Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What are some aspects of modern drama portrayed in Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot?

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In Murder in the Cathedral Eliot does not exhibit a modernist approach in the manner of Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, and many other twentieth-century dramatists. Nor can he be said to deal with specifically contemporary issues as in the realistic American theatre of O'Neill, Miller, or Williams. His play is rather a meditation on English history and freedom which, though set in a specific time and place, seems to exist in a world of its own, much as Eliot's poems such as "The Waste Land" and "The Four Quartets" do.

This does not mean the play lacks "realism." But if you wish to find elements in it that relate somewhat to the usual definitions of modernist drama and even Theatre of the Absurd, you can look at the scene in which Becket is killed, and at the manner in which the knights try to justify the murder. Their speeches become increasingly artificial and convoluted. They repeat stock notions such as their appeals to the English sense of "fair play," and so on. The overall effect, in my view, is a satiric one, out of key with most of the play, and deliberately absurd. Like most authors, Eliot is utilizing past events in order to find modern meanings in them. Yet one only has to compare his play with the 1964 film Becket (which is a conventionally realistic portrayal of the same period) in order to see that although Eliot was not part of the modernist movement per se, his treatment of the murder of Thomas Becket is anything but conventional.

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Technically, Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, does not portray modern drama, as it is not a play about the making of modern plays, but instead it is a modern drama, and can be said to "exemplify" some of the features of modernism.

In some ways, Murder in the Cathedral is just as much a rejection of the earlier "modern" drama of the nineteenth century and a return to pre-modern dramatic forms as it is something distinctly new. The key feature of the play that is both modern and radically traditional in its rejection of realism, both in its language and its narrative.

The most distinctive feature of the language is the return to verse (and heightened language in general), which had been the dominant medium of drama from antiquity through the Renaissance, but was abandoned with the rise of realism. In terms of narrative, Eliot moves away from the realistic portrayal of the everyday events in the lives of ordinary people to a highly stylized narrative that externalizes the inner and symbolic conflicts in religious faith Returning to the medieval morality play for inspiration, Eliot presents speakers without names, who make present on stage ideas or types of moral nature, rather than characters. It is this rejection of realism that makes the play "modern."

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