Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What is the dramatic significance of the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot?

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The dramatic significance of the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot lies in its providing a running commentary on events as they unfold. In doing so, it acts as a bridge between the audience and what's happening on stage.

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T. S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral uses a chorus of women of Canterbury in a similar fashion to many of the plays of ancient Greece. Here the Chorus opens the play with a reflection on the life of the common people of Canterbury, who have been without their archbishop of seven years. They are in a waiting pattern now, simply living the best they can. This first recitation from the Chorus helps set the scene for what is to follow.

The Chorus speaks again after the Messenger has announced that the archbishop is returning to Canterbury. This time, the Chorus focuses on the quiet but partial life the people have been living, and they prophesy that such is now over. The archbishop will be in danger if he returns, and they plead with him (although he has not yet arrived) to go back to France. Their words foreshadow events to come and raise the tension of the play.

After Archbishop Thomas is tempted by the Four Tempters, the Chorus again chimes in. Their words comment on the Tempters and the restlessness that they bring. They recognize them as coming from hell. A short while later, they share a piece of alternating questions and comments with the Priests and the Tempters that reflects on the suddenness of death. Then the Chorus comments further on the rising tension and fear. Some terror is lurking just out of sight. They try to warn the archbishop that if he dies, in a way, his people will too.

The Chorus opens the play's second act with a reflection on death and how it often cleanses the world. Their comments echo elements of the archbishop's Christmas homily that the audience has just heard. The Chorus is still waiting for events to unfold, but the archbishop has helped them discover a new perspective.

After the arrival of the Four Knights, the Chorus recites a haunting piece that guides the audience through the layers and depths of creation and into the reality that the death-bringers have come for Archbishop Thomas. The Chorus accepts part of the blame for what is about to happen, at least partly on account of their sins, and they ask forgiveness. Their words link the archbishop to Christ, who took the burden of human sin upon himself when he went to the cross.

The Chorus speaks again as the Priests drag the archbishop into the cathedral. Their reflection this time is on horror and hell, which they perceive as a void, and they beg the Savior to help them. Death is near, they proclaim. After the archbishop's death, the Chorus grieves and begs for cleansing from the defilement brought by this horrible event.

The play ends with prayer from the Chorus, a prayer that praises God and proclaims his work in creation and throughout history. The prayer also humbly confesses that people often fear men more than God and asks for mercy for sins, weaknesses, and faults. The final line acknowledges Archbishop Thomas as “blessed” and asks for his prayers.

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In keeping with the tradition of its forebear in ancient Greek tragedy, the Chorus in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral acts as a bridge between the audience and what happens on stage. In Eliot's own words, it "mediates between the action and the audience."

The Chorus can be said to represent the community, notably standing apart from the members of the social elite, such as Becket and King Henry II. As the women of the Chorus are ordinary members of the community, all they can really do is stand and observe the action as it unfolds and comment upon it. This is something that the members of the audience would do if they were conscripted into the Chorus.

Eliot's play deals with larger-than-life characters, saints such as Thomas Becket, and villains like the knights who murder him. To some extent, the running commentary on events provided by the Chorus brings them closer to us, making them more recognizably human, even if we do not feel able to endorse their actions.

Like the audience, the Chorus consists of spectators, standing apart from the play and unable to participate. The ordinary women of the Chorus are there "to wait and to witness" the events as they unfold. This heightens the sense of inevitability about the eponymous murder; it is an event over which we can exercise no control.

Yet the Chorus has an additional role. In Eliot's words, the Chorus

intensifies the action by projecting its emotional consequences so that we as the audience see it doubly by seeing its effect on other people.

This means that although there is a physical and historical distance between the audience and the events depicted on stage, there is nonetheless an emotional connection to the drama thanks to the mediation of the Chorus.

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Chorus in the play Murder in the Cathedral by T.S Eliot is a group of Canterbury women (Though, no definite number of women is mentioned). Dramatically very significant in the play, the chorus is the action teller, delivering odes in the play that basically tell the story of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Chorus/Canterbury women tell us about Beckett’s life, decisions and death. They are extremely worried for Beckett. They are merely helpless eyewitnesses. In the beginning, they tell us that they wait for Beckett who has been away for seven years from Canterbury and pray for his wellbeing. Their choral songs foreshadow the upcoming violence and tragedy. Then the voices change to telling the past action so that the audience fully relates to the events happening in the present. They fear the murder of their spiritual leader and in the end mourn Beckett’s death.

Thus, all of the action, in simple terms, is successfully portrayed through the chorus. The chorus not only plays the character of ordinary people of Canterbury, but also act as a connecting link between the audience and play.

We also see chorus changing and developing during the course of the play. The style is much similar as the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Their songs make us understand the misery and hardships of the life of ordinary people of Canterbury. They are poor, powerless. The foreseen loss of their spiritual leader worsens their condition. The chorus helps the audience relate and fear the foreseen troubles along with them. And in a way, they become the audience themselves.

Chorus is a very powerful dramatic device here as the thoughts of Chorus help the audience understand the true meaning and message of the play. The chorus also sheds a light to the significance and value of Beckett’s martyrdom. In fact the true interpretation of the play can’t be done without taking into account the chorus.

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Bring out the significance of the Chorus in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

You will find it helpful in response to this question to analyse the function of the Chorus in Greek drama and compare it to how Eliot utilises the Chorus in this masterful example of modern drama. The Chorus seems to function as a kind of mediator between the action of the play and the audience. In this play, it is made up of a group of women of Canterbury. They are actors in the play itself, being involved in the plot, but also comment upon the action of the play. Thus it is that they beg Thomas to return to France, fearing his death, and they also provide a commentary on the socio-economic position that they occupy and the kind of miserable lives they lead under the rule of King and Barons.

However, fascinatingly, they develop as a character as the play progresses, and by the end of the play, they recognise the way in which there is a greater force at work than the human interventions they are witness to in the messy world of politics and they end up in the conclusion of the play poignantly affirming this by singing a hymn of praise and adoration, extolling the wisdom of God:

We thank thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood... the blood of Thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth, shall create holy places.

Even the cruel and apparently senseless death of Thomas and the defiling of the Cathedral can therefore be interpreted as part of a bigger plan that we are not aware of, and the appeal to the wisdom of God that the play ends with helps us to have faith in a larger plan that is beyond our imagining and conceiving, but nonetheless weaves such violent episodes into something beautiful and stunning.

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