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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