T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is both a fascinating retelling of the twelfth-century assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket and a compelling call for resistance in the face of intimidation. Written against the backdrop of rising Fascism in twentieth-century Europe, Eliot’s classic verse play is as relevant now as it ever was. This re-release of the original 1953 recording stars Robert Donat whose commanding performance as the Archbishop, alongside a full cast, is widely celebrated.
The theatre as well as the church is enriched by this poetic play of grave beauty and momentous decision
When the Bishop of Chichester com-missioned the poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot to write a play for the Canterbury Festival of 1935, Eliot decided to link his subject matter with the location and chose to write about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his brutal murder within his own Cathedral church on 29 December 1170.
The story is well-known: the conflict between Thomas Becket and his royal master Henry II, which was sparked by the King’s secular interference in spiritual matters, culminating in a deadlock between these two strong personalities and the subsequent murder of Thomas by knights loyal to their king, who, legend has it, called out beseechingly in an angry moment, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’
These are the events which provide the basis of Murder in the Cathedral, but it is not told in chronicle format; Eliot structures the story in the manner of a Shakespeare play in which the events matter less than the situations. It examines the conflict between the material and the spiritual worlds, and Becket’s journey from spiritual doubt to certainty as he prepares for martyrdom, as well as the effect his actions have on the people of Canterbury.
Interestingly, Eliot had been on his own spiritual journey in the 1930s. There had been a gradual burgeoning of his Christian awareness throughout his poems in this period as his agnosticism faded and his attraction to Catholicism developed. Eliot’s growing conversion to the Roman Catholic faith contributed greatly to the style of Murder in the Cathedral. It is a ritualistic poetic drama, giving the writer an opportunity to consider the inner thoughts and doubts of the central character, Thomas Becket. These thoughts centre on the nature of martyrdom; it is not seen as an act of personal glorification, but the acceptance of man’s will being subdued to the will of God – the path shown to man by Christ himself.