Nicholas Barber

(creator: Barry Unsworth)

Barry Unsworth
Nicholas Barber is a 14th century 23-year-old fugitive priest, "young and well favoured though short of stature", who had been in the service of the Bishop of Lincoln and had worked as a subdeacon in the library of Lincoln Cathedral. He had then been sent to act as secretary to a nobleman who had set him on the tedious task "of transcribing Pilato's long-winded version of Homer". So Nicholas had walked out on him but had then come on hard times wandering the countryside. He narrates the story throughout.

Barry Unsworth (1930- ) grew up in a small mining community in County Durham, in the north of England. After studying English at Manchester University and completing two years national service, he lived in France for a year where he taught English. He subsequently travelled extensively. He is the author of numerous novels (the first published when he was 36), and won the 1992 Booker Prize with Sacred Hunger, a powerful account of the Atlantic slave trade, and was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by Manchester University in 1998. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in Umbria in Italy with his second wife.

Morality Play (1995)
Morality Play is set in the late 14th century, a time marked by war, plague and fear of hell-fire. Nicholas Barber, a footloose young cleric, has left his diocese without his bishop's leave. He has sung in taverns, he has gambled away his holy relics, and he has committed adultery. Now, to compound his sins, he has joined a group of travelling players, an act expressly forbidden to members of the clergy. But his real trouble starts when the company break all conventions and decide to re-enact the real-life murder of the young boy called Thomas Wells. Together with other members of the company, he becomes aware of major discrepancies in the official version of events - then the players find that their lives are very much in danger when they discover the identity of the real murderer.

The period setting is really brought to life, and the language used is just dated enough to sound appropriate. So the story starts: "It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of a man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they'd played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were." It all sounds very convincing.

Altogether it makes a thoroughly intriguing story, even if some of the descriptions of the acting seem to get rather protracted - but it is full of interest as when, for example, it is explained that actors had to learn thirty different hand movements to communicate different moods. And signs could be used for other purposes too: "If any of us takes it in mind to change the course of the story," it is explained to Nicholas, " 'he must make the sign before, so the others will know it and be ready.' I did not know this sign and it was shown to me: the hand is turned at the wrists as if one were tightening a bolt and one can do this slowly or rapidly and with the arm in any position, so long as the twisting motion of the hand is evident." And, in fact, it is when the actors really do begin to diverge from the planned script, that they really get into trouble.

The individual players come across as distinct individuals, all of whom "were playing parts even when there was no one by but themselves. Each had lines of his own and was expected to save them". So there was the "fanatical Martin, Springer the timid and affectionate, Stephen the disputatious, Straw wavering and wild, Tobias with his proverbs and his voice of common sense .... Now I too would take on my part within this company. I had my lines to say. It was my role to moralize and lard my talk with Latin and turn all to abstraction, so that Straw could pinch his nose and nod wisely in mockery of me and Stephen could glare and Springer laugh and Martin's anger be muzzled." They seem very real people of their time.

Recommended as a thoroughly convincing glimpse into the past, and for the way that Nicholas Barber develops into a really interesting character who finds out about more and more about himself and the world around him.

There is an interesting interview with the author on the The Key West Literary Seminar site and a brief biography on the British Council site. Also see an article about Morality Play on the Access My Library site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Morality Play cover
The illustration from the Luttrell Psalter makes a very effective cover, although my copy of the book itself (Hamish Hamilton, 1995) looks rather cheaply produced with off-centre text on the first few pages, and some rather insecure binding.
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