Morality Play

In the end it was destitution that won the day for him. That and the habit of mind of players, who think of their parts and how best to do them, and listen to the words of the master-player, but do not often think of the meaning as a whole. Had these done so, they would have seen what I, more accustomed to conclusions, saw and trembled at: if we make our own meaning, God will oblige us to answer our own question, He will leave us in the void without the comfort of his word.

Nicholas, the narrator of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, is a 14th-century priest who has left his vocation and ended up with a band of travelling players. Knowing that he needs companions to get through the winter, he reluctantly joins in as a performer, taking the place of a recently deceased player.

The troupe ends up in a village that is still reeling from the recent murder of a child named Thomas Wells. The troupe then decides to do something daring  — they will depart from the usual fare of biblical stories and tell the story of Thomas’s death as a medieval morality play.

The most interesting thing about this book is how it shows the telling of a story shaping the facts around the story. As the players attempt to dramatize the murder, they find aspects of the village’s story that don’t make sense and potentially indicate that the woman they’ve identified as the killer isn’t actually guilty. As they perform, townspeople weigh in with their own observations, which end up shaping both future performances and the effort to find the real killer.

What was less interesting, and kept the book from being a top-tier read for me, was the bland characterization of the players and townspeople. I didn’t know enough about any of them to care much, and their limited emotional development was passed over so swiftly that I sometimes didn’t recognize what was happening when it happened.

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