Jean Anouilh’s Becket; ou l’honneur de Dieu (Becket; or the Honor of God) tells the troubled story of the relationship between Thomas à Becket and Henry Plantagenet, known to history as King Henry II of England. This relationship begins as friendship and ends with the murder of Becket by Henry’s henchmen at the Cathedral of Canterbury. Anouilh sets Becket in England during the twelfth century, a time of political and religious upheaval. In Anouilh’s interpretation of this history, the Saxon peasants have not yet acquiesced to their Norman conquerors, nor has the throne firmly established its supremacy over the Catholic Church.
Becket was written in 1958 in France and was first produced in 1959 in Paris at Theatre Montparnasse-Gaston Baty. The French edition of the play was published by Editions de la Table Ronde in 1959. In 1960, Becket opened in New York at the St. James Theatre. This production won a Tony Award. A translation of the play by Lucienne Hill was issued in England and New York by Coward-McCann publishers, who subsequently reprinted the play twenty-three times, a comment on the ongoing popularity of Anouilh’s play. Indeed, Riverhead Books, New York, released an easily available paperback edition of the play as recently as 1995.
Becket addresses themes and ideas that retain their importance, commenting on issues of love and hatred, resistance and collaboration, and church and state. Although Becket begins the play as a man without honor, he closes the play as a man who dies to defend God’s honor. It is as a martyr that Becket finds his place in history; and it is through Anouilh’s play that the man behind the legend comes to life.