Becket Essay - Critical Evaluation

Jean Anouilh

Critical Evaluation

As in his earlier L’Alouette (1953; The Lark, 1955), about Joan of Arc, Anouilh, in Becket, treats the life and death of a martyred Christian saint through the eyes of a nonbeliever who is less concerned with faith than with human character and motivation. What matters to Anouilh is the legendary figure of Becket as recalled and reconstructed over the centuries in history and literature. As had the Greek myth that he had exploited earlier in his Antigone (1944; English translation, 1946), the lives of the saints provided context for psychological and social commentary. What Anouilh does in Becket is demystify the saint under consideration, presenting him to the audience in straightforward human terms.

The legend of Thomas à Becket has appealed frequently to playwrights, most notably T. S. Eliot, whose Murder in the Cathedral (1935) is often revived. Eliot’s play, however, takes the point of view of a believer, with emphasis on theological debate. Anouilh, well acquainted with Eliot’s version, attempted some twenty-five years later to expand the scope of Eliot’s inquiry, opening the exposition to include not only the outdoors (through the use of costly stage sets) but also a full range of European history and politics. For Eliot, Thomas’s life is exemplary and inspirational; for Anouilh, it is legendary and symbolic, illustrative of problems that continue to plague the human race. Borrowing freely from the conventions of murder mystery, spy fiction, and broad political satire, as well as from cinematic technique, Anouilh creates in Becket a highly convincing and entertaining portrayal of a close friendship in decline. The text of Becket often reads more like a screenplay than a stage play, with frequent flashbacks, rapid scene changes, and highly specific instructions about how a particular line is to be delivered. A 1964 film version, featuring Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as the king, was extremely faithful to the text and remained in circulation for years afterward. By the time he addresses himself to Becket, Anouilh is well aware that the martyred bishop was no Saxon, as supposed by the historian Augustin Thierry (1795-1856), whose works Anouilh had read as a boy, but rather a Norman like the king himself. Thus deprived of a possible dramatic theme, Anouilh, in Becket, derives considerable rhetorical and dramatic effect at the level of character from the political interplay between the king and the pragmatic Becket (who does not, in fact, represent the compromising spirit of the conquered Saxon...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)