Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize-winnings Sacred Hunger, turns to 14th-century England with a novel of foul doings in the time of The Name of the Rose.
In Morality Play, Barry Unsworth, indisputably the finest writer of literate historical fiction alive today, brings 14th-century England to vibrant life, transporting us back to this "distant mirror" to show us a world that, beneath its medieval trappings, is full of the same corruption and moral dilemmas that we face today. Nicholas Barber is a 23-year-old monk who, fearing the wrath of his bishop for breaking his vows of chastity, takes up with a troupe of traveling players. Coming to a small town in the middle of winter, the troupe puts on its usual morality play, only to get caught up in a drama of a different kind. A murder has taken place and a mute-and-deaf girl stands condenmed, awaiting execution. Seeing an opportunity to attract a large audience, the players go through the town collecting information, which they weave into their second performance. As they perform, though, the story grows, as does the audience. Soon they learn that what makes for good drama is far closer to the dangerous truth than they originally imagined and they attract the concerned attention of the local potentate, the powerful Lord de Guise, who summons them to his castle for a "private performance." Morality Play is a brilliant novel that holds us in its powerful grip as it deftly portrays how art can, quite literally, reveal truth.
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National BestsellerFrom the Author:
Barry Unsworth on Fourteenth-Century Life and Theater
For ordinary people in England the fourteenth century was probably one of the worst times to be alive since recorded history began. It was a period of incessant war abroad and banditry at home. Periodic outbreaks of the plague known as the Black Death decimated the population and often wiped out whole communities. The grip of the Church was relentless, fear of hellfire universal, and the presence of death a daily reality. Under the pressure of these violent and dislocating events, the structure of society was breaking down and the gap was widening between the ideal and the actual, between the teaching of the Church and its practice, between the professions of chivalry and the reality (the knights, who were supposed to be the champions of the oppressed, were themselves the oppressors, notorious for their arrogance and lawlessness).
To survive stresses of this sort there had to be radical change and so there was in this period. The feudal system began to disintegrate, the power of the barons was slowly brought under central control, the high mortality rate due to the plague meant that labor was scarcer and there was more mobility and freedom of choice, a rising merchant class was changing the political balance. The seeds of a new order existed but they would be slow to germinate.
In the theater too this was an age of transition. Medieval drama, the traditional Mystery Play, grew out of the liturgy, the prescribed form of worship of the early Christian Church. When it passed from the Church into the streets and market squares it still remained religious in character, presenting episodes from the Old Testament and from the life of Christ; but it became in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries more elaborate and ambitious. It was taken over by the trade associations of the cities, called guilds, who financed whole cycles of plays from the fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgment, and who were rich enough to afford stage machinery and special "effects." The groups of poor players who traveled from town to town with a small repertory of these Bible plays could not compete with the guilds, but they continued to perform, mixing their half-improvised dramas with burlesque interludes. At the same time a totally new form of drama was being born, known as the Morality Play, which told the story of an individual Christian on the road of life, yielding to temptation, falling from grace, and eventually being redeemed. It was thus the story of the battle for an individual soul, carried on by allegorical figures representing the forces of good and evil.
These two types of play, the Mystery and the Morality, went on being performed side by side throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but it was the Morality, with its stress on psychology and argument, which was to survive as the stronger form, leading the way to the secular drama of the Renaissance.
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