Morality Play – Barry Unsworth

23 July 2012
Chapters 1-6
I’m not quite sure what we’ve got here. Is it Barry Unsworth attempting to make some fairly serious points about the mind-set of a century that seems impossibly remote to us? (It’s the 14th, with the Black Death marauding the country and reducing the population of some towns and villages by a half or more.) Or, aside from a few nods to the rituals and beliefs of Catholicism, is the voice of first-person narrator Nicholas Barber that of a modern man merely dressed up in old clothes? There’s a lot of dressing up in this novel, so why not?

Nicholas is the young cleric who keeps making bad career moves. Choosing to be a cleric was the first, because he’s no better than he should be. He feels it’s only honest for him to tell us what he’s got wrong recently. He’s become so bored by the transcription work he’s been made to do for a rich patron he’s made bad career move No. 2: he’s simply gone on the run. Which any 21st Century reader can sympathise with – but when you’re tied to a bishop – ‘like a father to me’ – and a diocese in 14th Century England it isn’t wise. Hungry, he tells us how he resorted to adultery for the sake, he says, of the food he might have got – and lost his cloak in his rush to escape from the returning husband. Now, cold as well as hungry in the North East in December, he happens upon what he tells us is the first of two deaths that are going to change his life. Chapter 1 ends with his telling us of ‘the terrors’ he ‘would have been spared’ had he simply gone on his way. But he doesn’t go on his way. Instead, he makes bad career move No. 3.

He’s stumbled on a group of travelling players, and we get a glimpse of Catholic superstition as they give room for the soul to depart the body of the man who has just died. (Nicholas feels guilty about not giving the man absolution but, well, he was scared.) Their dog discovers him skulking behind a tree and, after some banter and threats, he is half-tricked into becoming a player. Well, that’s what he says – but what else was he going to do? In their favour, they are attached to a lord, currently away fighting, and he doesn’t seem at all reluctant to join. They have him swap clothes with the dead man, and as they journey north he is taught some basic techniques by Martin, the most serious-minded of them.

In a way, this is all preamble. The players desperately need to bury Brendan, the dead man, and to make some money – so Unsworth gets them to the town where the novel can really get under way. Here the second death, a murder, has taken place only two days before – which means that now, alongside the unglamorous details of the lives of itinerant actors 600-odd years ago, we have a murder mystery beginning to unfold. A twelve-year-old boy has been murdered, apparently by a woman robbing him of some money he was carrying. The money was discovered in the woman’s home by a ‘lord’s confessor’, a friar attached to the local toff. She has already been tried and found guilty, but has not been executed. A ‘King’s Justice’ is expected in town the next day, presumably to rubber-stamp the execution. Ok. For the reader, a lot of alarm bells start ringing. We know that this is going to end badly for Nicholas: the story behind the murder is obviously a lot more complicated than anybody in the town is letting on.

The travelling players thread is a mixture of gritty and reflective. The grit is to do with everyday life: their sleeping quarters are a cow-barn hired from a grasping inn-keeper, the burial of Brendan is arranged by way of an exorbitant burial fee with a venal and grasping priest – the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for a working man – and their performance is preceded by a row with a troupe of ‘jongleurs’ muscling in on their pitch in the inn-yard…. (There are other distractions: also in town are knights and their squires, preparing for a tournament.) But alongside this, Nicholas has time to contemplate the life of an actor. He is impressed by the passion of Martin, the brains behind them and, scholar that he is, he begins to make comparisons between players and the rest of mankind. He has already noticed during their discussions that ‘all the members of the company were playing parts, even when there was come to no one by…. Each had lines of his own and was expected to say them.’ (Is this clever? Or is it merely Unsworth’s variation on Jacques’ ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech in As You Like It, written two centuries after the time this novel is set?)

Even Nicholas has a role in the troupe as the one who can dampen down heated conversations with his pontificating speeches and Latin quotations: he bores everyone to a standstill. These thoughts lead to musings about the mediaeval social hierarchy, with everyone in his place. (I say ‘his’: there is a woman in the company, but she doesn’t have what you might call a place.) This thread is all very well but, as I’ve implied, it doesn’t make you feel you’re really inside the mind-set of someone living all those centuries ago. Maybe Unsworth will get on with the plot eventually…. But not just yet, because he needs to get Nicholas in front of an audience. He’s full of fear at first, but begins to enjoy it: he’s rather good at the mugging and capering. And he makes another of those not really ground-breaking discoveries. Getting into a role is scary but liberating: ‘a mask confers the terror of freedom.’ Got that? Well, remember it for later.

