Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Morality Play (Barry Unsworth)

[Not for any challenge; just an ordinary review]

Title: Morality Play

Author: Barry Unsworth

Copyright: 1996 (Paperback, W.W. Norton, New York, ISBN 0-393-31569-6)

Length: 206 pages

Genre: Mystery; literary fiction

Summary: Nicholas Barber is a youth, too young to know his own mind and what will make him happy. Seven months ago, during the month of May, he had caught spring fever and broken away from his priestly occupations. Now it is December and he is standing in the snow overlooking a sad tableau, a group of players surrounding one of their dying members. "It was a Death that began it all..." is the opening of this wonderful novel. Nicholas joins this group of poor players and in attempting to earn money to bury the dead man, that group becomes part of a larger mystery-- a murder, a new form of drama and a shift in thinking. Each player becomes real, largely due to Unsworthy's gift for providing just a few distinct details to make a picture come clear. The historical account of mystery and morality plays is fascinating, particularly if you've never given much thought to how performers might have had to manage scripts and staging in the fourteenth century.


First there was the shame, to cause distress to my Bishop, who had given me the tonsure, who had always treated me like a father, because this was not the first time I had left without permission, but the third, and always in the May-time of the year at the stirring of the blood and this time the reason was different but the stirring was the same. I had been sent to act as a secretary to Sir Robert de Brian, a noble knight and generous in his benefactions but not of discerning taste in letters and in short a very vile poet who set me to transcribing his voluminous verses and as fast as I copied them, he would bring others. All this I endured. But then in addition, he set me the task of transcribing Pilato's long-winded version of Homer. (from the opening of Chapter 2)

The extract has a certain humor to it, but the bulk of this book is serious and meaty. The extract however does give a taste of Unsworth's skill in providing Nicholas with a distinctive voice - one that mixes both fear and occasionally pompous insecurity.

Also Relevant: This book is an absolute favorite of mine. I am offering it as a historical mystery to my Township library group later this week, but anyone reading it may find far more in it than just the mystery. Given that it is such a short book, I don't want to reveal too much, but for me the themes resonate every time I read it. The outsider looking in and percieving truth where others can not; empowering Everyman to trust his own sense of right and wrong, the importance of Figures (archetypes) in the telling of stories and how stories change when we personalize Figures. Morality Play is, on many different levels, a coming-of-age story.

As I have been slowly reading both John Mullen's How Novels Work as well as Armstrong's A Short History of Myth, re-visiting this book just now seemed a happy serendipity. Mullen discusses types when he talks about people (characters) while Armstrong's Short History touches briefly on how acting out myths gives rise to liturgy. At the time of this story, the Church depended on the Actor's Guilds to portray biblical tales and allegorical renditions of a cosmic and social hierarchy. (For more of the historical background on this, visit this discussion of mystery and morality plays in the city of York.)

I've used this book with discussion groups multiple times. Norton provides a reading group guide with additional historical background provided briefly by the author. The publisher's site also provides a list of literary prizes for which this book was shortlisted and/or awarded. Every time I've read it, I've discovered or noticed something new. If Barry Unsworth is considered to be a leading literary artist, then this is the book you hope will be deemed a classic one day. It would be a shame for it to be lost in the flood of lesser works.