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Morality Play

3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  1,956 ratings  ·  185 reviews
Booker Prize Finalist

The time is the fourteenth century. The place is a small town in rural England, and the setting a snow-laden winter. A small troupe of actors accompanied by Nicholas Barber, a young renegade priest, prepare to play the drama of their lives. Breaking the longstanding tradition of only performing religious plays, the groups leader, Martin, wants them to
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ebook, 208 pages
Published January 10th 2012 by Anchor (first published 1995)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Glenn Russell
The Black Death gripped Europe in the years 1348-1350, wiping out nearly half the population in cities and frequently every man, woman and child in villages and towns. People could be healthy in the morning, feverish at noon, covered in boils, spitting blood and writhing in agony in the evening and meet their death that very night. Not even close to understanding the true biological cause of this blackest of plagues and perceiving the ugly, stinking buboes popping up on family and neighbors as t ...more
Maureen
this was my introduction to the historical novels of barry unsworth and i really appreciate his idea of telling a story set in the past. he doesn't overwhelm the reader with his precious research; rather he provides in morality tale a whodunnit set in the middle ages. his style of historical writing is like a high-end manicure: the story is buffed and polished, and then painted with two or three coats of in the colours of the era, in the reflection of historical context in which he has chosen to ...more
Kinga
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
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Marita
I loved this murder mystery which is set against a backdrop of the Black Death and the other terrible events of the fourteenth century. If you're thinking "I don't like murder mysteries", perhaps give this one some consideration as it is not your average murder mystery.

What we have is a group of itinerant actors who stop at a certain town for the purpose of burying a dead comrade, and to perform some plays in order to earn some money to survive. Taking the place of the deceased actor is Nicholas
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Simon
I enjoyed this book, and thought it was well executed, but it left me a little cold. It was a little too studied, a little too self-conscious in its use of the theatre as key to life trope that permeates the book. Also, given the book's brevity, we don't get very full pictures of its characters. No doubt psychology isn't what the author is after - morality plays themselves are a long way from Ibsen, or even Shakespeare - but there's enough of it in there to make you feel the want of more.

Perhaps
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Andrew
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth tells the story of a troupe of actors in 14th century England who become involved in the murder of a young boy. As they investigate the crime for the purposes of producing a play based on it, they become increasingly aware of the inconsistencies that pervade the case against the girl accused by the authorities. The actors soon find themselves well over their heads, embroiled in a mystery that involves far more than a peasant boy's death, a play whose actors are th ...more
Bryn
With the Black Death very much a presence, a young monk who has fled his work runs into a groups of travelling players. One of their number has died, it’s winter and they can’t bury him. The monk joins their numbers as they continue, bearing the dead man with them. The small troupe walks into a murder mystery, and the darkness descends.

This is an exquisitely crafted tale, moody, dark and very clever. One of the things I especially liked is that there is no deliberately setting out to solve the m
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Laurensvt
A traveling troupe of actors in 13th century England finds itself entangled in the politics of a small town. Straying from their usual bible stories -- the only acceptable material for plays -- they perform a recent local murder to enhance ticket sales. As they play the murder night after night, they come to realize the accused murderer is innocent. One of the best things about this book is that it brings you into the setting more than anything I've ever read. It's one of my favorite books of al ...more
Ned Hayes
Morality Play is a tight taut tale of a troupe of actors in 14th century England who enter a new village and find out about the murder of a local boy. In a twist unusual to their station in the culture and their tenuous place in life, they actually become involved in this local crime.

In fact, they choose to create an original play (which was strange to do in the period) around the crime, in order to put the facts before the local village population. In the time period, this brave attempt to por
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Jane
An excellent medieval mystery involving a renegade priest, Nicholas Barber, who, having broken his vow of chastity, has run away from his diocese of Lincoln. He tells us his story of how one bleak December he has joined with a troupe of travelling players and his life with them. They give what is termed 'morality plays': on Biblical subjects, and good triumphing over evil. They are on their way to Durham, the castle of the lord of the area, Sir Robert de Guise, to provide entertainment at the lo ...more
LJ
MORALITY PLAY Hist. Mys-Nicholas Barber-England-1300s) – G+
Unsworth, Barry – Standalone
Doubleday, 1995, US Hardcover – ISBN: 0385479530

First Sentence: It was a death that began is all and another death that led us on.

Young priest Nicholas Barbar has run away from his safe but boring position at Lincoln Cathedral to join a company of players. Deciding to do something different than has been done before, they decide to make a play out of the real murder which has just occurred. A young boy was fou
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Mike
Pacing is a little off, sometimes bone dry, perhaps a bit longish for what it is, and feels a tad incomplete, but interesting--roles within roles within roles within roles--and well done--the characters don't exhibit Medieval Caricature Syndrome and the writing is often beautiful. 3.75 stars.
Adam
A well plotted and concisely written examination of art's relationship to life told in the form of a historical mystery. Imagine the players from Hamlet wandering into The Name of the Rose and sorting things out.
Alissa
An interesting look into the fourteenth century through a group of players. Which were people who traveled and put on simple plays for whoever would watch and with the reenactment of a murder, things got complicated. Kept my attention just by not being what I usually read. Highly recommended.
Lea Heuvelkat
Geloofwaardig, boeiend beeld over een reizend acteursgezelschap in de duistere middeleeuwen, de donkere tijd waar dood alom tegenwoordig is. Slim, meeslepend en mysterieus. Om te herlezen.
Andrew Watson
This book had been sitting on my bookshelf for longer than I care to imagine. For some bizrarre reason, it leapt out at me when I was looking for my next book to read. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it did, for the most part. This is really more of a three and a half star book; enjoyable, but not exactly memorable. I like the premise of the travelling players solving the mystery of the deaths of several children. The atmosphere of the age is caught wonderfully without ...more
Trish
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Abner
I read this book some time ago, just recommended it to a friend, and wanted to get it on my shelf here, since it still sticks with me - a brilliant historical thriller that's about story-telling, about constructing and presenting truth - well, constructing and presenting truth in the form of an improvised play. Yeah, I like this kind of novel, like McEwan's Atonement, novels that are about the the creation of fiction, about that line between what is truth and what is fiction. OK, enough meta-ana ...more
David
Having already read his "The Rage of the Vulture" I was prepared for a finely crafted mystery with a good deal of color for the time of the event. In this case the time is the 14th century, with suitable clothing and places yet with language of the time of composing this fiction.

