Review: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth

Title: Morality Play
Author: Barry Unsworth
Pages: 206
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 17, 1995
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Source: Personal Copy

Following the journey of renegade priest Nicholas Barber as he joins a traveling theatre group, Morality Play sets the players in a small countryside village where the death of a young boy has just occurred. After performing traditional religious works that were unsuccessful in drawing an audience, the charismatic Martin decides to produce a new kind of play, one that will "belong to the town." After collecting information about the local boy, Thomas Wells, the group realizes that the circumstances regarding the murder are not as they appear and begin to delve deeper to find some answers.

The main reason I picked up this title was the premise. I had never heard of this novel or its author before, but after reading the back cover I knew I had to give this medieval murder mystery a try. Unsworth does an excellent job of creating a believable 14th century setting by providing many details of life during that time period. While someone with a lot of knowledge of medieval Europe might find the details and descriptions boring, I was glad they were included and probably wouldn't have enjoyed the book as much without them.

Even though this was a short novel, Unsworth creates a very dark and clever work that is full of overarching themes. I can see why Morality Play was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1995. Within the pages, the mood and atmosphere of 14th century rural England during the brutal winter come alive. One huge element of the story was the idea that an outsider can have such a drastically different view of a situation than those who are a part of the town. The citizens don't fully realize the need to question the king and his court until a group of outsiders begins doing so themselves, empowering the "lower" classes to trust their sense of justice and do what is right.

Overall, the characters were a little underdeveloped, but that seems to be an homage to many early plays that placed more emphasis on what was said and not on the background of those saying the lines. The length was perfect for this type of work, as any longer may have become tedious and rambling, and the storyline and ending definitely lived up to my expectations.


  1. Unsworth's name is familiar to me, but I'm not sure why. This sounds like it's worth investigating.

  2. Sounds like a different read -- and the time period fascinates me! Might be a good one to check out.

  3. bermudaonion - You may have heard about him because of his Booker prize nomination. He was completely unknown to me when I picked up this book in a thrift store. I just thought the premise sounded really unique.

    Meg - It's definitely a different type of read than I'm use to, and that was part of the appeal. Branching out, I guess. I haven't read many modern day takes on 14th century London (that weren't door stoppers), but I think this one is a good one to try out.


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