Document Type

Forum Theme 1


The paucity of details about secular theater in the fourteenth century allows Barry Unsworth to imagine what a troupe of players would look like if we could examine them right at the time when "a totally new form of drama was being born" (Unsworth, "Barry Unsworth on Fourteenth Century Life and Theatre"). In his novel Morality Play, he imagines poor, itinerant players competing with the large guilds that put on an entire cycle of plays with the backing of unlimited funds. He conjectures that these players would be an amalgamation of different types of troupes that endeavored to earn a living during the Middle Ages: mummers and those who performed interludes and morality plays under the protection of a patron. He envisions the players caught between the performance of religious and secular plays. They attempt to perform the circumstances of the recent murder of a boy named Thomas Wells as a morality play, entitling it "The Play of Thomas Wells." The presumption is that the title of the novel refers to this play. However, when their performance is unable to stay within the parameters of the morality play genre, the play becomes secularized. Upon closer examination, "The Play of Thomas Wells" reveals itself as a play-within-a-play, so readers should treat the novel as an outer play. Clearly, Unsworth does not intend for the title Morality Play to refer to "The Play of Thomas Wells," but the world of the novel encasing the play within.

Publication Date

Spring 2006

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©2006 Heather Kennedy McDonald



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