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Morality play [Hardcover]

Barry (1930-2012) Unsworth
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)

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First Sentence
IT WAS A DEATH that began it all and another death that led us on. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Atmspheric Medieval Mystery Feb. 13 2003
Format:Paperback
I picked up this book because I've always loved mysteries, this one promised to be a mystery and also qualify as decent lit., and because I loved the cover.
Unsworth is obviously a very talented writer, and the amount of research that must have gone into this novel in phenominal. Even more impressively, it doesn't feel like research when you read it. I learned all sorts of interesting details about Medieval life and culture in general and Medieval theatre in particular, and I got to learn all these things while being primarily engaged by a fascinating story, and a group of well-drawn characters. They were all good. Stephen, Tobias, Straw, Springer, our narrator, the marvelously real Nicholas, and particularly Martin, the leader of the Players, and Margaret, the marginalized member.
The mystery itself wasn't particularly difficult to discover; however, the tension of the book was steadily built, and the threat that the Players constantly felt seemed very real.
Unsworth also excels at description, and passages describing the bitter winter weather, and the arrival of the knight, are excellent.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Roaring promise but weak conclusion. Dec 29 2002
By KateMc
Format:Paperback
Morality Play starts out with roaring promise as the curtain opens: a fugitive monk stumbles into a traveling actors troupe in the woods of medieval England and is taken under their wing as the players make their way across the wintry countryside. With the monk eagerly absorbing the tricks of the players trade as the group literally sings for their supper, the reader is transported through a 14th-century world of feudal loyalties, political intrigue and the desperation of peasants trying to survive against winter, famine, the Black plague and the injustices of ruling priests and knights. But there's danger ahead - the group arrives in a small village in the aftermath of a child's murder, and finds itself with a role to play as the evidence is hastily buried.
Up to this point the story is a rollicking good read, with interesting group dynamics as each troupe-member adopts their public and private roles, and a growing sense of dread as the players get deeper into dangerous waters. Unsworth does a great job of making medieval England come alive - you smell the stench of corpses, you feel the itch of the horsehair costume, you fear the unpredictable rage of the peasantry. But just when you're expecting a strong and satisfying conclusion, the story collapses. It simply peters out. A late-arriving character arrives at the end to explain it all and promise that everything will be OK. It's like watching a murder mystery on stage where suddenly the curtain comes down and somebody you've never seen arrives on stage to tell the audience "the bad guy was arrested, the crime was solved, and you can go home now, and I have no idea what happened to the players left in the castle." Despite Unsworth's masterful depiction of time and place, Morality Play suffers from a disappointing ending for a story with so much promise.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Tale of Fourteenth Century England April 23 2002
Format:Paperback
Life in fourteenth century England was a grim affair, particularly when viewed through modern eyes. There was little in the way of material comfort, most people struggling merely to subsist. Liberty, too, was scarce in a feudal system dominated by the often capricious and competing forces of King, Lord and Church. And there were intermingled the ubiquitous spectres of magic, superstition, banditry, and disease. With the ravages of the Black Death, life in the late Middle Ages was truly nasty, brutish and short.
Against this background, Barry Unsworth's "Morality Play" weaves a masterful and compelling tale of Nicholas Barber, a twenty-three year old priest, "a poor scholar, open-breeched to the winds of heaven as people say, with nothing but Latin to recommend [him]." Nicholas, after commiting adultery and losing his cloak while fleeing the wrathful husband, takes up with an itinerant band of players. He thus becomes both a fugitive, by leaving his diocese without permission of his Bishop, and a sinner by entering upon an occupation forbidden by the Church.
The players soon find themselves in a town where Thomas Wells, a twelve year old boy, has been murdered and a young woman has been hastily tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the crime. It is then that their leader, Martin, suggests that the troupe depart from the accepted practice of the day, the enactment of plays based upon Biblical stories with well-known themes. Martin proposes, instead, that they perform a "Morality Play" based upon the murder of Thomas Wells.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Morality Play Feb. 13 2002
Format:Paperback
Barry Unsworth's book borders on brilliance. Unlike some period pieces purportedly focusing on medieval times and life, the timelessness of this tale draws us in and challenges us, like a play. As we all know, life is art, and art is life. Unsworth takes us to the next step as he illuminates a world, perhaps ultimately not that different from ours, that does not welcome light thrown onto its preferred mode of darkness.
On one level, "Morality Play" is a simple tale of traveling players during the calamitous fourteenth century, a time when all bad aspects of life were perhaps at their ascendancy. The author spares us neither the plague nor the corruption of the church and the nobility. There is more than enough avarice and cruelty in this short volume to make the reader grateful that our days are so much better.
As one expects in a narrative of the Middle Ages, Fortune drives men to their destiny, in spite of any thoughts, wishes, or desires recalcitrant or reasoning minds may offer in opposition. It is Fortune that drives Nicholas Barber, our erstwhile narrator, to join a troupe of itinerant players. It is Fortune that drives the players to a town that recently had lost a child through foul murder. It is also Fortune that drives the players to create a new art form, plays based on life though still rooted in types. The end has more than a hint of deus ex machina, making the point that the timeless is so for a reason, perhaps the most valid reason of all.
Although the players are types on stage, the change is obvious as each shifts to a position where it is not clear whether the person or the role is more in control. These players are radical beyond what a casual reader might suspect.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Profound Historical Mystery
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. Read more
Published 24 months ago by A. LiVecchi
3.0 out of 5 stars A good book club discussion book
Set among a troupe of players in Medieval England, "Morality Play" is a vigorously researced historical novel. There's a murder mystery, but that's secondary. Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2004 by MelB
4.0 out of 5 stars Evocative, compelling, focused
I don't read historical novels; I grabbed this one because the bookstore was closing in five minutes and the first page seemed interesting.
This is an excellent book. Read more
Published on Jan. 2 2004 by Keith Snyder
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder in the North
"Morality Play" is a murder mystery set in the Middle Ages. Nicholas Barber, a wayward priest, joins a troupe of itinerant actors in northern England who are on their way... Read more
Published on Sept. 4 2003 by MR G. Rodgers
4.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous tale churns the ages
I took a wild chance on this book, having never heard of the author, and loved it, cover to cover. Unsworth has a masterful pen and a magnificent imagination. Read more
Published on Sept. 16 2002 by Quickhappy
3.0 out of 5 stars Good...
... Light fare. Seems more like a screen play for a film project.
Published on Feb. 20 2002 by Philip Z. Andrews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Historical Fiction
Morality Play is the best and most enjoyable book I've read in many months. Barry Unsworth's prose is perfect and he does a wonderful job of bringing 14th century England to life. Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
Pillars of the Earth, Narcissus and Goldmand, and Unsworth's Morality Play are my favorite novels that take place during the medieval period. Read more
Published on Aug. 20 2001 by Noble M. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Tale of Fourteenth Century England
Life in fourteenth century England was a grim affair, particularly when viewed through modern eyes. There was little in the way of material comfort, most people struggling merely... Read more
Published on Nov. 28 2000
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