The show is not a great success, and they have made little money from it. Straw, a young actor whose specialisms are mime and physical theatre, thinks their plays are too wordy – and the audience always know the ending. Martin disagrees – they aren’t jongleurs, but tellers of Biblical stories. Their job is to tell them well…. But, after this, Martin is wakeful and wants to talk to Nicholas. At first what he says seems to rise out of the discussion about drama. He is thinking about their limited repertoire of maybe half-a-dozen Bible stories, and he frets about the modern trend for rich guilds and cities presenting a far wider repertoire in ever more spectacular versions. They need something new.

And Unsworth uses all this to cut to the chase. How about, instead of trying to compete, they do something different? What if they were to incorporate into one of their plays the facts of the murder that has just happened in the town? He seems to be merely musing, but he’s been thinking hard about this. He’s made a few inquiries, and it becomes clear that the ‘morality play’ of the novel’s title is going to be the murder story. Ok. But if, as seems likely, there’s been some kind of cover-up, the players are likely to tread on some powerful people’s toes. We know about the ‘freedom’ conferred by the actor’s mask – but we wonder where it will lead this poor band of players. Presumably, it’s going to backfire on them.

25 July
Chapters 7-9
Yep, it’s a whodunit – but that’s definitely not all it is. The murder mystery is hardly a mystery at all: it’s immediately clear that the trial of the woman and the burial of the boy have been overly hasty – and besides, Unsworth has had Nicholas signalling to us in foot-high letters that getting involved is going to be the worst decision he ever made. And we know how many bad decisions he’s made in his life. But in the middle chapters, whilst the murder – and the play they really do decide to perform based on it – is the main driver of the plot, Unsworth continues to keep other balls in the air: the hierarchies and certainties of mediaeval England; the nature of drama; the issue of free will in a religious context of almost Taliban-like authoritarianism….

Chapter 7 begins with the burial of Brendan’s body, which is as tawdry an affair as you’d expect. We get one of Unsworth’s brief reminders of the superstitious Catholic mind-set of these people when Nicholas sees one of the beasts of the Apocalypse coming towards them in the snow. It isn’t really, however sure he is at first: it’s a knight on horseback, the fluttering red silk of his decorations and of a kind of canopy he’s rigged up against the elements giving a hellish hue to everything. This, among other things, leads to a discussion of what is and isn’t real – including the relative status of knights and ordinary people like themselves. Somebody – is it Nicholas? – suggests they are exactly the same – and the question is asked about whether the Church-sanctioned reputation of knights as defenders of the poor is deserved or not. For Stephen, one of the troupe and a former foot-soldier, knights are the apogee of courage and strength in battle, but in Unsworth’s version of the 14th Century a lot of revolutionary questions are asked as a matter of course. I’ll come back to them.

Martin begins to seem like a kind of Svengali, pushing the others in the direction he’s decided for them. He orders a costly funeral supper for them all – so when he broaches the subject of the play he wants to put on, the need to earn some money is one of the main reasons why they agree. But not before they’ve debated the ethics of what they are contemplating. These are partly to do with the mediaeval mind-set: they are going to portray, and to make judgments upon, actions that have not been judged by God. Nicholas argues that only God can decide upon such matters – which is why all their plays are based on His word. Other players worry about portraying living people – and we get a variant on what feels like a commonplace question now: how far is the artist allowed to do this? And there’s the practical matter of what comeback there might be if anyone in the audience doesn’t like what they see.

But, inevitably, the players agree to do it, and talk about the murder. As they sit around their fire the village simpleton appears, and tells a strange story about a group of young men or boys who carried the body, and of how the angels arrived and dazzled him. The way he names the boys makes the players believe there’s something in the story… and next day they ask around, trying to find out the circumstances of the boy’s death. The townspeople clearly don’t believe that the woman did the murder: when Nicholas asks if she has confessed, they think he is joking. As he speaks to one man, something doesn’t seem to add up: what led the monk to look for the money the woman is supposed to have stolen in her house? He is in the pay of the local lord, and goes about ‘doing his business’. Ok.

