Playthings of Providence: I read “Morality Play”

Playthings of Providence: I read “Morality Play” April 24, 2018

Barry Unsworth’s 1995 novel has a terrific hook: Sometime in England’s fourteenth century, a demoralized, fugitive priest becomes part of a band of wandering players–and helps them solve a local murder. I loved so much of this slender book, and frequently stopped to savor its pleasures.

The priest is mostly a terrific narrator: slightly pedantic, certain of his own unworth, headstrong but with a taste for helplessness. The setup is so smart. The players, under severe financial pressure–they need to fix their cart, and they’re once again reaching the edge of starvation–find that their usual Biblical plays don’t draw in the customers. So they get a wild and strange idea. What if they dramatized the murder all the locals are talking about–or pointedly refusing to talk about? But as they explore the possibilities of this ripped-from-the-headlines entertainment (Law and Order: Serf Victims Unit), they begin to doubt the official story of the murder. Maybe the real killer is still at large….

The tone of the writing is lilting and fatalistic, and embedded in its period. Time is measured by how long it takes to say a Miserere; a man’s wealth is gauged by the clarity of his candle’s flame. As much as I feel the awfulness of today’s grueling constant mobility, Unsworth really made me feel the pressure and helplessness of being tied to the land, and the longing for freedom. (This bit from Unsworth’s Wikipedia bio may be relevant:

Unsworth was born on 10 August 1930[1] in Wingate, a mining village in County Durham, England, to a family of miners.[2][3] His father first entered the mines at age 12 and ordinarily Unsworth would have followed him as a miner. However, when his father was 19, he travelled to the United States for a few years and on returning to Britain entered the insurance business and thus began moving his family up the economic ladder and out of the mines.[3] “He rescued my brother and me from that long chain of continuity that happens in mining villages,” Unsworth said.)

What I felt most of all, reading it, was the littleness of the central characters. Unsworth makes their economic helplessness, their total lack of control over their lives, a crystallization of the helplessness even the rich and mighty characters experience in the face of God and plague. Moreover, Unsworth uses the character of the players’ leader to show the ways in which even poor men wield power and express pride. But he never, ever forgets the differences between rich and poor, even when he’s showing us the ways in which rich men are poor and poor rich.

My one criticism is that the book sets up a central conflict for our narrator: Is he a priest, or is he a player? And it didn’t quite give me enough on either side of this question. I don’t know that I completely bought (or even understood) all of the book’s talk of the play controlling the players, but we do get more of the attraction of theater for the narrator. We get much less of his understanding of his priesthood. Although the ending is more ambivalent, I think, than it first appeared to me (and more interesting, less propagandistic), I will say that there’s more feeling of the priest’s and players’ “hope in Christ” toward the beginning than toward the end. Which would be fine if we took the journey with them to a less-faithful place, instead of just feeling like the author turned out not to be too interested in their faith. Or to give an actual example, rather than just my cynical interpretation, there are two really clear moments when the priest gets a chance to exercise his office, to offer the sacraments. He ducks the first chance but goes through with it the second time. He doesn’t talk much about either, but I felt like I understood where he was coming from the first time around, whereas the second time just kind of happens. He just finally acted in the role he’s been dodging all through the novel! Let him feel something about it! So yeah, Unsworth doesn’t explore the side of the character which interested me the most, even though he sets it up to be really important.

That said, this is a quick read and I highly recommend it if it intrigues you. Apparently there’s a movie adaptation, called The Reckoning, which I am quite excited to see.

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