BOOK REVIEW: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth


This is an important book in several ways—not only in well-written and entertaining storytelling (this book was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1995, when it was runner-up to Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road)—but it also reflects the fact that “play” and entertainment served an important role in Medieval life. It eloquently depicts the distinctions between the various social and economic classes of the time: peasantry, clerical/religious, merchant, and nobility, and brings into element the power evinced, regulated, and manipulated by the royal class. It also fluidly colors the imaginations of its characters through the memes and social constructs of the Medieval world.


I’ve found some of Barry Unsworth’s other literary novels to be somewhat weighty. But in this slim work, Unsworth has created a medieval landscape and characters that are relate-able and understandable for their human complexities, perplexities, and the human need to create reason and understanding in the face of mystery. I might let the cat-out-of-the-bag by saying here that there is a gigantic connection between the Mystery-, Miracle-, and Morality-plays of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the tarot. HUGE even… And Unsworth, in his novel entitled Morality Play, shows us that the human struggle for meaning and for man’s creative understanding of larger concepts than himself through imagination can be a powerful catalyst of drama (and danger, and emotion…).


The title of the book—Morality Play—is apt in more ways than one. The book involves a group of traveling guild actors—in a time when traveling could have its perils between kingdoms and between fiefdoms. But the actors in question have a badge of livery—license from a lord—giving them supposed legal passage. Thus they “would not be set in the stocks or whipped for vagabonds as happens to those accounted fugitives or masterless men…” Upon this troupe befalls a rogue priest, the novel’s narrator, who does happen to be a type of vagabond, having escaped from his church’s order (for the third time) for a lustful dalliance, running away from an indelicate position in which a husband came home early. He’s at risk on his own without papers, and without the cloak that he left behind in his haste that marks his clerical station. But Providence or Fortune strikes—of sorts—for where it takes away one of the actors in the troupe by an untimely death, the priest happens upon them to take the empty role at just the right time and moment. The troupe is adept at multiple forms of drama consistent and popular in the time period: mystery, miracle, and morality plays.


Vintage advertisement depicting a Miracle Play

A vintage product advertisement depicting a Mystery Play


All of these forms have their roots in 13th century liturgical dramas that were performed in churches as part of a pedagogical method of catechism—particularly during Christmas, Easter, and the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Nativity Play that children from Sunday School perform during Christmas services is a vestige of these types of dramas). As the dramas became more and more elaborate, they were eventually brought outside the church space, and eventually condemned in many instances (as all things must be once the public exerts too much autonomy and knowledge and the Church feels like it is losing control of things).


So “Mystery” plays were the dramatization of the life and martyrdom of saints. “Miracle” plays were stories taken from the New Testament, and therefore stories about or told by Jesus Christ.


Morality plays, however, were a genre of medieval theatre that employed the use of allegorical figures in order to convey a religious or moral idea—a popular concept in the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. These allegories dramatized the journey of a human character (the “Everyman” representing all or any person from the human race) through life, his temptations and sins, his encounter with death, and finally his pursuit of salvation.  (This should sound familiar to tarot enthusiasts.)


Morality Playscript frontispiece

The frontispiece to Wynkyn de Worde’s 1522 edition of the morality play, Mundus et Infans.


Trying to find a churchyard where they can properly consecrate their lost troupe member to the earth, the troupe reaches a town where there is much hub-bub going on. Not only has the lord of the fief called for a jousting tournament lasting several days culminating on St. Stephen’s Day, but the murder of a young boy has disrupted the locals. Another young woman has been accused of the devilish act and is condemned to die. The actors see it as the opportunity to produce a new kind of morality play—something not in the repertoire, but rather completely contemporaneous and particular to the crime at hand that has enthralled the community. Whether this is folly or prudence, the troupes leader, Martin, cannot escape the pride of fame and the temptation of money that the dubious plan might bring.


Present day reenactment morality play Troupe and cart

A contemporary theatre troupe reënacts a morality play, including the use of a transportation cart that could double as a scenic backdrop element.


And so the troupe, each of them setting off to individually sleuth the best information they can from the townspeople in order to get their facts straight and produce the most accurate rendition of events as possible, unwittingly become embroiled in a murder mystery worthy of the greatest storytellers of that genre.


One of the most fascinating passages in the book involves the philosophizing—the arguing for and against creating a play based on a murder that has not even resolved itself through to its end yet—the murderess has not been hanged… “The woman who did it is still living,” says the one. “If she is still living, she is in the part herself, it is hers, no one else can have it.”


