Russell, Richard Rankin

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. The lead player ends up accusing him directly, but his son William actually turns out to be the guilty party. Barber’s movement through the three stages of confession articulated by the Christian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin leads him to a truly confessional moment in which he escapes his self-absorption and places his full trust and faith in God. While Barber leaves the Church, he realizes his vocation inherently involves having his new “audience” – the crowds that watch him and the other players perform – search their consciences in an effort to live more contemplative and moral lives.

By playing the role of Good Counsel in the three different performances of the play that comes to be known as The Death of Thomas Wells, Barber’s old self is transformed into a new one in a process analogous to the traditional morality play: innocence, fall, and regeneration. In the process of becoming a player after his fall as priest, he dies to his old self and is reborn with a new self that was latent in him all along. He thus explores and proclaims his growing faith through his new role as player much better than he did as a priest, thus giving the lie to George Garrett’s claim that Unsworth rejects the seriousness and conviction of medieval Christian faith and to Richard Bernstein’s argument that the novel “is not theological.”

Barber’s acquisition of a new self is stunningly shown through Unsworth’s depiction of another three-tiered process: the old life of the troupe with Brendan in which they traveled performing only certain parts of the great medieval mystery play cycles such as the Play of Adam; the decline of these isolated performances of the mystery plays in the face of the burgeoning dominance of the medieval guilds which could stage each station of the cycle over a period of almost twenty-four hours with rolling stages; and their resurrection of an old form, the morality play, which they infuse with new life by incorporating the events surrounding the death of the boy Thomas Wells. While Barber creates a new self from his continued role playing in the Play of Adam in The Death of Thomas Wells, he and his fellow players create a new form, a hybridized version of the traditional morality play that borrows its stylized gestures and stock personified vices and virtues and combines these elements with new content – the murder of the young boy. The result on-stage is something akin to early modern drama, borrowing as it does from an older form and drawing upon contemporary situations and incidents for the plot. In another departure from the traditional morality play, the players’ motives are mixed, stemming from a desire to make money and to discover the murderer rather than with the typical genre’s call to repentance and forgiveness.

Unsworth thus manages to suggest the rise of a new genre of drama through another generic form – the novel – a superb historical and formal maneuver. In the process, he demonstrates how artistic form is inherently wedded to moral content, proving the truth of Iris Murdoch’s claim in her 1992 work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, that “Art, especially literature, has in the past instinctively operated as a form, the most profoundly accessible form, of moral reflection” (qtd. in Cunningham 159). But Barber’s transformation and the metamorphosis of the play come with a terrible price: the forbidden knowledge about Thomas Wells’s murder leads them deeper into the darkness of their own souls and the evil lurking in the castle above the village.

The very first scene of the novel offers us a glimpse into Barber’s latent desire to be a performer when he watches the company of actors as they see the death of one of their own, the gifted actor Brendan. The dramatic death of this character is performative and alluring to the priest: “I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give his soul passage. It was as if they 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” (7). Despite having observed many deaths before, Barber senses something different with Brendan’s passing, something inherently theatrical that is enhanced by the clothing of the assembled watchers: “They wore pieces of clothing that were strange and ill-assorted and seemed not to belong to them” (8). Finally, the man’s soul leaves his body, which the priest compares to a scene from the Morality Play. He achingly juxtaposes his sight of their collective, worshipful breaths in the cold air with the dying breath of their friend he can only hear:

I could not see him now but I could hear across the space that separated us the struggle of his breath and I could see the mist of breath from the mouths of those above him. This was like incense, a fume of devotion. Then the sound ceased and I saw them shift back to make space for Death, a thing very wise to do, Death being less provoked when at large than when confined. It was like that scene in the Morality Play when the besieged soul flies free at last. (9)

This passage suggests to what degree Barber still perceives the world through his ritualistic Catholic faith as he compares the players’ breaths to “incense, a fume of devotion.” But already, a latent interest in drama, probably inspired by his immersion in the inherently theatrical practices of his church, is manifesting itself, so much so that he quickly compares Brendan’s dying breath to the portrayal of the soul in the Morality Play. At this same moment, he is discovered by the company’s dog and meets the players, who greet him scornfully, especially since he did not shrive the dying man (9).