The players parade into the town to publicise the performance, to be at noon next day, market day. Their parade gets mixed up awkwardly with that of the King’s Justice, who is just arriving… and questions of plausibility don’t really arise. Unsworth is offering us a kind of mediaeval tapestry: a lot has happened to Nicholas in a few short days – but a realistic week in the life of a mediaeval cleric wouldn’t make terribly good copy. This isn’t meant to be realism because – because what? Unsworth seems to want to say things about life that go far beyond the setting. Martin becomes a kind of prophet, foreseeing what plays will be like ‘in the times to come’ when audiences will not always know how they will end. Nicholas himself begins to understand the ways in which what we see is not necessarily God’s truth, but what powerful men decide is the truth. And Margaret, with no status in the company at first, is beginning to show herself as perceptive and, often, more practical than any of the men.

They perform the play. It’s a mixture of invented scenes and lines from morality plays they occasionally perform, with figures like Avaricia, Pieta and Good Counsel appearing alongside the real characters. It isn’t written, but cobbled together, improvised as they perform it after what Nicholas calls some ‘practising’ in the barn. And this becomes a trap for them. The performance is well attended, and Unsworth is good at taking us through the way the excitement of the new thing they are doing takes them further than they anticipated. Almost all of them push boundaries that none of them would have accepted in rehearsal. The woman becomes a temptress, luring the boy with a mimed promise of what he might get if he follows her, including the promise of illicit sex. (This makes the boy’s real mother cry out in denial from the audience.) The actor playing the monk takes it a stage further: as he finds the money he performs the actions of the mass, with the purse of coins becoming the host. Not only is this implying something highly controversial about his motives; It’s sacrilege.

The players have caused a stir in the audience, and are terrified by what they have done. Some of them are for leaving the town straight away: they have made far more money than they did with their previous performance, and could live well on the journey to Durham where they are due to perform for their lord. But… Martin has the bit between his teeth now, is no longer only interested in artistic truth – you can imagine the conversations they’ve been having – but the truth of what happened that day. They’re not going anywhere, because they are going to perform the play again tonight. Oh dear.

26 July
Chapter 10 to the end
The King’s Justice was in the audience and Margaret has spoken to him. He is interested in the play, would like to know if they can find out anything more about the murder. Martin himself wants to know more, wants to make a play in which motives are clearer and things make more sense. (He hasn’t only reinvented drama; he’s invented the crime thriller, complete with leading detective.) He sends the players out on their investigations again.

On a hunch, Nicholas seeks out the father of the condemned woman. He turns out to be the most radical character yet, possibly a Lollard, one of the band of lay preachers out to rid the Church of its endemic corruption. He doesn’t believe that Nicholas is, as he says he is, a clerk of the King’s Justice – which is why he tells him the truth: the monk who allegedly found the money in his house was out to plant a crime on him. But he was away, and the monk had to accuse his daughter instead. But, he says, she is incapable of such a thing – as she is incapable of accusing anybody else. We’re wary of one-sided versions of the truth by now, but this chimes with what the players have been speculating about the monk. And the man defends his daughter so vehemently that we wonder whether there’s something about her that proves she couldn’t be guilty….

In the next chapter we find out – and I’d guessed something of the sort – that she is deaf and dumb. But Martin is able to get the truth out of her through signs and mime – and he leaves her cell besotted by her. We also get the final clue that allows us to guess what the crime is really about, and who did it. The son of the powerful local lord is one William, and he is keeping to his quarters despite usually being a great one for jousting tournaments and all the socialising that goes with them. The murdered boy isn’t the first to have disappeared in the town, although he’s the first to have a family and a body that needs to be got rid of…. William’s a paedophile, right? His ‘confessor’ is really a procurer of boys, but this latest adventure has been more difficult to cover up than the others, right? Right, as the chapters that follow confirm.

But as I said some chapters ago, the murder mystery isn’t really a mystery at all: we’ve assumed for a long time that the trial of the woman is a cover-up for the people in the castle, and it’s only the details that come out at the end. The whodunit element is one of Unsworth’s games. (We get another game near the end when the King’s Justice tells Nicholas he isn’t there to investigate this murder at all: he is ‘in a different play.’ But nonetheless he is the deus ex machina who saves them all. I’ll come back to him.)

