Historical Fiction: Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth

Morality PlayMorality Play by Barry Unsworth

Young priest Nicholas Barber is AWOL, having deserted his work as a scribe to taste the pleasures of spring. Now that winter has arrived, his solitary sojourn is less enjoyable and more dangerous. Nicholas encounters a troupe of traveling players on the road, and, since one of the actors has just died, is invited to join them. They carry the corpse to the nearest town, in search of a Christian burial for him, and while there, propose to stage a play to earn some much needed shillings. When their leader, Martin, learns about the murder of a young boy, he takes a daring step, quickly composing a play about this deeply disturbing incident.

Nicholas is the narrator of this tale, speaking in language very reminiscent of morality plays themselves. Never very brave, he makes an unconventional hero, one who ponders the experience of “playing”, the nature of pretending, and the relationship between actors and audience. Most of all, he immerses readers into the muddy, superstitious, and disease-ridden past (1390), in which survival is never a given, but cruelty surely is. At only two hundred pages, Morality Play is complex but terse, containing not a single detail extraneous to its plot.

Barry Unsworth died in 2012, having written seventeen historical novels, several prize winning. Ray Bradbury died the same day, and the Wall Street Journal wrote “Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past.”

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