MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth


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Booker--winning Unsworth (Sacred Hunger, 1992) again brings his formidable talent to bear on English history, here in a brooding 14th--century tale of itinerant players who are inexorably drawn into the dark maze of secrets behind a murder--to their own peril. When in May hawthorn flowers bloomed under 23-year-old Nicholas Barber's window, he abandoned his work as a priest out of wanderlust. Six months later, hungry, cold, and fearing pursuit as an adulterer, he chances upon a ragtag troupe of actors just as one of them dies of affliction--and persuades them to let him join as a replacement. They enter an unknown town in search of hallowed ground for their dead comrade, there hearing details of a local boy's murder and the hasty conviction of a deaf-mute woman. Sensing a travesty of justice as well as a potential goldmine, their leader--the savvy, intense Martin--convinces the others to reenact the deed. When their first performance ends by pointing a finger at the local Lord's confessor, a Benedictine monk, Martin is unsatisfied, so they gather more evidence that turns the next show into an indictment of the Lord himself--although the play is interrupted, once when the monk's corpse is taken past and again when the cast is taken under guard to the castle for a private show. There, the play's meaning shifts once more, with Martin's performance directly challenging the Lord in a way that seals the troupe's doom. But a timely appeal to Nicholas to resume his priestly duties alters the course of events, enabling him to escape and seek out the King's Justice, and leaving the players to strut and fret another day. With mood and setting crisply--and chillingly--evoked, favorable comparisons to The Name of the Rose are in order, though many characters here are slender rather than fully figured, so that what could have been a truly great novel is instead only very good.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0393315606
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday