For him the life of the play was set apart from the life outside it, with its own rules of behaviour and speech, to which all were subject, strong and weak, high and low. I did not see the danger of it then, God forgive me my folly.
I don't think I've ever read a novel more epigrammatic than Barry Unsworth's medieval murder mystery, Morality Play (1995). It is narrated by a disgraced priest named Nicholas, whose better angels (the humility and repentance of the header quotation, for example) tend to get drowned out quite a bit by his conviction that he's the cleverest and most important person in any given situation. The prose, as a result, dips back and forth between an unadorned formality - mannered and non-specifically 'archaic' in feel, but nonetheless clear and matter-of-fact, especially when it comes to physical description - and a register sonorous with import, full of little catechisms that have the ring of studied insight. Nicholas is a man trying to make sense of the world, and his past actions, through the lens of his reading.
"There was a guidance in it," he tells us early on, about his encounter with a group of travelling players on the road between York and Durham, "as there had been in my first coming upon them. What is accident to the ignorant the wise see as design." Nicholas, of course, is certain that he falls into the latter category, not least because he is telling this tale in retrospect, as part of an attempt to win an indulgence for his sins (which include gambling and adultery): it is important to him to appear to be as frank as possible about his deeds and his "folly", while at the same time making it clear at every turn that he is not - entirely - responsible. Like the innocent protagonist of a morality play, he has fallen into temptation and strayed from the path of good counsel and righteousness:
To serve the time is the mark of wisdom, as Tobias might have said; and the time had made me a man for songs, not sermons.
The "time" alluded to here is the mid-fourteenth century: this is the England of the Black Death, a world turned upside down, lurid with trauma and crisis and much obsessed with death:
The fields lie untilled, many die of famine, they fall and in haste they are shovelled away in obscure corners. Bands of brigands infest the countryside, peasants in flight from their dues of labour, soldiers returning from these endless wars with France, men who have known nothing but murder from earliest life.
Priests should be upright, pious men; priests should be able to travel unmolested. Neither of these things, in Nicholas' recounting, hold true any longer. Hazard lurks around every corner - a symptom, perhaps, as much of Nicholas' disordered state of mind after his flight from his diocese as of the disrupted society around him. When he first happens across the travelling players, standing around a prone body in a dense woodland far from habitation, he is terrified; partly because he thinks they're robbers and is, he admits, "not brave", but also because of the circumstances. "I was a stranger," he says; "in some manner I could be blamed. There is a passion of violence in the people; where several are gathered the spirit of murder is never far."
He reaches for ecclesiastical analogies to describe what he saw - the "mist of breath" of the people surrounding the body "like incense, a fume of devotion" - but at the same time finds himself re-drawing the scene using imagery from his other life, the one that these people will introduce him to. Twice he remarks upon the unified theatricality of their movements, and imagines them as actors:
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. [...]
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.
There is marked reluctance and wariness on both sides, although the players, at least, have license to travel through the livery of their patron. But after a well-staged tense episode, Nicholas falls in with them - not without some foreshadowing, of course ("Had I but known the toils of evil this wayside death would lead us into, I would have gone my way with no further syllable and all the haste I could summon") - on their journey to a nearby town to seek burial for their dead friend, Brendan. To earn his keep, he soon is drawn into their "shameful trade", as well; on entering the town, to advertise the performances they will put on to pay for the priest's services in performing the burial, the whole company gets into character, including Nicholas:
[T]hey gave me the horse-hair suit of Antichrist to wear and a devil's horned mask, and armed me with a wooden trident that I was to jab with as we went along, at the same time gibbering and hissing. It was my first role.
Unsworth does a very good job, I think, of giving a sense of how medieval morality plays worked and where they fit into the spectrum of religious observance. Morality plays apparently developed out of the tradition of mystery play cycles (on which see this post from the infancy of Alexandria), although in practice the line between the two genres seems to be blurry, and they certainly overlapped in time. Whereas mystery plays were essentially dramatisations of Biblical stories, morality plays were more like abstract lessons, generally relating to the risky business of being a human in a world filled with temptation and supernatural meddling. Mystery and morality plays alike, staged by privately-funded groups and (increasingly) civic institutions, were more the business of popular religiosity than they were of the Church. As of the early 13th century, a papal edict banned clergy from taking roles in such plays; hence Nicholas' need for some creative self-justification in his narration.
Unsworth emphasises the central role of symbolism in these plays. The characters are archetypes (God, the Devil, Temptation, and so forth), and while there are speeches, it is costume and gesture and spectacle that convey much of the meaning to the audience:
At intervals, when harmony and discord were in full conflict and the issue in doubt, God raised his right hand, palm outward and fingers slightly curled in the gesture of silencing, and with this the din of the demons instantly ceased.
Above all, what we are shown is the players putting forth a moral messages by appealing to the emotions, the fervour and the awe of their audience:
With a horned mask and a wooden trident I was their fear of hell-fire. Two minutes later, still the same timorous creature as before, with a fool's cap and a white mask, I was their hope of laughter.
The audience's laughter, notes Nicholas,
is a welcome thing as saving from silence, but also frightening when there are many laughing together - it is a sea with strange tides. Players swim in the rise and fall of it and if they lose the mastery they drown.
Given this, you might think that it's not the best time to be in a profession that involves stirring up the audience's fears about their salvation, when the world around is offering daily proof of God's displeasure through the very real spectacle of people dropping like flies from the Black Death. You'd be right. But heightening the tension still further, the unnamed town to which the players have come has a secret: a local boy named Thomas Wells has recently been found murdered.
Martin, the leader of the players, sees an opportunity in this, to adapt the abstract message of their performances into something more concrete, something locally meaningful: "We must play the murder", he says. Nicholas objects, strenuously (perhaps more so in the retelling?), and beneath his words we can see Unsworth telescoping the development of medieval drama towards its early modern form:
"God has not given us this story to use, He has not revealed to us the meaning of it. So it has no meaning, it is only a death. Players are like other men, they must use God's meanings, they cannot make meanings of their own, that is heresy, it is the source of all our woes, it is the reason our first parents were cast out."
There follows a wonderful piece of storytelling, as the players go out among the townsfolk to try to gather up the strands of what happened, and then return to recount what they've learned around their campfire: rhythmically, almost ritually, we circle the campfire with the tale, as each character in turn adds layers and nuance to what came before.
The centrepiece of the new play involves Nicholas - in the role of Good Counsel - delivering a sermon on the dangers of temptation, while another member of the cast, Straw, cross-dresses to play the villainess of the piece, the woman accused of Thomas' murder. Nicholas describes Straw (whom he repeatedly blurs with his character, frequently referring to him as "she") "miming [...] a dumb-show of pleasures" as a backdrop to his sermon, such that "the words of spirit and the gestures of flesh should contend together". Again we are encouraged to imagine how such a play might have been staged, and what effect it might have on minds trained to see in dualities and increasingly prone, moreover, to attempt ever greater feats of mortification to punish flesh and purify spirit in such uncertain times:
For the part of the temptress he had devised a strange and frightening way of bending the body stiffly sideways with the head held for a moment in inquiry and hands just above the waist, palms outward and fingers stiffly splayed in a gesture of his own invention. So for a moment, while he made the pause to see the effects of his tempting, he was frozen in wicked inquiry. Then he broke again into sinuous motion, gesturing the delights that awaited Thomas Wells if he would but follow.
But not all the audience are in accord - Thomas Wells' mother objects to the characterisation of her son as the unwary soul led astray by his alluring murderer's blandishments - and even the players find the play changing as they perform it. They spend the next day investigating further, keen to learn the truth, and come to realise that the woman due to die for the crime is not the real culprit.
Looking back, Nicholas sees only danger in this, of a sort that speaks convincingly to a medieval European mindset. "[W]e were moving towards the knowledge of evil", he says; they are abrogating to themselves the responsibility to make meaning and determine truth, when that role belongs to God alone. Through Nicholas' misgivings, Unsworth is able to generate a considerable sense of menace that works on both a murder-mystery and a cultural-history level:
With memory aiding, it is not so difficult to relate events as they follow in sequence. But the dread that comes to natures like mine, that is not so easy to trace, it moves in lurches, forward and back, it catches at new things. That fear I felt in the tavern at the power of human desire, a power for harm or good, I feel it still. The nature of power is always the same, though the masks it wears are various.
I won't spoil the resolution of the mystery; more interesting, in any case, is the process by which it is arrived at, which is both a testament to the power of drama and - from Nicholas' viewpoint - an indictment of the temptation it poses. They became "possessed" by their roles, he claims, "confused between the playing of the thing and the living of it"; "we were drowning in it", he tells us of the subsequent, revised performance of the play, strongly recalling his analogy about the audience's response being like 'a sea with strange tides'. The players are carried forward, and imperilled, by the tide of emotion they evoke with their recreation.
Earlier in the novel, Nicholas foreshadowed this loss of self with his comments on the first time he wore the Antichrist costume, which he experiences as a claustrophobic confinement ("I did not see well through the eyeholes and my sight was altogether closed off at the sides") and a concealment rather than a display; he echoes this later when he confesses that, at the height of his involvement in the play, he came to see his priestly robes as just another costume, as unlikely and false as anything he wore on stage.
Ultimately, though, I choose to read the impassioned defence he offers when he is swept up in the emotion and the possibility of the thing, rather than his retrospective attempt to repent of his involvement, as Nicholas' - and the novel's - verdict on how drama liberates through empathy with the fictional, and tells the truth through lies:
"We learned through the play," I said. "We learned through the parts we were given. It is something not easy to explain. I am new to playing but it has seemed to me like dreaming. The player is himself and another. When he looks at the others in the play he knows he is part of their dreaming just as they are a part of his. From this comes thoughts and words that outside the play he would not readily admit to his mind."