To quote one reviewer, "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
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Lobstergirl
Jun 18, 2014 Lobstergirl rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi


This was one that I plucked off the library shelf pretty much at random. I do that occasionally. There I was in the "U's", finger extended, plucking. I had read Unsworth's Sacred Hunger and liked it, and this had an appealing opening paragraph, and was only 206 pages. If I hated it, not too much time lost.

It was Booker short-listed, so I was half expecting the worst.

It was a decent read. The first person narrator, a 23-year-old priest, is playing hooky from his job, commits adultery, and ends up
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Rick Patterson
Because it is told from the point of view of Nicholas Barber, renegade priest who has found himself in the company of travelling players, this 14th-century mystery unfolds like the opposite of a morality play: rather than following conventional plots with time-honored gestures and monologues, we are caught up in something entirely unexpected, with just enough information provided to suggest where the tale is taking us through the maze even as we are taking the steps ourselves. The twist in this ...more
Emmy
This is a story about a likeable young priest, who ran away from a comfortable - albeit boring - job as a sub-deacon at the Cathedral of Lincoln, on a whim! He comes across a group of travelling actors on their way to Durham and joins them. The lead-actor/Group manager finds it hard to raise enough cash through attendance fees in a town they stopped at. The townspeople were not interested in the formulaic Biblical stories. Within the previous two days the town lost a 12-years-old who was murdere ...more
Larry
Taking a short break in my Shakespearean binge I was thinking about the pre-Elizabethan period and in fact the commencement of theatre I picked this up at a book sale as the title aligned with my readings on the influences on the Bard, one of which was the Passion, Morality Plays and Pageants. This short novel gives a wonderful feeling of both the period (1500’s?) and what the life was like for a band of itinerant players with a very limited repertoire. The story is the beginning of the leap fro ...more
James Barnard
Coming up with a detective story is, I imagine, a very satisfying experience if you get it right – and even more so if your story is set in a time long before detection even entered the population’s mindset, let alone having the tools to investigate the crime. 13th century England was a time when the lives and deaths of an unskilled, illiterate population barely made a mark on the thoughts of the ruling classes, where there was nothing even approaching a police force, and where even the concept ...more
Patty
Honestly, it took about 40 pages for this book to really engage my attention. Once it did, though, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Couldn't wait to get back on the subway so I'd have time to sit and read, and never figured out "who done it" on my own. A very unique murder mystery. Thank you, Maureen, for recommending it and for giving it to me.
Gordon
A runaway priest falls in with a troupe of wandering actors in England at the time of the Black Death, in the 14th century. He is pious and well-educated, but homeless and very hungry, so he joins them. This being a murder mystery, corpses soon begin to turn up, and a sweet young thing is falsely accused. She is being quickly shepherded to the gallows with unseemly haste. The leader of the troupe, Martin, takes an interest in her, given that she is beautiful and helpless and all, and is soon hot ...more
Bruce Holsinger
One of my favorite historical novels. I've read it several times and taught it once, to a seminar on historical fiction. Short but luminous, and a starkly beautiful portrait of late medieval England and the cultural life of theater.
Tom Romig
This mesmerizing novel plunges you into the 14th century with its rigid class distinctions; rampant deprivation in the form of hunger, cold, and fear; and imminent threat of death via the plague or the violence of war. A band of players makes their hopeful way through this bleak landscape, bravely choosing their own roles in a world where so much is imposed on them. Add to this a murder mystery with characteristics unique to this time and place. And along with all that the first inklings of a tr ...more
Trina
Fascinating medieval mystery about a troupe of actors who stumble upon a murder and decide to incorporate it into the Morality Play they must put on in the next town. Terrific writing.
Thom Dunn
A reasonably convincing account of how modern drama might have evolved from Medieval roots woven in with a story of detection. Bit of a stretch overall, but overall entertaining.
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Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.

From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.

A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British Council
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More about Barry Unsworth...
Sacred Hunger The Ruby in Her Navel Land of Marvels The Quality of Mercy The Songs of the Kings

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“I glimpsed the man's face with the shine of death on it. They laid him down there in the open. They had brought him there to be close to his death, I understood this also at the same moment. For who would wish to see a companion gasp his last on a jolting cart? We desire to keep the dying and the newly dead close before our eyes so as to give them full meed of pity. Our Lord was brought down to be pitied, on the Cross He was too far away.” 2 likes
“This praise, though far from fulsome, gave me pleasure and that is to my shame. But there was something in him, some power of spirit, that made me want to please him. Perhaps, it occurs to me now, it was no more than the intensity of his wish. Men are distinguished by the power of their wanting. What this one wanted became his province and his meal, he governed it and fed on it from the first moment of desire. Besides, with the perversity of our nature, being tested had made me more desire to succeed, though knowing the enterprise to be sinful.” 2 likes
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