Barber, upon realizing that these ill-dressed folk are players, offers to travel with them and help in their productions. His motivations are complex but revolve around self-preservation, or so he says:

I had no thought in the beginning of taking part in their plays, of practicing their shameful trade, artem illam ignominiosam, forbidden to us by Holy Church. My only thought was to travel with them and this because of the badges the leader wore, which meant that the company belonged to a lord and had the lord’s letter of license and would not be set in the stocks or whipped for vagabonds as happens to those accounted fugitives or masterless men and this has also befallen men in Holy Orders who have no warrant from their bishop. [. . .] But I swear it was never in my thought to take the dead man’s place. (14)

He is explicitly breaking his vows since for centuries the Church had forbidden its priests to witness what it viewed as frivolous entertainments, including minstrelsy and miming, since it felt that such events could have “a corrupting effect on clerics who might be diverted from more solemn duties by witnessing their skills and antics” (Tydeman 11). Although he claims not to have joined the company to take Brendan’s place, Barber’s guilt over not having shriven the man undoubtedly provides him with further motivation to take on his role in the troupe.

Having already lost his cloak and having had his tonsure grow out, Barber is unconsciously losing the outward look of a priest, though he still resembles one because of his stained habit. He has also just committed adultery with another man’s wife, which was the reason he has lost his cloak: he left it behind in his hasty departure (8). Additionally, he has left his order for the third time (19) and lost his holy relic, a piece from the sail of St. Peter’s boat (20). The literal stripping down of Barber and the loss of his position turns out to form his greatest motivation to join the players and assume a new vocation: typically for an Unsworth character, he greatly desires community: “I wanted to be in community again, no longer alone. The community of the players offered shelter to me, though they were poor and half-starved themselves. This was my true reason. The badge of livery was only an argument I used for myself (20).

One of Charles Taylor’s arguments about the formation of the self seems particularly apposite regarding Barber’s new community. As Taylor points out, “One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it” (35). Taylor is at some pains to make this point, since, as he notes, “not only the philosophico-scientific tradition but also a powerful modern aspiration to freedom and individuality have conspired to produce an identity which seems to be a negation of this [point]” (35). Crucially, Unsworth has captured the medieval worldview of self-in-community that has been occluded and even denied by the modern world. It would be a mistake to believe that Barber’s search for a new self represents a step toward modern freedom and individuality. His search inherently involves and is predicated upon the community of players, who collectively replace the community of monks he previously had known and enjoyed.

In order to enter this new community, Barber must learn to speak their particular language, known to them but unknown to someone outside their guild. Thus, he must learn their stylized gestures, their ability to improvise, and their ways of talking about their craft. Even though Benedict Anderson’s point about language’s capacity to generate community refers to national tongues, it still applies in a broader sense to the theater language that Barber must acquire to join this new community: “Much the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building in effect particular solidarities” (133). Barber’s former self is being effaced by his separation from his monastery and his new self can only emerge through the “particular solidarities” he develops among this new community he has imagined for himself.

The development of his new self starts in earnest through his interactions with his new community and particularly through his learning how they conduct themselves – which is part of learning their language in a broad sense. To wit, he dons the dead player Brendan’s clothes and the woman Margaret slips Barber’s priestly garb on the dead man’s body: “To make my transformation complete I had to wear Brendan’s stained and malodorous jerkin and tunic and he had to be dressed in my clerical habit” (20). Dressed as an actor, Barber must now learn how to carry himself and to literally act as a player. This he learns to do through the four performances that the troupe puts on throughout the rest of the novel: the Play of Adam and the three differing performances of their new morality play incorporating the murder of the local child called The Death of Thomas Wells. These roles enable him to gradually shed his conception of himself as priest and assume a new selfhood based upon his new vocation as a player desiring to prick the moral conscience of his audience.

As they process into a nearby town so that Brendan can be buried, Barber experiences his first “audience,” the crowd of townspeople that alternately goggle, laugh, and shout at them. Wearing the horsehair suit of the Antichrist, he literally feels trapped in the hot costume, confined in the world of the “play” they are enacting:

I did not see well through the eyeholes and my sight was altogether closed off at the sides. [. . .] It was now that it came to me f. . .] that the 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 concealing. (33)

His words are spoken metaphorically, out of the context in which he still views himself- as a renegade priest who has entered a strange new world, liminally caught between his past role and his future role as a player.

As a neophyte player, Barber straddles the division of what he was and could be, feeling himself to play the role of spectator more than priest or player at this time, as he thinks later in the inn yard before their performance of the Play of Adam: “All this was like a public show for me. I felt no relation to anything I saw because no one knew what I was. I did not know myself. A fugitive priest is a priest still, but an untried player, what is he? I could breathe and I could see, now that the mask was off. I was set apart, in a different space, as the spectator is always” (37). He bears a striking similarity to the Irish playwright John Synge’s Christy Mahon, who manages to transform himself from a timid, shy boy, frightened of his father, into an athletic young man, who is pursued by the ladies and stands up to his father by the end of The Playboy of the Western World. As Weldon Thornton has pointed out about Mahon, “at the play’s end he is different than he was at the beginning, for one of the potential selves latent within him has been evoked and realized” (138). The transformation of Unsworth’s Nicholas Barber follows a similar trajectory to that of Synge’s Christy Mahon, as a major plot strand portrays Barber’s dying to his old self and acquiring a new one.

