Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Medieval Murder Mystery: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

We lost another one this week.

On June 4, British novelist Barry Unsworth joined the Obituary Club of writers whose passing in 2012 is growing depressingly long: Ray Bradbury, Lewis Nordan, Harry Crews, William Gay, Maurice Sendak, Carlos Fuentes, Josef Skvorecky, Wislawa Szymborska, Dorothy Gilman, Anthony Shadid, Jan Berenstain, Adrienne Rich, Doris Betts, Jean Craighead George, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and Paul Fussell.  And that's only a partial roster of authors who have died since January.  It makes me sad to even type that list.

Unsworth died of lung cancer at age 81, at the end of a writing career which started in the 1960s with novels that, as The Guardian so eloquently stated in its obituary, were filled with "a peculiarly luminous and elegiac prose and an obsession with the themes of secrecy and betrayal...and with the mouldering of past greatness."  He was a British writer who said his early influences were writers from the American South: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.  Though his early books were set in contemporary England, Unsworth soon found his groove in historical novels.  He once told an interviewer how he relished writing novels set in previous centuries: "The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter.  One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition--then and now--which transcend the particular period and become timeless."  His most famous work was Sacred Hunger, which told the grim, harrowing story of the 18th-century slave trade.  It won the Booker Prize in 1992, sharing the honor that year with Michael Ondaajte's The English Patient.

Though Sacred Hunger has long been on my personal short-list of books to read, I never got around to it.  I did, however, read Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play and enjoyed it thoroughly.  By way of memorial tribute to Barry Unsworth, here's a review of that novel which I wrote in 2000 (hence some of the outdated cultural references)...

Medieval Murder Mystery:
the Mud, the Muck, the Monk

If a National Enquirer headline were to pop up in the midst of Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play, it might read: “Chaucer Catches Child Killer!”

Okay, maybe the author of The Canterbury Tales never appears in this 1995 novel, but the spirit of his medieval storytelling frames every chapter like an ornately illustrated border. God, Sin, Death—it’s all here in these 206 pages.

Morality Play is set in a bone-chilling winter of 14th-century England. The House of Plantagenet is on the throne, the Church rules the land, the Black Plague is weeding out the population and ragged troupes of actors roam the countryside performing morality plays for the largely ignorant masses (centuries later, a new generation of largely ignorant masses would get other morality plays like The Bachelor).

The novel opens with a 23-year-old priest joining a starving group of players just as one of their lead actors dies. This is a very fallible priest, I might add. In the opening paragraphs of the story, he admits he stumbles across the troupe of players while running from the scene of adultery—his adultery (“by ill luck the husband returned before expected”). Looking for a place to hide from the enraged husband and fearing the wrath of his bishop for breaking vows of chastity, he signs on to become a player.
I swear it was never in my thought to take the dead man’s place. Had I but known the toils of evil this wayside death would lead us into, I would have gone my way with no further syllable and all the haste I could summon.
But there’s little time for soul-searching as the troupe enters a new town. They lodge in a barn, try to drum up publicity for their upcoming show and start getting their props and makeshift scenery in order. But then a young boy is murdered and a deaf-mute girl is sentenced to hang for the crime. Members of the theater troupe delve deeper into the murder and, believing she might be innocent, come up with the idea of unraveling the mystery by acting it out in an improvised morality play. This is a revolutionary idea in a time when actors are supposed to limit themselves to stories from the Bible. The thespians go through the town collecting information, which they weave into their second performance about the murder. The result is potentially dangerous for everyone involved.


Morality plays were extremely important in the development of theater. Allegorical in nature, they were the staple of players in the 15th and 16th centuries. The action of the plays usually centered on a hero, such as Mankind, who was assaulted by the character of Sin. Everything always ended neatly when Mankind chose redemption and characters like Mercy, Justice, Temperance and Truth swooped in to save the day. Morality plays represented the edgy transition from liturgical (or, “church”) dramas to earthier secular stories.


Unsworth does a good job at capturing a society moving away from the dominance of the church toward a culture that would eventually give us things like (cough coughWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

Nowhere is this conflict between heaven and hell more evident than in Unsworth’s choice of narrator. Nicholas Barber, the adulterous monk, is the perfect vehicle for us to feel the religious-social shift. He may not always be the most reliable narrator, but he is certainly an interesting one. His singular point of view is unforgettable and gives the book its backbone.

Morality Play straddles the centuries to bring us a sensational crime worthy of the 21st century while griming it up in the mud-and-disease world of 700 years ago. Like An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Unsworth’s novel is well-researched and feels authentic enough to be spitting out dung and straw every few pages. It’s certainly a better novel than Fingerpost—if for no other reason than it’s about 500 pages shorter.

What I liked best about this novel is that it thrust me so completely into a world in which I had relatively little experience—apart from the mandatory Chaucer reading assignments in high school and college. I’d read morality plays like Everyman in my Theater 201 course many years ago, but until I read Unsworth’s novel, I never really experienced their significance.

The language of Morality Play is archaic and slow-moving. At times, it reads like the very type of drama it portrays. In one paragraph, you’ll be digesting the priest’s ruminations on the thin line between actor and audience:
The player is always trapped in his own play but he must never allow the spectators to suspect this, they must always think that he is free. Thus the great art of the player is not in showing but concealing.
Then, you’ll turn the page, and you’ll get an earthy passage like this:
I could hear the moving and breathing of the cows. The smell of their dung and their pissy straw was strong in the barn and this was mingled with the dark smell of Brendan [the actor’s corpse they can’t bring themselves to bury] in his corner. Margaret sat with spread legs mending a rent in Adam’s smock, her face turned to the light. This parting of her legs under the skirt disturbed my mind and I prayed within myself to be delivered from evil.
Unfortunately, the vivid world of Nicholas Barber is not enough to make up for what is essentially an uninteresting murder mystery. Unlike Fingerpost, whose crime was too complex and boggling, the riddle at the heart of Morality Play is trite and too easily resolved. I felt a letdown in the closing pages once the murder was solved and all the strings were neatly tied up. It just seemed all too “deus ex machina” for me.

Plot-wise, there are few surprises—you’ll be able to sniff out the solution as easily as if it were one of the unwashed characters standing next to you on a crowded subway. Still, there’s no denying this in an incredibly-written book, one that lets us slip into the time machine and travel back to when Sin really meant something.

No comments:

Post a Comment