Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Canterbury Cathedral. Church in southeast England that was the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury and the center of Roman Catholic power in England during the period in which T. S. Eliot’s play is set. In the play, the cathedral quickly becomes a place of temptation. Each of four tempters offers Becket a course of action supposedly intended to save his life. In his resistance the cathedral is shown to be a place of anxiety and confrontation. However, in the process it also becomes a place of strength. Becket’s rejection of the tempters’ invitations underscores an important Eliot theme: Religion’s place in the world is not to secure for its adherents automatic safety, but faith gives direction for decisive action.
In the second part of the play the theme of the cathedral as a place of violence is intensified. Becket’s priests try to protect him from the murderous knights. His instructions to them to open the doors and not make the cathedral into a fortress constitutes a key Eliot theme about the role of place. Even after violence enters the house of prayer, Becket will not allow the barring of the doors. The unbarred doors allow the knights to enter and kill him, but his martyrdom shows that the cathedral is not simply a place of sanctuary, but also a place where one may suffer for the good of all.
After the assassination, each of the four knights attempts to justify the murder of Thomas...
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World War I and Modernism
The ravages of World War I (1914-1918) brought about the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians and caused many artists and intellectuals to question the values and assumptions of their worlds and the permanence of civilization. The growth of Modernism, a literary and artistic movement, attested to this newfound refusal to apply old-world values to contemporary life Writers such as Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Virginia Woolf, (1882-1941) James Joyce, (1882-1941) and Eliot himself attempted to create new forms of prose, drama, and verse which they thought would reflect what they saw as the often fragmented and hollow nature of their world.
As William Butler Yeats's 1920 poem "The Second Coming" explains, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Eliot's long, bitter and complicated poem,' 'The Waste Land'' (1922) is regarded as one of the most perfect examples of modernist attitudes in verse. Other notable modernist works include Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) whose protagonist...
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''Tragedy'' as a dramatic form is usually defined as the story of a noble individual who struggles against himself or his fate in the face of almost certain defeat. Perhaps the ideal example of tragedy is Sophocles's Oedipus the King (5th century BC) in which Oedipus, the King of Thebes, attempts to cleanse his city against an evil that is plaguing it, only to learn that this evil is found in himself. Eliot's play does employ several classical tragic conventions, such as the use of a Chorus to comment on the action, the characters' speech written in verse, and a plot which culminates in the hero's death.
Thomas is a tragic figure in his larger-than-life passion and search for what can be done to solve the problem with which he is faced. Unlike many tragic heroes, however, Thomas's character harbors no "flaw" or (as Hamlet called it) "mole of nature": he is not blind to his fate (like Oedipus), he is not the slave of passion (like Othello) and he is not a man destroyed by the promises of his own imagination (like Willy Loman).
Instead, Thomas is steadfast and assured; even when he questions his own motives for seeking martyrdom, he summons enough strength in himself to determine that he will allow himself to be the "instrument" of God. While Thomas is eventually killed, something more wonderful than terrible occurs when the Chorus finally understands the will of God and praises Him for His wisdom and...
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Compare and Contrast
1170: King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket begin to quarrel over the growing strength of the Catholic Church, marking the first hints of an anti-Catholic sentiment lasting until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which permitted Roman Catholics to sit in Parliament and hold almost any public office.
1935: Belfast is ravaged by anti-Catholic riots. Northern Ireland expels Catholic families and Catholics in the Irish Free State retaliate.
Today: Although their British counterparts generally live in peace, tensions between Irish Catholics and Protestants are still seen in the number of bombings and acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland. British Prime Minister Tony Blair holds talks with Irish representatives in an effort to end these and other problems, collectively referred to as the "troubles."
12th-14th Centuries: "Miracle" and "Morality" plays grow in popularity. These plays present the lives of Christ or the saints in dramatic form, often performed in a church as part of religious holidays or festivals.
1935: Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is written for the year's Canterbury Festival and is performed in the Chapter House of the cathedral. Eliot's play makes use of conventions and "stock'' characters similar to those found in medieval morality plays.
Today: While morality plays are not...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the historical Thomas Becket and his reasons for quarreling with King Henry II To what degree does Eliot's version of these events accord with that found in historical sources?
The British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson also composed a verse play on the life of Thomas Becket, Becket (1884). Read Tennyson's version of Becket's martyrdom and compare and contrast it with Eliot's. How, for example, does each poet present Becket's decision to remain in the cathedral when threatened by the knights?