The Play of Adam, part of the troupe’s stock repertoire of mystery plays, reveals how Barber’s new self develops through his interaction with the other players and with the audience, who collectively function as the “webs of interlocution” that Taylor holds are the constitutive matrix for identity formation (36). Barber’s interlocutors give him the necessary professional and personal feedback that help engender the rise of his latent self. In his playing the part of an attendant demon, then the Devil’s Fool, he greatly enjoys the interaction with the crowd. When he dons the mask of the Devil’s Fool, the audience clearly reacts to his benevolent mask, not the actor underneath. As Sarah Carpenter has argued about the function of the actor’s mask in the mystery plays, they tend “to abolish the audience’s awareness of the human actor” (7). Furthermore, as Barber admits, he himself is rapidly losing awareness of his true self by quickly becoming other characters: “I was discovering also the danger of disguise for the player. A mask confers the terror of freedom, it is very easy to forget who you are. I felt it now, this slipping of the soul […]” (52). Despite his fear of losing himself, Barber has already been sufficiently transformed that he is receptive to this continued loss of his old self.

By the end of the Play of Adam, he is smitten and drawn to the attention showered upon him by the audience: “the laughter grew and it was sweet to me, I will not deny it. Turning into the light I was dazzled and for some moments I could see nothing and the laughter sounded in my ears […]” (53). The light signifies his growing awareness and pleasure in this role and in the new vocation. He will experience further transformations, but this play enables him to sufficiently lose himself in two different roles. By immersing himself in these roles, he becomes further attached to his new vocation, since it enables a fluidity of identity that he had not enjoyed before as a priest. Changing costumes so rapidly echoes in microcosm the change his self is going through as he moves from his traditional vocation of priest to his more modern one as actor.

While the Play of Adam is a minor success for Barber the burgeoning actor and represents an important step in his transformation from priest to player – the death of his old self- its poor economic take demonstrates the company’s growing marginalization and similar death as a mystery play troupe in the face of the rise of the prosperous professional guilds that could perform vast cycles of mystery plays with elaborate props over the period of a week. Unsworth’s exploration of this genre and the rise of something like the modern drama fill much of the succeeding section of the novel. Martin, the leader of the troupe, realizes that they must abandon performing single mystery plays and invent another type of play if they are to survive. Martin’s alarm is historically accurate. In towns like York and Chester, massive crowds turned out to view guilds that performed a cycle of individual episodes that together made up the Corpus Christi play that depicted the history of the universe from before Creation to Judgment Day. Each guild played a different episode from the overall play on individually guild-owned mobile stages “pulled through the city along a traditional route, stopping at prearranged stations [. . .] to perform their episode” (Twycross 39).

The advantages of such professional players over the troupe Barber has joined were numerous. As Meg Twycross notes, processional staging allows “a vast play to [be brought] to a large holiday audience without losing either detail or an intimacy of approach” (42). Additionally, the positioning of the guild wagons served to “mark the play and its actors off from the audience. They localize the actors and give the audience a focus” (48). Martin’s troupe has no such separation device from their audience and both are less able to create the air of awe necessary for the mystery plays and more susceptible to audience interference in the production. This latter weakness is evidenced by the audience member’s attempt to pull Barber’s mask off during the Play of Adam (51). Finally, these guilds had spectacular special effects, including pyrotechnics, human animals, and the ability, for example, to produce fresh blood from Christ’s side during a dramatic moment in the Chester Judgment (Twycross 53).

Martin recounts to Barber the wonderful stage effects produced by these guilds and then admits glumly, “The day is over for poor players who travel with the Mysteries. We have worked and done our best and we are skilled and we sit here and drink stale beer. […] No, brother, we must find another way. The others look to me, I am the master player” (61). As Janet Burroway has noted, Barber is “too uneasy in his new profession to resist” (12). In Martin’s desperation, he suggests marrying new content with an older form – that of the morality play. The players have heard of the murder of the young boy Thomas Wells and Martin seizes upon the incident as a way of piquing local interest in their acting. As he discusses the murder with Barber, he also incorporates several stock signs that the players usually employ, such as the movement of “drawing close a shawl, like Chastity in the Morality Play” (63). Unconsciously perhaps, Martin has already blended his sought-for new plot with the old form of the morality play.

