Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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*Canterbury Cathedral

*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 Becket. Their rationalizations make the cathedral a place where, finally, the audience must bear the burden of the world’s false attempts at justification of its power against faith in God.

Historical Context

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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 rejects the previous generation's religious and patriotic faith and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952), a play without any apparent plot concerning two tramps seeking a meaning to their lives which is never bestowed upon them.

Ironically, it was only after many of his own groundbreaking experiments in literary form that Eliot composed Murder in the Cathedral, which has more in common with the drama of the Middle Ages than it does with modernist, experimental pieces. However, the very use of such an antiquated form assists Eliot in exploring one of his chief ideas, specifically, that the values of Becket—who believes in a "pattern" of life that culminates in a meaningful act—are exactly what is lacking in the chaos of modern experience Seen in this light, Murder in the Cathedral is modern in its attitudes and longing for a "center" that will "hold" the world together—something which many writers could not locate in modern life.

Drama between the Wars
Drama in both Europe and the United States flourished between the wars and playwrights offered audiences a number of experimental plays that now stand as landmarks in the attempt to revolutionize the dramatic form. Foremost among these was the American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), who wrote a number of plays that accomplished this goal, among them Desire under the Elms (1924) which used Freudian psychology to explore a New England infanticide, The Great God Brown (1926) in which the actors use masks to present their "personalities" to each other, Strange Interlude (1928) a long play where characters frequently "step outside of themselves" to reveal their thoughts directly to the audience and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a trilogy of plays in which O'Neill appropriates the Orestes myth into the era of Civil War America

Another notable dramatic revisionist was Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), whose Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) follows the exploits of six roughly-drawn fictional characters as they attempt to describe their existence to a group of rehearsing actors.

Eliot's chief contribution to the rethinking of dramatic forms was his use of verse. While the verse play found its greatest practitioner in William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the use of verse on stage had dwindled over time. As a poet, Eliot was able to successfully employ verse as dramatic language while still allowing his characters to speak in a "realistic" fashion. In his 1951 book On Poetry and Poets, Eliot explained that the problem with many nmeteenth-century verse plays was "their limitation to a strict blank verse [lines of ten syllables with alternating stresses] which, after extensive use for non-dramatic poetry, had lost the flexibility which blank verse is to have if it is to give the effect of conversation."

Therefore, the versification in Murder in the Cathedral avoids any set metrical pattern which, as Eliot said, "helped to distinguish the versification from that of the nineteenth century." The use of verse was a crucial decision for Eliot, who defended it (in his 1928 "Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry") with the remark,' "The tendency... of prose drama is to emphasize the ephemeral and superficial; if we want to get at the permanent and universal we need to express ourselves in verse." While verse plays are still not as popular as those written in prose, Eliot's work did renew audiences' interest in this dramatic form.

Literary Style

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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 power. Unlike Hamlet, who dies amongst a litter of corpses and evokes the audience's pity and fear, Thomas dies as he describes Christ as having done: bringing the ' 'peace'' of God to the world. Murder in the Cathedral makes use of the tragic form, but the tragic outcome is to be found in its physical plot only—the spiritual life of its hero is stronger than death.

Murder in the Cathedral was written especially for performance at the 1935 Canterbury Festival and was performed in the Chapter House of the cathedral, only fifty yards away from the very spot on which Becket was killed. Aside from its being written for the Festival, Eliot must have had other artistic aims in having it be performed in a non-traditional theater space.

Foremost among these is the fact that anyone in the original audience would be conscious of the fact that he was not in a theater as he viewed the play; instead, he was in a place resonant with the history of the play' s protagonist. The effect of such a setting is obvious: by having the action take place in the Chapter House, Eliot stressed the relationship between the past and present. While the action of the play occurs in 1170, a 1935 audience member would become more aware of the fact that the play's issues are as contemporary as its audience. As the cathedral still stands, so are the issues explored by the play still relevant to modern life.

Rhetoric and Oratory
There are only two sections in the play in which characters do not speak in verse: Thomas's sermon on Christmas Day and the "apologies" by the Knights to the audience. Both of these sections feature a speaker (or speakers) attempting to manipulate language in order to convince their listeners of a certain point (rhetoric) and trying to deliver the words in a way that gives them the greatest impact (oratory). In Thomas's sermon, he attempts to engage the congregation in the same mental processes which he himself has been experiencing, specifically, to consider the paradoxical nature of martyrdom. To do so, he offers a number of paradoxes for them to consider, such as the idea that "at the same moment we rejoice'' at the birth of Christ, we do so because we know that he would eventually "offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice."

