I felt in the tavern at the power of human desire, a power for harm or good, I feel it still. The nature of power is always the same, though the masks it wears are various. The masks of the powerless are various also. I remember what was said between us that night and the changing expressions on that lean face of his. He had done already what he could always do with frightening ease: he had passed from notion to intention to strategy as if between them there were no curtain, nor even a screen of mist.  (locs 788-791)

Great plot line inside the somewhat difficult language and the characters are well enough developed.  The tension and suspense are excellent.

The themes are common enough – masks and their purposes  in theater and life – losing our true selves to the mask,  what is reality,  when does literature become reality, forms of love,  forms of sin.  But they’re very well presented – introduced in the first third and developed through plot action.

“You thought I was one of your company, one of the players, somewhat belated, come to put on the mask of Justitia in your True Play of Thomas Wells. There was the Monk and the Lord and the Weaver and the Knight. And now the Justice, who sets all things right in the end. But I am in a different play.  (loc 2492)


I knew little of the world, as the Justice had seen, but I knew that we can lose ourselves in the parts we play and if this continues too long we will not find our way back again.

Unsworth, Barry (2012-01-10). Morality Play (Kindle Locations 2685-2686). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

About Maloney’s reading – he has a nice voice,  but reads the material so fast and at such an intense emotional pitch it’s impossible to think about what’s going on – it’s barely comprehensible in many places.  I tried to use the “slow” setting and that brought his speed down enough,  but at that speed there’s a frequent echoey warble.  Not good.   I wouldn’t try to understand it from the audio version alone.
Bottom line – although it’s short,  this is not an easy read in language, plot or themes but when you get involved, it’s brilliant.


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