Morality plays offer an immediate advantage to the impoverished troupe. However, while these plays usually required much less elaborate costuming and production than did the guild-produced mystery cycles, their stock characters seemingly preclude the incorporation of contemporary content, as Martin wishes to do. Pamela M. King has pointed out that morality plays delineated “a fundamental rhetorical separation between the play world and the real world, as players take on the roles of qualities, e.g. Mercy; supernatural beings (Good Angel); whole human categories (Fellowship); and human attributes (Lechery)” (241). Martin wants to involve the audience explicitly in the play and therefore must jettison the traditional morality play’s artificial separation between the world of the stage and the world of the audience.

Although Barber is drawn to acting through his participation in the Play of Adam and his latent dramatic interest, it is only when his masking in the three performances of The Death of Thomas Wells is understood properly that we are able to realize how this particular genre precipitates his relatively rapid transformation into a new self. While masks in the mystery plays such as the Play of Adam concealed identity, masks in the morality plays, as Sarah Carpenter has suggested, “reveal truths to the audience about the character’s inner being” (8). Barber’s behavior before he joined the troupe, especially his adultery, suggests his lack of morality. Repeatedly playing the character Good Counsel, an allegorized virtue in the traditional morality play, makes him whole-heartedly embrace this character’s moral qualities. In the process, he speaks a new self into being through the stylized gestures and spontaneous improvisations he performs that enable him to achieve a self with much more integrity than his previous one. His Christian faith, steeled and tried by great adversity in a variety of incidents, becomes stronger than it ever had been in his former vocation of priest.

In its generic representation of Barber’s transformation, the novel borrows from the three stages of the traditional morality play: innocence, fall, and regeneration. In a similar fashion to most morality plays, which contain only very brief depictions of the state of innocence, the novel mentions virtually nothing of Barber’s state of innocence before his fall into sin. It focuses briefly on his fall as he commits adultery and leaves his vocation of priest. More important, it largely emphasizes his spiritual regeneration and acquisition of a new self through his new vocation as actor. As he becomes immersed in the playing of The Death of Thomas Wells, Barber heeds the didactic message of the form of the traditional morality play – the forgiveness of sins – and eventually finds communion with God. He is reborn, confirmed in his faith and in his new role as player. As we repeatedly see The Death of Thomas Wells performed, we realize that we are seeing the death of the old self that was Nicholas Barber and the rebirth of his new self, instead of the traditional rebirth of the soul onstage in the typical morality play.

Usually in morality plays, the central character, Mankind, experiences a movement from life, to death or corruption, to rebirth or resurrection. The troupe’s new play, though, has no such figure since its focus is only on the actual death of the boy Thomas Wells. Barber, as narrator, emerges as a sort of replacement character for Mankind in the process of playing of Good Counsel. The character of Mankind always experiences a growing self-awareness, as Sarah Carpenter has noted: “morality drama is often concerned with the development of self-awareness, with the central character’s understanding of himself […]” (8). Barber too undergoes such a change from the playing of his part of Good Counsel. For instance, he wears his old priestly garb, suggesting that he will draw upon aspects of his former vocation for this role, which is meant to warn and give guidance. As he realizes during the procession through the town that the troupe conducts to advertise the first performance, there is something meta-theatrical about this role: “I was a priest playing a priest, dressed for the part in my own dress” (91).

In the procession, Barber is reduced to a dumb show of continually making the sorrow gesture since the upcoming play will show Good Counsel’s advice had been ignored. However, wearing his priestly habit, performing this gesture repeatedly, and staring skyward toward the falling snow casts him in the pose of the penitent with a face that almost seems wet with sorrowful tears: “The gesture of sorrow obliges one to look heavenward and my face was soon wet” (91). This posture, made outwardly for the benefit of the townspeople as potential future audience members, crucially makes him inwardly receptive for the awareness of his sins that he experiences in the morning. As the play’s new Mankind character in the eyes of the reader, Barber’s developing self-awareness increasingly attracts our attention.

The next morning, before the new play, Barber awakes to find himself assailed by the sins he has committed, a positive step forward for the transformation he is experiencing, since he finally confesses them and takes responsibility for them:

my sins crowded upon me. I had left the transcribing of Pilato unfinished, I was outside my diocese without permission, I had sung in taverns and diced away my holy relics, I had lain with a woman in adultery, I had joined a troupe of traveling players, a thing expressly forbidden to clerics of what degree. In all this I had offended God and given pain to the Bishop of Lincoln, who had been like a father to me. (98)

Bakhtin has articulated three stages of confession in his lengthy discussion of aesthetics and ethics, Art and Answerability, which are especially apposite to our full understanding of Barber’s confession. Bakhtin’s first phase of this process is an “attempt to fix oneself in repentant tones in the light of the ethical ought-to-be” as “the first essential form of verbal objectification of life and personality” (141). In this phase, confession acts “as an accounting rendered to oneself for one’s own life” (141). Barber has clearly accounted to himself his manifold sins and wickedness in this passage. However, he is still self-obsessed, looking to himself for meaning, and thus separate from any apprehension of the transcendent.

