Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070

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.

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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 people). Inner-directed, secretive, at times seemingly heartless, Anouilh’s Thomas is a shrewd political manipulator, yet it is impossible for him to believe in anything except the strict code of personal conduct that somehow, until the end, ensures his survival. In Becket, Anouilh continues an exposition, begun before Antigone and sustained through subsequent plays, of the inevitable conflict between idealism and realism. Antigone chooses death over compromise, but Thomas is a survivor, an unlikely candidate, until his last principled stand, for martyrdom. Forced, by his father’s supposed collaboration with the occupying Norman army, to invent his own values, Thomas goes even so far as to deny his evident love for the unfortunate Gwendolen in favor of his newly contracted loyalty to the king. Still improvising, Becket becomes a martyr only when his contract to defend the “honor of God” as archbishop conflicts with his previously sworn loyalty to the king.

Fifteen years after the first performances of Antigone and the subsequent liberation of France by Allied forces, the divided moral choices of World War II were still quite fresh in Anouilh’s memory. No doubt he had also not forgotten the accusations of political ambiguity that had been leveled against Antigone. Thomas, at least as much a pragmatist as Antigone’s antagonist, Creon, emerges as a more affirmative character than Creon or Antigone. Thomas substitutes in all of his actions an aesthetic standard for the religious conviction that he lacks. Even at the end, for Anouilh’s Thomas, certain actions are simply more beautiful or appropriate than others. He shows, for example, an instinctive feel for the uses and abuses of political power, based upon his grasp of individual and group psychology. The king, a slow but generally receptive learner until the friendship goes sour, allows his cleverer, subtler friend ample opportunity to explain and to test his theories. At no point, however, does Anouilh allow content to intrude upon the play’s intended entertainment value. His realized ambition, in Becket as in most of his other plays, is the creation of a playable, engrossing drama with a number of memorable lines and scenes.

Among Anouilh’s best-known dramatic efforts (although expensive to mount and therefore seldom revived in production), Becket was written at the approximate midpoint of a distinguished, sometimes controversial dramatic career spanning more than fifty years and nearly as many plays. Among French playwrights of his generation, Anouilh is perhaps the most concerned with great theater rather than great ideas or great experiments. He shunned, however, such traditional classifications as comedy and tragedy, preferring to label his plays as black, pink, or grating, the last designed to set one’s teeth on edge. Another of Anouilh’s classifications is costume plays such as Becket and The Lark.

Many of the black plays are rich in comic elements, just as most pink plays carry tragic undertones beneath a comic surface. Becket, perhaps the most accomplished of the costume plays, combines comic and tragic elements in approximately equal portion, steering clear of melodrama in such scenes as that of Gwendolen’s suicide. As a product of the author’s full maturity, preceded by several lesser efforts, Becket displays a sure touch and a depth of vision absent from such earlier efforts as Antigone. At the same time, its monumental scope and glossy surface relate it closely to the commercial theater that Anouilh had long been accused of courting, especially by those who preferred to see him as a literary playwright. As Albert Camus had in his Caligula, Anouilh found in Becket a legendary historical figure subject to interpretation. Anouilh, following the lead of Jean Giraudoux and other French playwrights, found in classical mythology a rich context for the analysis of contemporary problems. Anouilh’s Thomas emerges as a model hero for the latter half of the twentieth century. Unable or unwilling to believe in a higher power, Becket constantly improvises in search of values that might lead him toward himself.

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