Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Since the publication of his first book of verse, Pmfrock and Other Observations in 1917 and The Waste Land in 1922, Eliot has been regarded as an important, if not crucial, figure in twentieth-century literature. When Murder in the Cathedral premiered on June 15, 1935, Eliot found yet another of his works greeted with enthusiastic and glowing reviews. Writing in the London Mercury in July of that year, poet Edwin Muir called it a "unified work, and one of great beauty." The Christian Century's Edward Shillito praised the play's force, stating (in the October 2, 1935 issue), "Not since [George Bernard Shaw's] Saint Joan has there been any play on the English stage in which such tremendous issues as this have been treated with such mastery of thought, as well as dramatic power/' Echoing the thoughts of many other critics, the American poet Mark Van Doren, in the October 9, 1935 issue of The Nation, stated that"Mr. Eliot has written no better poem than this."

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Many critics were particularly impressed by Eliot's ability to compose a play almost entirely in verse and to make its sound as interesting as its subject. Writing for the July 11,1935 edition of New English Weekly, James Laughlm stated that the play proves Eliot to be "still a great master of metric" and continued his praise with, "Mr, Eliot has been to school and knows his language-tones and sound-lengths as few others do. .. The craftsmanship of the verse is so unostentatious that you must look closely to see all the richness of detail."

Frederick A Pottle concurred with this judgment, writing (in the December, 1935, Yale Review) that the play "shows Eliot's curious and inexhaustible resourcefulness in both rhymed and unrhymed" verse. Such admiration for Eliot's "resourcefulness" with the intricacies of poetic language was also found in I. M. Parson's review for the Spectator (June 28, 1935): "Its main quality is bound up inexorably with the written word, which cannot be paraphrased. And if one were to start quoting it would be hard to know where to begin or where to stop. For the play is a dramatic poem, and has an imaginative quality which does not lend itself to brief quotation."

Perhaps the strongest endorsement for Eliot's use of the verse-play form was found in a review by the poet Conrad Aiken (writing in the July 13,1935 New Yorker under the pseudonym Samuel Jeake, Jr.), who called the play "a turning point in English drama" because, while watching it, "One's feeling was that here at last was the English language literally being used, itself becoming the stuff of drama, turning alive with its own natural poetry.'' While most reviews and essays on Murder in the Cathedral laud Eliot's ability to suit his verse to his subject, not everyone has been impressed. John Crowe Ransom, writing in the 1935-36 Southern Review, called the play "a drama that starts religious but reverts, declines, very distinctly towards snappiness." F. O. Matthiessen, in the December, 1938, Harvard Advocate, faulted the play's "relative lack of density" when compared to The Waste Land and remarked that "the life represented is lacking something in immediacy and urgency."

And unlike those critics quoted above who praised Eliot's versification, Dems Donoghue, in his book The Third Voice: Modern British and American Verse Drama(1959), states that"the text evades, rather than solves, the problems of dramatic verse" and that the play's overall structure is marred by the absence of any "unity of drama and metaphor." Harold Bloom (in the introduction to his anthology, Modern Critical Interpretations of Murder in the Cathedral) faults what he sees as the play's evasion of its central issue: "How can you represent, dramatically, a potential saint's refusal to yield to his own lust for martyrdom? Eliot did not know how to solve that dilemma, and evaded it, with some skill."

Criticism this harsh, however, is not as abundant as that which favors Eliot's daring in (as the June 13, 1935 Time Literary Supplement called it) moving drama "farther from the theatre" in order to "come nearer to the church." Regardless of any one critic's censure or praise, the play still evokes commentary and interest due to the fact that, as described by Peter Ackroyd in his 1984 biography T. S. Eliot, "The play is typical of Eliot's work in the sense that it is concerned with a figure, not unconnected with the author himself, who has some special awareness of which others are deprived and yet whose great strengths are allied with serious weaknesses."

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