The problem with this first phase of confession is that it never attains resolution because, as Bakhtin argues, it is inherently self-absorbed: “it comprises only that which I myself can say about myself and excludes “the other with his special, privileged approach” (141). This “other” is needed “as a judge who must judge me the way I judge myself [. . .]” (142). Barber will not undergo the last two stages of confession until the final pages of the novel, when he fully comes to trust in a transcendent Other and is moved to prayer and supplication. In the interim period, he is tempted to return to his priestly identity.

Already, having worn the costume of the priest in the procession the previous day has enabled Barber to re-enter his previous life, in which he valued morality and recognized sin for what it was. He has, however, slept the night in the Fool’s headpiece for warmth and covered himself “with Eve’s robe” (98) to further ward off the cold. Wearing Eve’s robe, a reminder of mankind’s original sin, prompts him to recall his own sins, and yet he contemplates taking off this temporary sleeping costume, redonning his old one of priest, and walking away: “It entered my mind that I could get up, leave these scraps of travesty behind, and walk away into the quietness of the morning in my proper dress of a priest, as I had been when first I came upon them” (98).

This is the crucial turning point for Barber in his transformation: contemplating literally changing his clothes symbolizes his indecision between his past and current vocation. He finally chooses to remain a player since he feels that wearing his priestly garb and returning to his vocation is but a mockery of that former role because it has become a dramatic part to play to him:

But I was confused between the playing of the thing and the living of it, it grieves me to say it but I am resolved to tell the truth, the habit of a priest seemed travesty also, no less than the white robe that Stephen wore as God the Father or the horsehair suit of Antichrist. (98).

Now, wearing his habit and anticipating the arrival of the audience, Barber, caught between two selves, feels afraid and exposed to their scrutiny, secretly fearing they can sense his real lack of a fixed identity, which fear is compounded by the volatile content of the new play: “Some measure of fear a player feels always because he is exposed to view and there is no shelter for him without abandoning the play; but now it was stronger, we knew that we would be coming close to the people’s lives” (99).

At the first performance of The Death of Thomas Wells, Barber simultaneously improvises a new role for himself on stage, a process that echoes how he has improvised a new vocation for himself as an actor, and the play itself is transformed into the hybrid combination of the form of the morality play and contemporary content. When Barber enters as Good Counsel to give his sermon to the boy Thomas Wells not to go with the woman who has been accused of his murder, he speaks his lines extemporaneously, saying “the words as they came to me” (102). Thomas Wells, played by the actor Springer, stands between Barber’s Good Counsel and the actor Straw’s temptress, who mimes the pleasures – food, drink, and sexual ones – to be had if he goes with her. Good Counsel’s exhortations prove useless and Wells moves toward the temptress. But even as Good Counsel shrugs his shoulders in resignation, the play is interrupted by the real boy’s mother, who cries angrily from the audience, “My boy did not go with her. […] My Thomas was a good boy” (105). Desperately improvising to ward off the growing violence of the audience that follows this interjection, the players struggle to save the play. Finally, the lead actor Martin suggests extemporaneously that Wells went with the temptress because she could not kill him publicly, by the roadside (105).

These dramatic improvisations lead to more extemporaneous references as the audience pressure on the actors increases. Springer, playing Wells, directly addresses the audience, asking how the woman knew he had a purse of money on him (107). Stephen is then urged by Martin to go out and also speak extemporaneously “before they turn to anger again” (107). Stephen states that Wells boasted of the purse to the woman. Quickly, Avarita and Pieta, two stock figures of the traditional morality play, emerge and battle over the woman’s soul. Avarita’s triumph is shown by the revelation of the woman “with the demon’s mask” (108) and the murder of Wells is performed in dumb-show. As Barber watches, he realizes that playing these roles in an improvisational fashion has changed them ineluctably: “But we were not the same people as those who had practiced” (108). Despite their practice, the interference of the crowd because of the particularity of the local murder has forced them to modify and even invent some lines and movements. Barber realizes they are treading dangerously, coming closer to understanding the mystery of the murder even as they play it for the crowd.

The conclusion of the play leads the actors to shed their dramatic personas and fully incorporate the assembled crowd into the world of the play. As they attempt to portray the finding of the money Wells had been carrying at his death, they gradually take off their masks and speak directly to the audience. Although each actor is supposed to make a sign with his hand when he wants to change lines, Stephen improvises “without any sign or warning,” and asks why the money was not hidden well. In response, Straw as the temptress removes his mask and asks “What brought the Monk to that place?” (109) Tobias, playing Pieta, also removes his mask, noting, “For he saw the woman’s face” (110). Unconsciously, the players have stripped themselves down and stand exposed before the audience in their effort to expose the truth of the murder. Barber recalls his astonishment at this turn of events: “Without any previous arrangement among us and without being properly aware of how it was managed we were all five of us now standing side by side facing the people, and the effigy of the boy lay there before us” (110). Barber as Good Counsel argues that the woman’s hood would have concealed her identity, but Martin seizes the purse and holds it above his head as if he were enacting the Mass, “holding up the black purse with both hands at the fullest reach of his arms as if it were the Host [. . .]” (110). He finally suggests the Monk already knew about the money concealed on the boy and the play abruptly ends.

With the successful acting of this play, the troupe has managed to fully invent their new genre and Barber feels himself drawn more and more to the vocation of actor. But this new vocation and this new play come with a terrible price. Barber correctly perceives that they are being tempted by a terrible power to reveal forbidden knowledge, even though he tells himself that “It was money that drew us on, or so at least it seemed then” (111). They have taken in more money than ever before, but each player seems motivated to keep acting the play more out of a burning need to know what really happened to Thomas Wells than for additional profits. Despite ostensibly deciding to perform the play again for more money, Barber suggests “there was more to it than money and I think we knew this already in our hearts” (114). They resolve to do more research, to conduct more investigations and conduct the true play of Thomas Wells. Martin’s growing mania disturbs Barber but he seems helpless to protest, suggesting they are all possessed by a disturbing power that leads them on: “He was prompted in the lines that he spoke as were we all. Some fascination of power led us to imprison ourselves in this Play of Thomas Wells” (116). The players, then, evince what Roger Shattuck has termed “libido scienti,” or the “lust to know” (69). Especially given the strong medieval belief that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge was transgressive, the actors’ pursuit of it is especially perverse.

As the troupe unearths further clues about the murder and effectively broadcasts them by acting out new versions of the story, Barber must struggle to ensure his emerging self does not become tainted by the knowledge they are discovering. After he and Martin visit the woman accused of killing Thomas Wells and discover her innocence, he admits his fear that “we were moving toward knowledge of evil” (133). They resolve to show the Monk’s guilt in the next performance of the play and do so fearfully, because they know he is protected by the Lord de Guise. As Martin claims the Monk killed the boy, a great shout goes up from the audience that the Monk is dead. Real-life drama now enters the play spontaneously as a mule comes by carrying the Monk’s body. The play and the actors are in danger from the audience, who feel that they have not been given the “real” play, which would have faithfully depicted what actually happened during the events surrounding Wells’s murder.

Barber resolves to save the play and the company’s lives. He thus decides to incorporate the “tidings of the death [of the Monk] into the play along with my sermon on the theme of God’s justice” (152). His text urges penitence, the traditional appeal to the audience of the morality play, based upon the Monk’s death and death’s imminence for them all. Although he says it is now too late for the Monk to repent, the audience still has a chance (153). Barber is really speaking to himself here too, implicitly realizing he himself has a chance to repent of his past sins and be spiritually regenerated by God. The play lurches along, and through their interaction with the audience, the players learn that the Monk served the Lord de Guise and thus they suggest that the Lord murdered Wells and the four other boys who have been found. Before they get a chance to develop this story line, however, the Lord’s steward enters with armed men from de Guise and, together, they escort the players to the castle for the lord’s entertainment (157). The final performance of The Death of Thomas Wells is interrupted by the entry of de Guise’s daughter, who tells her father a knight hurt in the joust the previous day is dying and needs the last rites. Barber is beckoned forward and one last time reverts to his old self in giving him the last rites: “I was out of the playing space now, I was Nicholas Barber, fugitive priest, sick with fear of death” (180).

Barber’s meeting with this man signifies his own repentance of his sins and marks the final stage in his transformation from priest to player while also enabling him to move through the final two stages of confession as articulated by Bakhtin. As he blesses the man, he offers up his own repentance: “It was my own repentance I gave him, my own hope of Heaven” (182). Barber recoils from the possibility of a potentially endless process of confessional self-accounting, and displays a new set of needs for a transcendent power. Up until now, he has desired to justify or explain his sins to his ecclesiastical superiors and to his former patron. With the realization that worldly justification is negated comes, as Bakhtin holds, “a need for religious justification: confessional self-accounting is filled with the need for forgiveness and redemption as an absolutely pure gift (an unmerited gift), with the need for a mercy and grace that are totally otherworldly in respect to their value” (143). Barber feels a similar need in this moment and is able to admit such a need through his interaction with the dying man.