But the leader, Martin, argues that the circumstances are no different than any other murder—even that of Cain and Able, which their troupe has performed any number of times before. Martin seems to pull the “Everyman” card in his defense: the story is everyone’s cautionary tale, and so it is free of “ethical copyright.” The other players, still unconvinced, have reservations:


“‘God has not given us this story to use, He has not revealed to us the meaning of it. So it has no meaning, it is only a death. Players are like other men, they must use God’s meanings, they cannot make meanings of their own, that is heresy, it is the source of all our woes, it is the reason our first parents were cast out.’”


What offends God? Were they contemplating creating something to which they had no right to create? “If we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions.  He will leave us in the void without the comfort of His Word.”


“‘It has no meaning but a death…There has not been time enough for God’s meaning to be known.’”

“‘Men can give meanings to things,’” says another actor. “‘That is no sin, because our meanings are only for the time, they can be changed.’”


In the end, the troupe’s leader, Martin, conditionally justifies his decision to move forward with the plan, stating, “‘We all have played the Morality, when we call the one who strays from the path Everyman or Mankind or the King of Life. And the Virtues and the Vices battle for his soul. So we make him a Figure for all. But it is the same battle in each separate soul, in ours and in that of the woman who robbed Thomas Wells [the victim] and killed him. It is a very old form of play and the one that will endure longest.’”


British stamp depicting medieval mummers

The etymology of “mummers” can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages indicating play actors wearing masks or in “guises.” It’s not definitive what types of plays these were, although there was not much of a concept of theatre acting outside of religious or moral pedagogy. Interestingly, “mummers” were later associated—in the 16th and 17th centuries with more private celebration affairs and with gambling—particularly gambling games of dice. Whether the anonymity of disguised mummers and their view as entertainment provided an exception to gambling laws or taboos, remains to be evidenced, however, to conjecture on such relationships is intriguing.


In all these things, Virtues, Vices, and other Allegories all act as personifications that have real weight and effect in the world and upon the fortunes of men and women. Justice, Judgment, Beauty, Greed, Death, Temperance, Fortitude, [the Wheel of] Fortune, the Devil…all play recurring roles in the drama that unfolds in the escapades of the novel. And Unsworth integrates them seamlessly into the machinations of human confusion and struggle that embroils the characters of this book. There are lovely passages throughout that one might linger upon, such as this one in which the narrator finds some resolution in discovery of the truth:


“…the Justice was a player and the King also, a larger play in which the suffering of the innocent was of no importance except as a counter to bargain with. And as my eyes grew heavy with sleep I wondered if there were not some larger play still, in which Kings and Emperors and Popes, though thinking they are in the center of the space, are really only in the margin…”


There are other elements in the story that keep consistent with the time period, and for which the creative work of a group of theatre players is effective to illustrate. The philosophy of ars memoria as a method of remembrance and a system of hidden meanings is familiar to the players. As Nicholas, the narrator, is learning the actors’ trade, he is taught these “secrets”:


“During all this time Martin was tireless in teaching me. He spoke to me as we went along. All walked usually behind the cart, taking it in turn to lead the horse. He told me of the qualities a player needs, quick wits, easy movement, a ready tongue for parts that are not fully written. He showed me the thirty hand movements that all must learn and made me practice them, reproving me always for my clumsiness, the stiffness of my wrists and shoulders. Making these signs must be as natural and easy as any normal habitual motion of the limbs or the head. Over and over again he made me do them until my movements were fluent enough and the angle of the hands and position of the fingers as they should be. He was relentless in this schooling…”


This recalls that the art of acting was a much more regimental and learned profession. It is true that actors had to learn signals and postures that reflected different emotions or states of being. This concept was discussed in an earlier blog post concerning “humility.”


Theatrical pose depicting "abject humility"


This is a terrific book for any reader who enjoys good literature, historical fiction, or murder mysteries. However, it should be of particular and significant interest to tarot enthusiasts. While the tarot doesn’t specifically feature in the book, as it has in other literature, everything about the time period, social-economic class systems, religion, and philosophical concepts of morality and virtue which informed and helped create the tarot can be found in this novel. Most of all, it reveals how choices can catapult us into tumult, how they sometimes supersede reason, and how ultimately they affect our outcomes and fortunes. Highly recommended.





Like this post? Please share it!
Follow by Email
Posted in Church History, Reviews, Tarot History, Tarot Philosophy, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *