Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Janet Burroway

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 1,144 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Janet Burroway

Critical Review by Janet Burroway

SOURCE: "The Great Pretenders," in New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, pp. 11+.

In the following review, Burroway cites minor flaws in Morality Play, but otherwise praises the novel's deft universality of theme.

In a bitter winter in 14th-century England, a young scholar-priest comes upon a troupe of traveling players. These are violent times, when victims of the plague are heaped in common pits and "the spirit of murder is never far." Nicholas Barber is in several sorts of flight: from the verbosity of the Latin manuscripts he has been set to copy, from the wrath of the bishop whose kindness he has betrayed and from the husband of the (most recent) woman he has toppled. Characteristically, the engaging hero of Barry Unsworth's new novel, Morality Play, is walking not on the road but in the shadows. From his hiding place, he witnesses the actors in a real-world death scene, gathered around one of their number. We know at once that Nicholas will join the troupe, taking the dead man's place.

One of the things that distinguish Mr. Unsworth's fiction is a sense of community that is warm without being sentimental. In Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1992, Mr. Unsworth created a leaderless band of former slaves and sailors in a credible utopia. In Morality Play, he offers a rich mix of squabbling, prideful players: the leader. Martin Bell; pale Straw, the mime; old Tobias; Stephen, whose deep-voiced dignity earns him the part of God in the morality plays; Springer, the boy who plays the women; and slatternly Margaret Cornwall, who looks after the mending and the money basket.

This band is en route to a performance at Durham, arranged as a Christmas gift from their patron to a relative. Determined to give their dead comrade a Christian burial, they make their way to the nearest town, now with Nicholas as well as the ripening corpse. But the cost of rent and rites is high, perhaps exorbitant. To raise the money, they must ply their trade; and, the drawing power of live theater being what it is, the take is hardly enough to offer rest to any of them, alive or dead.

Very soon it becomes clear that the town has another drama on its mind. A peasant boy has been murdered, and has been buried with strange alacrity. A beautiful deaf girl, who cannot speak, is being brought to justice with a speed also perhaps too deliberate. Listening to the town's gossip, the "greatly gifted" Martin, with his "zealot's face," comes up with the idea of docudrama. If we play their play, he tells the troupe, they will come; and, of course, he is right—although, then as now, the process involves both legal and spiritual pitfalls. Nicholas, too uneasy in his new profession to resist, at least knows with shame that "our profit would come from the shedding of a child's blood."

In order to plot their play, the actors skulk and interview and theorize. They become investigative journalists whose media are rhyme and dumb show. Yet it is in the feigning of the murder that they are led to the truth, not so much stumbling upon it as entering into it through the minds of their half-invented characters. Martin is most possessed by the enterprise, unable to detour from either his artistic insights or his role as savior of the girl, even at the threat to all their lives.

Historical genre fiction wants to amaze us with exotica: with dazzling costumes, splendid pageantry, feats of daring. In such fiction, any modern note reads as an anachronism, often unintentionally comic. But Mr. Unsworth has the art to enter the sensibility of a period—its attitudes, assumptions and turns of phrase—so convincingly that he is able to suggest subtle yet essential parallels between an earlier era and our own. The sailors of Sacred Hunger fought scurvy and foul weather and a cruel captain, familiar struggles all, in a way that made no concessions to Hollywood. In Morality Play, Mr. Unsworth has devised for his sinner-priest a voice that is sweetly pious, logical in a slightly literal-minded way and full of medieval-seeming wonder. Nicholas is a man well acquainted with the smell of death and muck but riven with fear that "if we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions."

Nicholas's wide-eyed explorations illuminate a range of current issues, seen in a new light by way of this unexpected context: the plight of women, the general abuse of children and the disabled, the fear and ignorance that surround a plague, the showy cynicism of the law, the social and political corruption that is found to spread farther and higher than could at first have been imagined. Even jousting, like today's prime-time sports, represents an expensive nostalgia for battle.

Embedded in Nicholas's tale is a variety of speculations about the nature of art and its uncomfortable fit in the "real" world of commerce, power, will, greed and intrigue. He delineates the subtle tyrannies of patronage and the preference of the populace for the crude entertainment of a dancing bear over the careful skills of an actor. He is full of Pirandellian reflections on the dangerous freedom the actors acquire with their roles, and the masks to which all return in their daily functioning, "playing parts even when there was no one by but themselves."

The little band makes a trap of Hamlet's kind, the play being the thing to catch the murderer. When Martin teaches Nicholas the prescribed theatrical gestures, we sense the mismatch between immediate matter and formal style—like the mismatch between Chekhov's realism and the rhetorical acting style before Stanislavsky. There is even an echo of Beckett's Vladimir, seeing the suffering world as the dream/drama of some greater being.

Occasionally, Mr. Unsworth nudges us a bit too hard. It is very convenient in a story so full of disguises that the lord of the locale is named de Guise, and that when the players finally confront him his face is "obscured from us by the brim of his hat and the plume set in it at the side." It undermines our readerly cleverness when Martin declares. "This is the way that plays will be made in the times to come." Nicholas's foreshadowing also hints at a doom that never materializes, so the novel's ending seems slightly askew, given the preparation that has come before it.

But these are minor cavils. Morality Play is a bravura performance, sparkling with the author's and the players' invention and mined with small ironies, like the description of Tobias, "who played Mankind and doubled the small parts and did attendant demons." The novel is a thought-provoking comedy on the eternal sameness of disaster and the recurrent uses we put it to in art. On the way, we toy with morality and also play our way to truth.

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This section contains 1,144 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Janet Burroway
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