From his recognition of the dying man’s need for mercy and grace comes what Bakhtin terms “the specifically confessional moment within a confessional self-accounting”: “The petition and the supplication themselves remain open, unconsummated: they break off, as it were, into the unpredetermined future of the event” (143). In the “properly confessional moment,” an awareness of the other that is necessary for judgment occurs and the confessing self turns outside himself: “Pure self-accounting – that is, addressing oneself axiologically only to oneself in absolute solitariness – is impossible; pure self-accounting is an ultimate limit which is balanced by another ultimate limit – by confession, that is, the petitionary advertedness outward from oneself, toward God” (143). Moreover, “the deeper the repentance and the passing-beyond-oneself, the clearer and more essential is one’s referredness to God” (144). In this sense, by fully sympathizing with the dying man’s bodily agony and attempting to invite God to save his soul, Barber himself turns more toward the Lord, confesses his sins, and escapes himself.

As this “referredness to God” strengthens, the third and final phase of confession ensues: “Thus, entirely new tones, the tones of faith and hope, irrupt into the penitent and petitionary tones of confessional self-accounting, and these new tones make possible the order or concord that is intrinsic to prayer” (144-45). Finally, a real faith in God is given to the penitent. Les Smith argues that in this third phase,

a confessant finally recognizes the limits to self-expression, or confession of, and begins to trust in things not seen, as in confession that. She moves from reflection and repentance, through prayer and entreaty, to faith proper, where she no longer laments personal flaws or begs for mercy, but places her faith in an Other. (35)

Barber places his “own hope of Heaven” in God’s hands and fully believes in the Lord, perhaps for the first time. The rest of the novel is marked by these “entirely new tones, the tones of faith and hope,” which “irrupt into the penitent and petitionary tones of confessional self-accounting.”

Barber manages to escape from the castle immediately after this fully confessional moment and symbolically from his role as priest. He leaves by a “narrow but straight” passage, suggesting Unsworth’s approval of his new vocation that has enabled him to obtain a moral compass through his acquisition of a living Christian faith. As the novel concludes, we learn that the Monk procured the boys for de Guise’s son, William, who sodomized them. William is dying or dead from the plague that he was infected with from Thomas Wells. After sodomizing and killing the child, William discovered he had the plague and had the Monk leave Wells on the road to be found.

As Barber leaves, the Justice asks him if he has considered returning to his post. A riot of thoughts runs through the young man’s mind before he answers in the negative:

When I was a sub-deacon transcribing Pilato’s Homer for a noble patron, I had thought I was serving God but I was only acting at the direction of the Bishop, who is the master-actor for all that company of the Cathedral. I was in the part of a hired scribe but I did not know this, I thought it was my true self. God is not served by self-deceiving. The impulse to run away had not been folly but the wisdom of my heart. I would be a player and I would try to guard my soul, unlike the Player in the fable. And I would not again be trapped in a part. “I am grateful, my Lord Justice,” I said, but I will remain a player” (205-06).

Barber’s dramatic language describing his former vocation signals how thoroughly he has embraced his new vocation of acting. Whereas early in the play when he watched the death of Brendan and compared the players’ breaths in the cold air to the incense burned in the mass, he now sees his vocation of priest as a part he wrongly played that did not express his “true self.” He has died to his old self and undergone a theologically regenerative process.

The revelation of this new self has been retrospectively given to us through his narration, which conforms to Taylor’s notion of a narrative understanding of the self: “a sense of what I have become [. . .] can only be given in a story” (48). In its melding of form and moral content, Morality Play ably responds to Iris Murdoch’s charge in her essay “Against Dryness” (1961) that modern fiction has undergone what Valentine Cunningham, paraphrasing Murdoch, terms a “formal failure, an unnerved retreat from the largely moralized human scopes of the nineteenth-century realists” (160).

Unsworth’s historical fictions have always critiqued exploitation in various forms, an inherently moral concern. Springing from his belief that the Thatcherite monetary policies in Britain of the 1980s exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor (Kemp 361), his 1990s novels such as Morality Play obliquely critique contemporary British life and more directly in this case, the sexual exploitation by some priests in the Catholic Church of members of their flocks, epitomized by the Monk’s disturbing role in the novel in aiding William de Guise’s sexual perversity. Having repented for his sins and received forgiveness, Nicholas Barber dies to those sins embodied in his previous self and walks confidently onto the stage of the future in his new vocation as actor, one that will enable him to catch the conscience of his audience and urge their repentance, acting the true message of the morality play once more.


