Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Adam Begley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 946 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Adam Begley

SOURCE: "Barry Unsworth Rescues 'All the World's a Stage' from Cliche," in Chicago Tribune Books, December 24, 1995, pp. 3, 6.

In the following review, Begley praises Unsworth's deft handling of the historical novel genre and his thought-provoking themes in Morality Play.

Morality Play, a fine new novel by Barry Unsworth, who won the 1992 Booker Prize for his Sacred Hunger, works brilliantly on three levels. It's an accurate, carefully imagined historical novel, set in 14th Century England; a dark and suspenseful murder mystery; and a provocative meditation on the birth of a new art form. Each layer adds a different flavor and texture. Binding the whole is Unsworth's understated, unerringly precise prose, and his narrator, a priest on the lam, very young and very poor, named Nicholas Barber.

We meet Nicholas as he's running out of a house without his cloak, running from the rage of a jealous husband. A priest caught in the act of adultery? Nicholas is wayward and weak-willed, but engagingly honest in his confessions: "[I]t was not lust but hunger drove me, a lesser sin, I was hoping she would give me to eat, but she was too hasty and hot. Then by ill luck the husband returned before expected and I had to escape through the cowshed and left my good cloak behind in that bitter December weather."

Nicholas runs straight into a band of traveling players, also poor, and short a man, too: One of their company is breathing his last just as Nicholas appears. Desperate, and again a little weak, Nicholas joins them, though it is expressly forbidden for clerics to perform on a public stage and players are thought of as little better than vagabonds.

Bound for Durham, where they are meant to perform Christmas plays for their patron's cousin, the players are forced to stop in a strange town to bury their comrade. They also hope to replenish their common purse by staging the "Play of Adam." But the burial is unexpectedly expensive, the audience for the play unexpectedly small. The town is distracted, full of odd tension. There has been a murder—a young boy strangled. A woman has been swiftly tried and found guilty, sentenced to hang. Unsettling questions linger.

Martin, the master-player of the company, a man intensely devoted to his craft and skilled in uncanny ways, hatches a plan the others rightly fear: He wants to stage a play about the boy's murder. To act out secular events, the news of the moment, is a staggering proposition in an age when religious pageant and morality plays are the only sanctioned, the only known forms of theater. The other players are scandalized by Martin's subversive suggestion. And yet Martin wins them over, thanks in part to the force of his conviction.

To prepare the play they must learn more about the murder. They become detectives, and soon the clues are pointing away from the condemned woman. Her accuser is a Benedictine monk, confessor of the powerful lord whose castle looms above the town. The mystery deepens and the danger grows even as the players rehearse their parts.

Against the backdrop of cleverly plotted suspense, Nicholas engages in nervous speculation about the consequence of their audacious enterprise. He understands how this new kind of play turns everything topsy-turvy: "[I]f we make our own meanings, God will oblige us to answer our own questions. He will leave us in the void without the comfort of His Word." If man by his art manages to piece together some kind of truth, that truth may prove comfortless.

Part of the beauty of Morality Play is the way the mystery and the metaphysics come together. If the players can indeed find out truth by crafting a faithful representation of reality, then the murder will be all but solved. If not, their player's pride has led them sadly astray. There's a further twist, too. If, as they suspect, the murderer is still at large, then the better the play, the more danger for the players. Truth is deadlier than fiction.

Most historical novels are loaded down with too many period details. Obsolete and dated doodads choke the flow of narrative and reveal the author's anxiety about making it all seem at once old and real. In this respect, Unsworth travels light, giving the reader just enough to suggest a coherent world very different from our own.

The historical detail gets technical only when it comes to the players' acting methods. Nicholas is initiated into a secret language of hidden signs and a public language of ritual gesture. When they speak among themselves the players mix words, signs and gestures: "[H]e made the sign of money, which is done by opening and closing the hand very rapidly."

Unsworth makes wonderfully efficient use of this for color, comic relief, characterization (each player has his own repertoire of gestures), and also to underscore the exotic element—it is strange to travel in this motley company.

Nicholas learns to act. He makes an unexpected discovery: "[T]he player is always trapped in his own play but he must never allow the spectators to suspect this, they must always think that he is free. Thus the great art of the player is not in showing but in concealing." He learns to see the world through a mask, and to see the machinations of others as elements in a larger drama.

Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" is worn thin from overuse; Morality Play gives it new life. Unsworth shows us the moment in Nicholas's education—and the moment in history—when it becomes possible to see in all the earnest bustle of mankind a gaudy pageant, footlights, costumes, greasepaint, props.

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This section contains 946 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adam Begley
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