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Morality Play

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  2,585 Ratings  ·  256 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
ebook, 208 pages
Published January 10th 2012 by Anchor (first published 1995)
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Community Reviews

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Glenn Russell
Dec 22, 2014 Glenn Russell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on....

A grand historical book, winner of the Booker prize, about a band of poor travelers, performing plays in the times of the Middle Ages, stumbling into a crime scene that will place them in unforeseen circumstances....
Enjoyed it immensely, last two days I breathlessly read through it.
Great book indeed, more to follow.
May 18, 2015 Teresa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The best of historical fiction is said to comment on the time during which it was written, not just the time being written about. Here, though, the focus is perhaps on a universal theme, the idea that nothing ever changes, especially concerning those in power controlling or suppressing the truth for their own benefit.

If you're looking for a mystery (which I didn't read this as), the story might seem formulaic. The nature of the crime and the perpetrator came at me from a mile away and many char
Ivonne Rovira
May 26, 2015 Ivonne Rovira rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play proves to be equal parts Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and learned explication of medieval life. Please don’t let that put you off! This brief, thoroughly entertaining novel won the Booker Prize, and you’ll see why almost immediately.

Wayward priest Nicholas Barber ran away from his diocese during the springtime. Having run afoul of a cuckolded husband, at Christmas time he has fled afield and crosses paths with a traveling acting troupe just at the moment when one
Apr 14, 2013 Maureen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
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
Jun 03, 2012 Kinga rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 22, 2012 Simon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.


This is a historical novel set in a small rural town in fourteenth century England: it is winter, the landscape is snow-laden, the climate is freezing cold, and the Black Death is a constant presence.

This is a pretty nice, atmospheric novel, decently researched and written, with credible characters and a good and engaging storyline, with sparks of real originality: however it does not have the intellectual depth nor the ambitious scope of the "Name of the Rose", for example.

Overall, this is a
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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
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
Sandra Bašić
Žao mi je što je knjiga pisana izvornim a ne modernim eng. jezikom pa je kao takva i prevedena. Prošlo vrijeme "izbodeno" aoristom i imperfektom ubilo mi je volju za čitanjem pa sam prestala pratiti sadržaj a počela brojiti koliko ću puta u rečenici dobiti "bijaše" i sl. inačice dragog nam glagola biti. "Maltretiranje"jezikom ovakvog tipa dozvoljavam samo Bibliji, ovo je bilo pravo mučenje. Šteta, jer knjiga uopće sadržajno nije loša.

Film je popravio dojam (naravno, britanski je) pogotovo moj o
Oct 27, 2013 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 17, 2010 Bryn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sometimes the best discoveries start as chance events. I saw this book in a second hand shop and thought little more than "oh Barry Unsworth, he's the one who wrote Sacred Hunger, that might be interesting". As it turned out this was an inspired choice.

This is on one level a tautly plotted murder mystery, secondly fourteenth century social history, and thirdly and perhaps deepest an investigation of the birth of modern theatre.

The narrator, a fugitive monk bored with his work, stumbles upon a
Mar 21, 2008 Laurensvt rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
Jul 19, 2007 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 06, 2014 Alissa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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.
May 05, 2015 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
MORALITY PLAY. (1995). Barry Unsworth. ***1/2.
Unsworth maintains his run of historical novels, but this time his novel turns into a mystery. The setting is 14th century England, and the protagonists are the members of a players group. Back then, roaming groups of individuals went from village to village enacting plays that mostly dealt with situations from the Bible. In this case, we find that although those dramas were their stock in trade, they changed their story this time and led us into the
Roxenne Smith
Jul 06, 2016 Roxenne Smith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would have given this book five stars if I weren't such a lazy reader. To enjoy this book requires considerable attention and the ability to follow a complex plot that takes place in a culture and time period completely foreign to me. The writing is superlative. The plot is highly imaginative and perfectly constructed. The characters are true in every way.

Even with all this going for it, I nearly gave up on it one-third of the way through. It wasn't always an easy read. So glad I hung in.

Richard Simpson
I never liked this book. Maybe I am biased, as I have never been an admirer of the detective/historical genre; I also could not believe that power is overcome in the medieval age so easily, even if justice is an indication of the growing centralisation of government. Unsworth does capture the cold, dirty and funeral 'reality' of medieval society, or of the popular conception of this society, but the plot follows a detective investigation pro forma: clues, interrogation,confession and truth. Noth ...more
Set in 14th century rural England, a group of actors are roaming the countryside trying to find audiences to finance their travel to their next scheduled performance. Along the way a wayward priest joins the group and the performances. They come upon one village with a crime to be solved and use their group to act out what may have happened.

It started slowly for me but when I powered through, I did enjoy. Often that will happen so even when a book does not initially call to me, I usually try to
Andrew Watson
Jan 14, 2008 Andrew Watson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 29, 2012 Abner rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
Aug 18, 2016 Sandy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

The reader is dropped into a story of the Middle Ages with all the superstitions and paranoia related to the plague, grinding poverty, religious control and slave-like conditions of serfs to lords.
I felt as if I had read a work of Christopher Marlowe or Shakespeare. It often required persistence. I found myself rereading passages in order to understand the masterful descriptions of life in a foreign land and a culture.
It is such a worthwhile read and I am ready to explore more of Barry Unswort
Sep 06, 2009 Trish rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sarah Wingo
I found this book really interesting, well thought out, and stylistically accurate to the period in which it is set. The main reason I'm not giving it a higher rating is because I had a very hard time really getting into it. The entire story is told from the first person narrative of a former priest turned player. It isn't until about 60% of the way in that the story really picks up and I became truly interested in how it would turn out. The narration is slow and deliberate which felt stylistica ...more
Nov 03, 2011 Debra rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Not terrible, but not amazing either. The author writes very poetically at parts, which makes some of the book a really beautiful read. At other parts though, the story is just too boring. Not only that, but it seems that almost every chapter the author does this dumb foreshadowing of, "If I had known then what I know now..."- it gets old very quickly.
I was surprised that this book got so many 5 star reviews. I guess I was just expecting too much from it.
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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
More about Barry Unsworth...

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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.” 4 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.” 4 likes
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