1) Very little has been written on Unsworth. Emblematic of this critical neglect, discussions of his work are omitted altogether from two important recent histories of the twentieth-century British novel: Martin Dodsworth’s chapter on the British novel since 1950 in his 1994 edition of The Penguin History of Literature: The Twentieth Century, 315-44, and Randall Stevenson’s chapters on British fiction since 1960 in his 1993 book, A Reader’s Guide to The Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain, 98-142. Unsworth is only mentioned in passing in two other recent critical works on the contemporary British novel. Allan Massie, an acclaimed and influential fiction reviewer for The Scotsman and columnist for The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and Sunday Times Scotland, includes Unsworth in a catalog of contemporary British novelists he chooses not to discuss in his slim 1990 study of the British novel from 1970-1989. He lists Unsworth as part of a group of writers excluded for three reasons: “because they are not exemplary figures, because they have no single work sufficiently cogent to force an entry, or because they seem to me to have steered up a backwater which precludes interesting development” (69). To his credit, Massie includes some of Unsworth’s novels in his bibliography (87). Finally, Malcolm Bradbury only mentions Unsworth’s accomplishments in the novel in one sentence about “The End of the Empire” in his fairly thorough 1994 study of the twentieth-century British novel (404). More recently, Unsworth’s fiction is not discussed in any chapters in the 2003 edited collection, The Contemporary British Novel.

2) See Bradbury’s discussion of the growing influence of ìthe international panoply of styles (412) such as magical realism, 412-14; his brief discussion of regionalism, 414-15; and his discussion of post-colonial and foreign-born writers such as Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, respectively, 416-27.

3) Garrett notes that Barber’s “faith and belief seem curiously modern, easy enough to cast aside. It is hard for the contemporary author to take medieval Christianity seriously” (460). Bernstein prefers to cast the novel as a “learned, witty, satisfying entertainment set in medieval England,” a strange, even obtuse reading given the serious moral and ethical issues about the self and society raised throughout it.

4) Murdoch, of course, is not the first critic to make this claim. Bakhtin does so often throughout his long essay, “Discourse in the Novel,” the argument of which proceeds from his opening statement that “Form and content in discourse are one [. . .]” (The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Bakhtin 259).

5) Tydeman further notes that the Church issues a series of injunctions starting as far back as 679 and running well into the Middle Ages: “as late as 1511 John Colet was complaining in a sermon that priests were devoting themselves to “sportes and playes” (11). Barber’s actual acting in a play would have thus been anathema to the Church.

4) Janet Burroway points out that “One of the things that distinguish [sic] Mr. Unsworth’s fiction is a sense of community that is warm without being sentimental” (11).

5) But there is a considerable variety of structures within morality plays that can deviate from this traditional one as Merle Fifield shows in his pioneering article on the subject, “Methods and Modes: The Application of Genre Theory to Descriptions of Moral Plays,” 7-74.

6) As Robert Potter points out, “the traditional morality play is not a battle between virtues and vices, but a didactic ritual drama about the forgiveness of sins. Its theatrical intentions are to imitate and evoke that forgiveness” (57).

7) A number of verses from the New Testament have direct bearing on Barber’s escape down a “narrow but straight” passage. Matthew 7:13-14 contrasts the narrow gate and narrow road of eternal life with the wide gate and broad road that lead to hell: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” In Luke 13:24, as Christ journeys toward Jerusalem, he tells the crowds, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” This passage too associates narrowness with righteousness. Other New Testament passages make clear associations between straight paths and righteousness, especially in the context of how Christ’s coming will rectify unrighteousness. Verses four through six of the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in its discussion about John the Baptist’s role as a messenger announcing the coming of Christ, cites Isaiah 40:3-5: “A voice of one calling in the desert. Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” In the same context, Matthew 3:3 and Mark 1:3 cite Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”

Works Cited

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Richard Rankin Russell (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is an assistant professor of English at Baylor University. He specializes in Northern Irish literature, Anglo-Irish literature, and twentiethcentury British literature. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Journal of Modern Literature, South Atlantic Review, Modern Drama, New Hibernia Review, Papers on Language and Literature, Colby Quarterly, and English Language Notes, among others. His edited collection of essays on the contemporary Irish playwright Martin McDonagh will appear from Routledge in 2007. He has just completed a manuscript entitled. “Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and the Devolution of Northern Irish Literature.”

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