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 the most powerful men in all of England.
Unsworth's characters make up one of the strongest points of this novel. The narrator, Nicholas, is insightful and philosophical yet not to the degree that he becomes alienating to the reader. He is given a fully fleshed out and flawed personality so that he does not merely become the lens through which we view the novel's world but is instead a character on par with any of the others in the book. Martin Ball, the head of the group is perhaps the most fascinating of the actors. From the outset, Unsworth prepares us for this man's uniqueness and consequent dangerousness. In a time where creativity is not looked highly upon in the ranks of the peasantry, Martin is a dangerous person to be associated with. He is not content to continue performing the same tired out, formulaic Biblical plays and wants to experiment with an entirely new method of theatre. Casting aside convention, he attempts to depict contemporary life through art, a risky move even in today's culture and outrageous in the 14th century. Martin is very much a visionary, and I had the impression while reading this novel that had he been born a few hundred years later, he would have been a successful and famous playwright. Thus, Unsworth adds a sense of mournful irony to the character of Marin Ball, for both author and reader are aware of the subsequent developments in theatre that would allow men like Martin creative liberty in their writing. For his own time however, Martin is an oddity and is the driving force behind the group's investigation of the town's murder.
Throughout this short novel, we are presented with fascinating snippets of Nicholas' philosophy. His commentary contains deep insight into issues relevant to his own time as well as the world in general. Nicholas extols the idea that everyone is an actor, performing upon one of the many hierarchical stages that make up the world. It is a similar sentiment to that expressed by Shakespeare in his famous quotation, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Unsworth takes the often cited analogy of the world being a stage and explores the depths of their likenesses. By the end of the novel, Unsworth has you seeing the world in the same way as Nicholas who, his transformation to actor complete, views the entire world as a series of ranked stages. Morality Play is more than just a mystery; it is a profound examination of the nature of acting and the effects of playing a role. I highly recommend it as a deep and compelling novel with an unusual take on both historical fiction and mystery.