Unlike those artists who maintain an unchanged view of the world and of the development of their art, T. S. Eliot’s life was one of growth. In his youth, he was primarily a satirist, mocking the conventions of society in poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “Portrait of a Lady.” Later, he became a mosaic artist of exquisite sensibility when, fragment by fragment, he pieced together his damning portrait of post-World War I civilization in The Waste Land (1922). Still later, finding his ethical pessimism essentially sterile, he climaxed his long interest in philosophy, theology, literary history, and government by becoming a royalist in politics, a classicist in literature, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.
Born in the United States and educated at Harvard, Eliot early settled in England. Throughout his early career he had developed more than a casual interest in the drama, not merely as an art form in and of itself, but in the theater as a means of instruction. Such early fragments as Sweeney Agonistes (1932) tantalize by their incompleteness, but Murder in the Cathedral demonstrates Eliot’s mastery of the classic tragic form.
In this remarkably effective play, Eliot links devices derived from the Greeks—the chorus, static action, and Aristotelian purgation—with his profound commitment to the Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Murder in the Cathedral in many ways resembles a medieval morality play whose purpose is to enlighten as well as entertain. Yet the work is never merely morally instructive. It rises above didacticism because Archbishop Thomas Becket’s internal anguish is made so personal and timeless. Becket’s assassination becomes more real by the subsequent political and temporal events it evokes.
Eliot firmly believed that twentieth century drama, to be most effective, had to be written in poetry, a belief he shared with William Butler Yeats, his Irish contemporary. Eliot’s poetry is moving without being ostentatiously poetic because it reaches the audience on a level that Eliot himself termed the auditory imagination. Responding from the unconscious, the spectators are drawn deeply into the drama and begin to share Becket’s internal agonies by participating in the almost primitive rhythmic manipulations of Eliot’s deceptively simple verse.
What makes Eliot’s play so timely is that the four allurements offered to Thomas by the tempters are precisely those faced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the twentieth century audience: those of worldly pleasure, temporal power, spiritual power, and, finally and most subtly, eternal glory. Thomas refutes all of them, quite directly, but is entranced for a time by the fourth tempter, who indicates that if Thomas were to proceed on his course, he would be deliberately courting martyrdom to achieve eternal happiness with God. Eventually, Thomas counters the argument with one of the most effective lines in the play: “The last temptation and the greatest treason/ Is to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Thomas’s certainty of the spiritual correctness of his own actions mirrors that of members of the audience, who slowly become aware of their own culpability in acting correctly for insufficient reason in any matter, or even of acting selfishly for a good end. The involvement of the audience so profoundly is another tribute to Eliot’s genius.
Eliot also works on still another level, that of the conflict of powers. Each power may perhaps be justified in its own way, and Thomas recognizes that the king and the temporal power he represents have some justification. The king, moreover, had once been Thomas’s closest friend and had, in fact, made him archbishop. Thomas ponders on the debts to the temporal realm, to friendship, and to gratitude, but he continues to maintain the primacy of the spiritual order over the temporal. If some things are Caesar’s, they are Caesar’s only because God permitted that to be so.
Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in Canterbury Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic antiquity providing a most striking setting. Still often produced in a church edifice, the play gains immediacy through the verisimilitude achieved by the combination of setting, liturgy, verse, and chorus. Despite Thomas’s brilliant Christmas sermon, which opens the second act, Eliot does not preach. He does not reduce the situation to a simple case of good versus evil. Rather, he creates a conflict of mystiques, each with a well-developed rationale. The choice is between alternatives, not opposites. Thomas, who fears that he may be a victim of the sin of pride, must nevertheless choose either damnation or salvation.
Eliot, always conscious of history, knew that the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury was among the most famous of medieval objects of devotion and pilgrimage. Thus, even the justifications of the knights who killed Thomas deserve serious attention. More than one twentieth century historical critic has wondered if Thomas were not “hell-bent” on heaven, a question that Thomas himself ponders. If the knights’ justification is to be rejected, the question remains as to how much of their own rationalizations does not continue to be part of what motivates individual action.
Murder in the Cathedral is a compelling drama for celebrating the themes of faith, justification, power, and conflict, which continue to recur through the ages. Eliot created a timeless work that anticipates his profoundly religious and mystical collection of poems Four Quartets (1943) and his later treatments of very similar themes in plays such as The Cocktail Party (1949) and The Confidential Clerk (1953). All of Eliot’s later poetry and plays, however, must be read with Murder in the Cathedral in mind, for it represents a pivotal achievement in his distinguished career.