Blasts from the Past: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (1995)

Cover image for Morality Play by Barry Unsworth This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play is set in the late fourteenth century, a time of calamitous upheaval. The country is still reeling from war with France while plague and famine stalk the land. The long-established feudal system has begun to crumble. Millenarian sects prophesying the Last Days have sprung up in protest against the corruption of the clergy.

Unsworth uses the structure of allegorical dramas known as morality plays for his novel in which a priest joins a group of impoverished travelling players as they take the body of their dear friend to the nearest town for burial. To pay the burial fees they decide to put on a play. On hearing that a young woman is to be hanged for the murder of a twelve-year-old boy the company leader, desperate to augment their depleted funds, persuades the players to re-enact the murder. But as the players investigate the circumstances of the boy’s death, doubt is thrown on the young woman’s guilt. Over the two days that they perform their play, digging deeper into the murky circumstances that surround the murder, they come close to revealing a shocking truth that puts them all in mortal danger.

Morality Play is one of those vivid books that’s stayed with me for a long time. It’s a riveting piece of fiction and in the right hands it would make a stunning film or TV drama although, sadly, if you’re in the UK finding a copy may be a problem as much of Unsworth’s backlist, including Morality Play, has gone out of print. Such a shame. If you’d like to read a review of the audiobook you might like to pop over to Kate Vane’s blog.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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25 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (1995)”

  1. It’s so interesting, isn’t it, the books that stand the test of time. Sounds like this one has. I’m not good at rereading as there’s always a good pile of new books waiting to be read!

  2. My goodness. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger has sat unread on my shelves for years. It’s just one of those things I haven’t picked up, and I don’t know why. Mind you, it may not have then same pull as Morality Play clearly has for you. No excuses not to read it to find out now! You are the voice of my conscience

  3. This sounds right up my alley, and neither author nor book had I come across before. Thanks for highlighting this one. I’ll keep a look out in second hand shops.

  4. I loved this book! And there is a movie, a British-Spanish production with Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe called “The Reckoning” (I just dug through a stack of dusty DVDs to find it). I remember it as very evocative and close to the book.

  5. Oh this does sound good, what a shame it is out of print. I like the premise, I imagine the murder being solved via a play is quite intriguing. I’ll have to check if they have this at my library.

      1. Sadly they only have it in CD form. I have added to my list. Yes, it is distressing what stars in fashion and what does not. I guess we can only hope that our small loves keep them alive.

  6. I read Sacred Hunger a while ago and enjoyed it, but I remember it being difficult and long. I was motivated though because I was leading a book club that had selected it, and I remember the response was enthusiastic discussion. Still, I didn’t look further into Unsworth’s other books, and now I’m very much intrigued with Morality Play, especially because it sounds like it’s one of your forever favorites.

  7. It’s so odd, I saw the title and thought I’d definitely read this, but from your description I must be mistaken, it’s not at all familiar! It sounds a really great read, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a copy. What a shame it’s out of print.

  8. This sounds wonderful, and happily it may be out of print but it’s available as an audiobook – onto the wishlist it goes! Thanks for highlighting it.

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