Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Author: Barry Unsworth
ISBN # 0140175741
Publisher: Penguin
1st Published: 1995
188 pages

A group of travelling players is touring England in 1390 in the years following the Black Death. Tired of presenting the usual Mystery& morality plays they decide to re-enact a murder that has recently taken place in the town they are visiting. This has unforeseen consequences as they are forced to confront the real story of death.

Morality Play was short listed for the 1995 Booker Prize - & rightly so! This is a finely crafted piece that feels very old & very much of the period in which it’s set. This is largely due to the 1st person telling – you can imagine the priest sitting by the fire in a darkened room, recounting his tale for the price of his supper.

Starting with a runaway priest, the reader is initially presented with a classically conceived “good” character caught in an act of wrong-doing. In joining a band of not-so-merry players to replace their newly-deceased friend, he is going against the Church & its teachings, effectively banishing himself from the possibility of Paradise when his end comes. But, in turn, the Players themselves, cast in their “un-Godly” roles by the Church, are the ones who find themselves entangled in a mystery that is seemingly beyond the inhabitants of the town where the murder of a boy, Thomas Wells, has shocked the community, & may find themselves in the position of morality against those who would usually wield it against them.

The twist in the tail was, I thought, a little obvious, but being caught up in the simplicity of the time, I didn’t mind & thought it wonderful that the author allowed the story to reach its natural conclusion unhindered. (I won’t divulge any of it here – it really would spoil it for you!). In a time when the only plays performed are the Mysteries or morality plays; for players to create a play that is, in essence, the very truth, is unheard of. The morale shown here is that if one lie leads to another, so, then, does one truth. For those who are willing to search for it, no matter what their initial motive, the truth will out!

Rating: 8


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