He similarly attempts to convince his followers that God creates martyrs upon a similar paradoxical principle:' 'We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and the salvation of men." Because he suspects that his people will soon ' 'have yet another martyr," Thomas wishes to convince them to consider the reasons for—and bounties of—martyrdom, which they do at the very end of the play.

When directly addressing the audience, however, the Four Knights prove themselves to be more adept at cliched political hustling than sincere attempts at public speaking. The First Knight attempts to ingratiate himself to the audience by addressing its members as "Englishmen" who "believe in fair play" and will certainly "not judge anybody without hearing both sides of the case." The Third Knight stresses the point that the four of them "have been perfectly disinterested" in the murder; they are not lackeys of the King, but "four plain Englishmen who put our country first." The Second Knight promises that, while defending their actions, he will' 'appeal not to your emotions but to your reason," since "You are hard-headed, sensible people ... and not to be taken in by emotional clap-trap."

Again the viewer sees another example of a Knight attempting to ingratiate himself to the audience through hollow rhetonc and .flattery. Following this lead, the Fourth Knight then employs the language of pseudo-psychology in an attempt to offer a "logical" and "scientific" view of Thomas's actions: he calls him "a monster of egoism" and explains that "This egoism grew upon him, until it at last became an undoubted mama," as found in the "unimpeachable evidence" that the Fourth Knight has gathered. He concludes his speech (and the Knights' presentation of their' 'case'') with the aplomb of a trial lawyer: "I think, with these facts before you, you will unhesitatingly render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind. It is the only charitable verdict you can give, upon one who was, after all, a great man."

Despite these attempts at sounding logical ("with these facts before you")? proclaiming their confidence in the audience's judgment ("you will unhesitatingly render" a "charitable verdict"), use of jargon ("Suicide while of Unsound Mind") and attempt to seem dispassionate and logical about the murder ("who was, after all, a great man"), the Fourth Knight, like his companions, stands as an example of one who uses language to defend his temporal action and fulfill a political agenda— unlike Thomas, who uses his rhetorical skills to help his listeners understand the will of God.

Compare and Contrast

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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 common commercial fare, long-respected titles such as Everyman are frequently studied and revived. Many churches perform "passion plays"—morality plays based on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ—as part of their Easter celebrations.

1170: The feud between King Henry II and Thomas Becket—who defended the political rights of the church without any compromise-marks one of the first times in European history where the church and state are fiercely opposed to each other's workings.

1935: In the most notorious attempt of a government to control the religious practices of its people, the Nazi Party congress, meeting at Nuremberg, deprives Jews of German citizenship and makes intercourse between "Aryans" and Jews punishable by death.

Today: While the separation between church and state is taken for granted by Americans, the debate can still be seen in battles over school curricula, such as school districts prohibiting the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution because it conflicts with the Creationist views found in the Bible or groups protesting the Pledge of Allegiance's use of the phrase, "One nation, under God."

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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 Action" in Yale Review, December, 1935, pp. 426-29.

Ransom, John Crowe. "Autumn of Poetry" in Southern Review, 1935-36, pp. 619-23.

Shilhto, Edward. Review of Murder in the Cathedral in Christian Century, October 2,1935, pp. 1249-50.

Van Doren, Mark. "The Holy Blisful Martir'' in the Nation, October 9, 1935, p. 417.

Yeats, William Butler. "The Second Coming" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, W. W. Norton and Company, 1986, p. 1948.

Further Reading
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 227.
Although Ackroyd's book is an unauthorized biography, it does offer a general study of Eliot's growth as a poet and dramatist.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1964. This is a compact edition of Eliot's verse, containing such famous poems as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Hollow Men," and "The Waste Land." Reading these poems will give a student of Murder in the Cathedral a glimpse at how similar thematic concerns are explored in different forms.

Grant, Michael, Editor. T S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp 313-34. This book collects a number of reviews of the original Canterbury Festival production of the play.

Hinchcliffe, Arnold P. T. S. Eliot, Plays: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1985. This book contains a long introductory collection of essays titled "Eliot's Aims and Achievements" and then devotes a chapter to each play. There are many excerpts in this book by Eliot himself.

Malamud, Randy. T. S. Eliot's Drama: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1992. This is an invaluable book for any student of Eliot's plays. It contains a long introduction explonng Eliot's aims in writing verse drama, chapters on the production history of each play and a full annotated bibliography.


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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 bibliography.

Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice: From “Sweeney Agonistes” to “The Elder Statesman.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Chapter 3 provides a useful summary of the play’s main features and concludes that the play succeeds on the level of poetic rhythm and imagery. A good introduction to the play.

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Critical Essays