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Review: Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth
Doubleday, 1995. 206 pp. $16

On a cold December day during the second half of the fourteenth century, Nicholas Barber steals upon a group of traveling players who stand away from a dying man, one of their number. Fascinated by the players’ wordless empathy, Nicholas watches too long, and they spot him and demand that he come forward. It’s a dangerous time in England, where the plague rides again, and suspicion and fear influence every interaction, not least with vagabonds.

But Nicholas is a vagabond himself, a priest who has left his diocese without permission. He has abandoned his good cloak in a house where he was committing adultery, and knows his way with a pair of dice in his hand. And when the actors move on toward Durham, where they are to perform Nativity plays for the lord’s court, Nicholas accompanies them.

He could have said that they’d just lost a man they need to replace. But Nicholas is also burning a bridge. The bishop of Lincoln, his patron, might take him back if he turned around right then and honestly repented his lapses. But appearing on stage violates the law. And though that scares him, Nicholas can’t resist — something about playing a part, belonging to the small, tightly knit troupe, has touched him.

However, the next village they happen on has recently witnessed a murder; a young boy has been killed, and a deaf-mute young woman sentenced to hang for it. Martin, the leader of the troupe, convinces the others to perform a play based on the killing, as it has been recounted in rumor and disputation around the village. To do so risks severe punishment, for, on stage as in life, truth comes only from God, and the players, already at society’s margin, will overstep if they pretend to interpret their world — and a profane event, no less. Nicholas, understanding the religious proscription intuitively, is appalled. But the show, as always, must go on.

Frontispiece to Wynkyn de Worde’s 1522 edition of the morality play Mundus et Infans (courtesy G. A. Lester, ed., Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, via Wikimedia Commons)

What a premise, as elegant as you could want. And what a title, literally evoking the medieval mystery play while figuratively showing the changeable nature of moral choices. Further, what the medieval mind called a mystery had to do with Scripture and God’s actions, ever inscrutable. But here we have that framework and an actual mystery alongside, which the performance of the play helps to solve.

I have read this novel several times over the past decade or two, and it remains among my favorites. Most people, if they’ve read Unsworth, will point to Sacred Hunger as his masterpiece, and it’s hard to disagree. Yet Morality Play has so much to say about the role that subsumes the player, not just the other way around, involving so many aspects of private, political, and social life, that I’m in awe.

Success here hinges on the characters, and you’d have to look hard and long before you found a more finely drawn ensemble, literally and figuratively. Besides Nicholas, whose desires outstrip his common sense (which makes him human), you have Martin, teacher, leader, and group conscience; Straw, the outwardly fragile, gifted mime; Stephen, the brooding drunk with a commanding presence; and others, each sustained in-depth without more than a line or two of backstory. Together, they create an amazing performance.

Then there’s Unsworth’s prose, simple, highly physical, conveying the time and place from the inside out. Among other things, the medieval theater comes to life in full panoply, as with a performance of the play of Adam, in which Nicholas changes roles between the Devil’s Fool and a normal one:

I shook my bells and struck the tambourine as I went back through the people. I was a different person now, they did not hate me. They knew me for a japer, not a demon. I understood then, as I passed through the people and shook my bells and saw them smile, what all players come to know very well, how quickly shifting are our loves and hates, how they depend on mocks and disguises. With a horned mask and a wooden trident I was their fear of hell fire. Two minutes later, still the same timorous creature as before, with a fool’s cap and a white mask, I was their hope of laughter. I was discovering also the danger of disguise for the player. A mask confers the terror of freedom, it is very easy to forget who you are. I felt it now, this slipping of the soul…

Morality Play is a work of genius, a mirror on human nature in the fourteenth century and now.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book for my bookshelf, where it has pride of place.