Unsworth isn’t interested in making us try to guess the truth, but in showing what happens to those who speak truth to power. Something else I’ve said from the start is that Unsworth isn’t trying to pastiche a mediaeval mind-set. What he’s seeking are ways to say something about our own time – or any time – using the ingredients offered by a band of mediaeval players. ‘Truth’ is one of the archetypes who appears in later performances of the play, and ‘power’ is one of the aspects of the world he tells the audience he is seeking to question. The reader isn’t thinking of a lord in his castle, but of one of the 20th Century military dictators and their ability to do whatever they liked. When the lord’s men appear to take the players away at the end of the second performance, we think of gulags and concentration camps.

By the time this happens the play has moved on. It isn’t merely the monk who is implicated in the second version, but the lord’s steward who, they’ve discovered, had the murdered boy buried in great secrecy. (Unsworth isn’t making it difficult for himself – and he’s never been terribly interested in making it plausible.) And the lord’s steward, obviously, will not have been acting on his own account, but… whose? Apart from Martin, the actors had been ready to stop their speculations when they had pronounced the woman innocent and the monk guilty… but the sudden and unexpected news of the monk’s having been hanged – with his body brought near to the inn on the back of a mule – disturbs them all, makes them ask on whose authority the execution has taken place. Without really meaning to – and again, Unsworth is scrupulous in his determination to make this at least seem plausible – they point the finger at ‘power’.

Bad move – and they end up spending the night in a sparse room in the castle. Things aren’t looking good, despite their pretending that they are only there to provide entertainment for Christmas. There is what looks like an interlude: they can see the jousting from their window, and it’s like a scene from a Technicolor Robin Hood. Except that one of the knights receives a terrible injury and is carried away, leaving blood on the snow. It’s only later that we find out why Unsworth adds this little ingredient. Tell you later. And they are taken through the corridors of the castle to whatever fate awaits them. We get details, including another ingredient: a worried-looking nun is seen going into a room that smells unmistakably of the plague. Something else to be filed away.

In a room nearly as sparse as the one they’ve just left, the lord makes them perform the play before him. He is Sir Richard de Guise, seen in a different set of clothes from those in which he MC-ed the tournament, and with a hawk on his wrist. Nicholas thinks, trappings, the playing of a part. It’s another of those observations that seems ever so slightly commonplace. I keep wondering whether I’m reading this novel right, because sometimes it seems just too obvious. It’s philosophy-lite, politics-lite. Only the set pieces of the performances does Unsworth take us anywhere genuinely new and unexpected…. Which is what happens again. The players, having decided not to include anything controversial or subversive, are thwarted by Martin. By the time it is interrupted by the appearance of the lord’s daughter he has made it as clear as ever where he considers the blame to lie… and Nicholas, at least, tastes vomit as he contemplates the likely outcome.

But the injured knight is dying and needs a priest. Nicholas is taken out to give absolution, notices a door in the chamber… etc. Reader, he escapes. And he goes to see the King’s Justice. This man eventually tells him that he is there – in a different play, as we know – to seek ways of placing some restrictions on the power of Sir Richard, who is running his lands like some kind of fiefdom. He is only interested in the story of the boy’s murder because of information, in true whodunit-style, the players have gathered. The common knowledge of the disappearance of four other boys in the past year, and the smell of a plague-room in the castle, give the justice an idea. Next day, the body is exhumed – and a) there are signs of ‘sodomy’ and b) it is showing the first signs of the plague. William has got what was coming to him.

And so have the players, but in a good way. The justice, having freed the innocent woman, assures Nicholas that he and the others will also be allowed to go on their way. (Margaret, showing how resentful she is of her second-class status, has already told him she is staying in the town with the grave-digger she had been pumping for information, so to speak.) Does Nicholas want him to put in a good word to the bishop so he can get his old job back? Nicholas thinks about it, thinks about the way in which men, once they have been assigned a ‘part’ in life, play it forever. Transcribing documents was never God’s work, he decides, merely the part he thought was assigned to him. He tells the justice he will stick with the only life that will allow him to move from part to part at will.

It’s Unsworth’s final joke. All through the novel, and particularly at the ends of chapters, we’ve had Nicholas hyping up the terrors to come. And they don’t come. They have spoken truth to power and… have got away with it.


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