“Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth – review

This was one of those unobtrusive little novels that sat quietly on the bottom shelf of the bookcase for some years, its diminutive size and understated spine neither demanding nor receiving any attention.  There was only one reason I finally picked it up a few days ago: I wanted to put another review up on my blog and I needed something short that I could get through quickly.  Having now finished it, I’m struck by a slightly bizarre sense of guilt that I wasn’t drawn to it by any potential merit other than its length, as it turned out to be the very epitome of the hidden gem.  As recompense for passing over it for so long, my aim now is to give it a moment in the sun.

I know there are millions of people out there who love historical fiction.  I’ll put money on the fact though that there aren’t quite as many medieval drama nerds; but if you are one (as I’m afraid I am!) then this is one of a tiny number of novels that scratch that particularly niche itch.  The story follows a fourteenth century cleric, Nicholas Barber, who tires of a life transcribing interminably dull texts and runs away from his order.  We join him as he comes across a troupe of travelling players gathered around one of their number who has just that moment died; a stroke of luck for Nicholas as a dead actor means a vacancy in the company that needs to be filled.  Despite some initial suspicions the players take him in and continue their journey until they reach a small town, where they decide to stop and earn some money with a few performances.  As per tradition, the play they first present to their audience is a morality play, a type of drama familiar to all watching, with its instantly recognisable characters and orthodox religious message.  However, word soon reaches the new arrivals of a brutal murder recently committed in the town and that gives Martin, the troupe’s unofficial but tacitly accepted leader, a dangerous idea: to write and perform a play telling the story of the crime.  At first the events leading up to the murder seem straightforward enough; a local woman was arrested within hours of the body being discovered and the motive of robbery an obvious explanation for the attack.  As far as the majority of the townspeople are concerned, a guilty sentence for the accused is a foregone conclusion.  Anxious to make the play as authentic and accurate as possible, Martin sends the players out into the community to listen to the gossip and do a bit of surreptitious investigating – but what comes back starts to cast some serious doubt on the official story.  All of a sudden, the play is no longer looking like a representation of events as already believed by the local people, but a shocking exposé of a potential miscarriage of justice.

The mystery of the murder, and the danger in which the players find themselves, drive the plot, but in many ways the book isn’t really about those things.  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” a certain playwright once wrote, and that I think is the crux of this novel.  Time and again assumptions are made about people’s character – and their guilt or innocence – based on the clothes they wear, the office they hold, their position in the social hierarchy.  But in reality the robe of the cleric or the livery of a knight is merely a costume that helps him play out the role his audience expects, and it tells us absolutely nothing about the substance of the man underneath.  When the travelling players perform their morality dramas they use stock characters and universally recognised masks and mimed gestures; the figures presented are ones with which everyone in the audience will be familiar since they always behave in the same way.  That is why, when Martin suggests that for the first time in their lives the actors take on the roles of real people there is an outcry from his troupe.  The stage is for representing the two-dimensional figures of good and evil, wisdom and folly – people want to remain in the safety and comfort provided by the mask and costume, just as they want to admire the colourful shields and shining armour of the jousting knight without questioning the chivalry of the man beneath.  It’s not insignificant that towards the end of the book it begins to look as if acting in their well-worn roles might turn out to be the very thing that saves the players.  Perhaps if we didn’t stick to our pre-determined roles then society would crumble and anarchy would ensue.

I think that the author leaves it very much up to us to decide whether or not this would be a bad thing.  Although he revels in the medieval setting – the language and style of the narrator leave us in no doubt that this is the voice of a fourteenth-century man – it could just as easily be a novel for our time, or indeed any time.  I enjoyed the setting as a passionate medievalist; I enjoyed its concepts and philosophies as a twenty-first century human.  My summary?  A lot more than meets the eye and a hidden gem indeed.

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