The Dramatic Conversion of Nicholas Barber in Barry Unsworth's Morality Play

By Russell, Richard Rankin | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Dramatic Conversion of Nicholas Barber in Barry Unsworth's Morality Play


Russell, Richard Rankin, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


A significant strand of British fiction since the 1970s has been historical, reaching, during that decade, what one major critic of twentieth-century British fiction has somewhat hysterically termed "near-epidemic proportions [...]" (Bradbury 404). Perhaps the historical trajectory in recent British fiction stems from what Jason Cowley, the recent literary editor of the New Statesman, has recently called a pervasive "loss of confidence in the fictional possibilities of contemporary England" (5). One of the leading British novelists of his generation, Barry Unsworth is also one of the great practitioners of the historical novel, having more recently written a series of elegantly styled novels dealing with the past after an early career of writing novels set in the present. Peter Kemp has even argued that "No late-twentieth-century British novelist has written of history more variously, more thought-provokingly, more engrossingly, and with more humane commitment" (367). Yet Kemp remains one of a handful of critics to even conceive of Unsworth as a British writer, much less recognize his marked achievements in the novel, despite Unsworth's having won the Booker Prize for his novel Sacred Hunger in 1992 and being short-listed for the Booker for Pascali's Island (1980) and Morality Play (1995).

Perhaps Unsworth's long residence in Scandinavia, then Italy, has created the sense that he is not British, in a limited and provincial sense of the term. The novelist Hilary Mantel, herself from northern England like Unsworth, argues that in contrast to the trans-territorial sense of nationalism she experienced during her stay in Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s, "the English are literal-minded about borders. For obvious reasons, they do not make a territorial identification with the continent of Europe" (99). She further notes that Unsworth is a "studious, clever, but unpretentious writer," and "is one of our most intelligent commentators on cultural mythology," yet one whose novels like his Losing Nelson (1999), set in an European context, has "dared to displace the Anglocentric view, and sacrifice an English hero to our common European humanity" (103). Unsworth's personal attraction to fluidity across national boundaries accords with his novelistic concerns with dynamic characters, as many of his works chart the development of the self over an extended period of time.

Despite his relative critical neglect, Unsworth's body of work deserves our full critical attention. His historical works include Pascali's Island, which explored the period after the fall of the Ottoman Empire; Stone Virgin (1985), which investigated the intricacies of imperial Venice; and Sacred Hunger, which surveyed the horrors of the slave trade. Unsworth's transnational identity and his novels since the 1980s epitomize two seemingly contradictory trends in contemporary British fiction--its internationalization and the renascence of regionalism.

One of his regional English novels, Morality Play (1995), a tightly organized murder mystery, concerns a troupe of dramatic players who tour northern England in the fourteenth century performing morality plays for their living. After accepting a priest, Nicholas Barber, who has left his post as scribe to a wealthy patron, into their number, they enter a town that has just experienced the murder of a young boy. Because of their declining revenue gained from producing only single mystery plays, the lead player, Martin, incorporates the story of the boy's murder into the play they perform, using the stock characters of the traditional morality play in an attempt to stage his death. As the players research this atrocity, they find troubling clues that suggest the involvement of the town's wealthiest family. Staging the play then becomes a public enactment of the events of his death, with the townspeople spiritedly joining in and breaking down the traditional fourth wall of the theater. As reality increasingly intrudes upon their play, they are summoned before the wealthy nobleman de Guise and asked to perform it once more. …

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