Well, well, well, Barry... Didn’t think we would meet again after that ghastly horror that ‘The Land of Marvels’ was. But this wasn’t half bad.
The book takes place in late fourteenth century and tells the story of Nicholas, a fugitive monk ,who joins a travelling troupe. As the narrator says:
“It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on.”
Now, writing a literary crime fiction novel revolving around medieval theatre is a very original concept in itself. Unsworth moves very well within the constraints of the world view of the times, and his characters are accurate representations of medieval mentality where fear is the most familiar feeling of all. In the world of war, feudalism, plague and the cruel God punishing you for all sorts of random things, there is indeed a lot to fear.
Unsworth brings the Middle Ages to life with its smells, sounds and sights – most of them aren’t pretty. The atmosphere is so real that you feel like you need a shower afterwards. While Unsworth paints the landscape masterfully, he is, sadly, not as skilled with portraits. The characters melt into one mass of a generic medieval man. This inability to create memorable characters was also my main complaint about ‘The Land of Marvels’ and by ‘memorable’ I mean that if you read their name of on the page, some image comes to your mind. To be honest, the characters remained strangers to me and if I passed them on the street I wouldn’t recognise them. In ‘Morality Play’ there was at least a pretty good story to back it up.
The troupe arrives in a small town where a twelve year boy was recently murdered allegedly by the Weaver’s daughter and she has already been sentenced and is now awaiting execution. When the troupe’s regular biblical plays fails to attract as much attention as they hoped for, Simon, unofficial leader of the group, has an idea to present a play that would depict the little boy’s murder. If you think that’s not a big deal, you obviously never lived in the Middle Ages. Back then you went to hell for things like that. You can’t just play out actual local events! It’s wrong and it’s a sin. Yet, the troupe’s bellies are empty and the promise of money together with a challenge that playing something new and original would present are enough to convince the players to give it a go.
Here is probably, where most of us will have to suspend our historical disbelief, for Martin and his troupe have just singlehandedly revolutionised the theatre. If they hadn’t, there would be no story, so let’s cut Unsworth some slack.
Obviously with the superiority of centuries of experience a modern reader can tell right away that the poor girl is innocent but the players don’t realise that until they start acting the whole murder out and things are just not quite right. And before they know it they are investigating a crime through a play.
‘Morality Play’ is what you call a cracking read, and would be a lot better if Unsworth didn’t constantly interrupt to drone on about how we all wear masks, and we get so into our roles that we forget that they are roles, and the world is a stage and we are all actors, and it is all so unbelievably revelatory, Barry. I am sure no one has ever thought of it before. Except for, maybe, Shakespeare. There really was a little too much heavy-handed symbolism made for eye-rolling only, because it didn’t enrich the story in any way.
All in all, I am not a Barry Unsworth convert. I still fail to see what the big deal about him is, but ‘Morality Play’ was fairly enjoyable and I would even recommend it. Especially to people who like short books, chop, chop, chop.