Renaissance artists frequently painted saints in symbolic settings. Locate some paintings of Becket and explain the ways in which their artists have manipulated color, light, and form in order to present their subject Whataspects of Becket's personality do they wish to stress?
Eliot admired the morality play Everyman (1500) for its versification, i.e., for its author's use of sound and meter in creating certain effects. Compare the nature of Everyman's verse to Eliot's: are there any patterns of rhythm or sound that can be found in both works? "Why would Eliot appropriate the patterns he did"?
In Part Two of the play, several musical cues are mentioned, such as ''a Dies Irae is sung in Latin by a choir in the distance." Look in an encyclopedia of music to learn what a Dies Irae is and how it and the...
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Murder in the Cathedral was adapted as a British film in 1952, directed by George Hoellenng. Paul Rodgers and Leo McKern are featured in the cast and Eliot provided the voice of the Fourth Tempter
A recording of the 1953 Old Vic cast performing the play was recorded by Angel Records.
A recording of the play, starring Paul Scofield, was produced in 1968. It is available through Caedmon Recordings.
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What Do I Read Next?
The sixteenth-century Morality Play Everyman (1500) was admired by Eliot for its versification, which he imitated in his play. A reader of Murder in the Cathedral will also immediately note the ways in which Eliot appropriated this play's use of symbolic characters (such as Death, Kindred, and Beauty) as the Three Tempters in his own work.
John Milton's Samson Agonistes (1671) is, like Eliot's play, a religious drama in verse. The play examines the captivity of Samson (the Biblical hero) among the Philistines and his desire to strengthen his faith in God.
Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play offers a look at the performers of such medieval dramatic fare and raises questions similar to those found in Eliot's play, specifically, the ways in which the law of man—as opposed to the law of God—can he corrupted and suited to the desires of those in power.
Sophocles's Antigone, a tragedy written in the 5th century B .C, is very much like Murder in the Cathedral in its exploration of a conflict between human and divine law. The play also features a Chorus much like that found in Eliot's play.
Eliot's verse, particularly "The Love Song ofJ. Alfred Prufrock,'"'Journey of the Magi'' and The Waste Land shares many themes found...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot. A Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 227
Bloom, Harold. Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Murder in the Cathedral, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 1-4.
Donoghue, Dems. The Third Voice; Modern British and American Verse Drama, Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 83
Eliot, T S "Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry" in Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1951, p 46.
Eliot, T. S. Murder in the Cathedral, Harcourt Brace, 1935.
Eliot, T S "Poetry and Drama" in On Poetry and Poets, Faber and Faber, 1957, pp. 79-81
Jeake, Samuel, Jr. [pseudonym for Conrad Aiken].' 'London Letter" in the New Yorker, July 13,1935, pp. 61-3.
Jones, David E. The Plays of T. S. Eliot, University of Toronto Press, p. 61.
Laughhn, James "Mr. Eliot on Holy Ground" in New English Weekly, July 11,1935, pp. 250-51.
Matthiessen, F. O. "For an Unwritten Chapter" in Harvard Advocate, December, 1938, pp. 22-24.
"Mr Eliot's New Play" in the Times Literary Supplement, June 13,1935, p. 376.
Muir, Edwin. "New Literature" in the London Mercury, July, 1935, pp. 281-83.
Parsons, I. M. "Poetry Drama and Satire'' in Spectator, June 28, 1935, p. 1112.
Pottle, Frederick A. "Drama of...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A very readable biography providing useful and interesting details about the making of this play, its critical reception, and its importance to Eliot’s rising career as a playwright. Ackroyd finds the play a success and discusses it in connection with other Eliot works.
Adair, Patricia M. “Mr. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Cambridge Journal 4 (November, 1950): 83-95. A full and penetrating study that regards the play not as a tragedy but as a drama paralleling the setting of Canterbury Cathedral in pointing people to God.
Bloom, Harold, ed. T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of eleven important essays by prominent literary critics such as Helen Gardner, David Ward, and Stephen Spender. Wide range and balance of approaches, along with a useful chronology and bibliography.
Clark, David R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Murder in the Cathedral”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A collection of fourteen essays by prominent critics such as E. Martin Browne, Louis L. Martz, Grover Smith, William V. Spanos, and David E. Jones. Includes a substantial chronology of the author’s life and a concise...
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