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Morality Play (Norton Paperback Fiction) Paperback – September 17, 1996


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Set in 14th-century England, Unsworth's novel revolves around a theater troupe whose decision to enact a recent murder leads them to uncover a conspiracy.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The author of the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger (LJ 7/92) brings 14th-century England to life in this imaginative medieval mystery, which will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (LJ 4/1/83). Its narrator is Nicholas Barber, a young monk who has forsaken his calling and joined an itinerant troupe of players that gets caught up in the real-life drama of a small-town murder. The crime presents Barber and his fellows with an opportunity to attract a larger-than-usual audience, and they turn sleuths, weaving the bits of information yielded by their investigation into an improvised play that eventually reveals the surprising, sordid truth. Rich in historical detail, Unsworth's well-told tale explores some timeless moral dilemmas and reads like a modern page-turner. Recommended for fiction collections.
David Sowd, formerly with Stark Cty. District Lib., Canton, Ohio
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Norton Paperback Fiction
  • Paperback: 206 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (September 17, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393315606
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393315608
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #159,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
This simple story serves as a framework for a history lesson as well as a depressing yet fascinating glimpse into life in fourteenth century England. Although nowhere near as ambitious or complex, Morality Play has many of the same attractions as "An Incidence of the Fingerpost." It is a window into a world long gone, alien and difficult for us to imagine, and all the more enthralling because of it. It is a fascinating book that can be read in a few hours.
Fleeing the rigors of the priesthood, as well as an outraged husband, Nicholas joins a band of actors to survive in this nearly lawless land. The small ragged group travels together for protection and to perform stylized plays in small villages along the way for pennies. The plague is in the land again, starvation is an ever present threat, and Kings and Lords hold the power of life and death over the desperately poor. Unwittingly, the group of players stumble into a village which was recently the site of the murder of a young boy. A young woman has been tried for the crime and is to hang immediately. Step by step the group is drawn into this real life drama of life and death until their own wretched existence is at stake.
Although this is a clever plot in a deceptively simple story, the period is the real attraction here. The author captures the most desperate existence imaginable while painting a portrait of a cold, gray, primitive England that is vivid and memorable. A fast and entertaining book.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 28, 2000
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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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 1, 1999
Format: Paperback
Barry Unsworth's "Morality Play" is a brilliantly told murder mystery set in 14th century medieval England. It tells of how a fallen monk in his escape from the monastery joins up with a travelling theatre troupe and in the process helps solve a town murder by performing a morality play to expose the murderer. There are strong shades of Umberto Eco's "The Name Of The Rose" in this wonderfully captivating novel, which though far less ambitious in its aims, is arguably as effective in its delivery. Unsworth's prose is simple, unpretentious and uncluttered, yet so beautifully written with a sureness of touch that renders the overall effect almost poetic. A highly engaging novel that I would recommend unreservedly to anyone who enjoys a murder mystery in an unusual setting.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By "botatoe" on 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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