Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What is the significance of Murder in the Cathedral as a play?

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Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S.

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T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral represented a significant transition in the history of dramaturgy. Before Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral, it had been assumed that verse was somewhat obsolete as a medium for drama in the English language. Realistic plays in prose were dominating the field. Also, many had considered religion antithetical to literary modernism. By writing such a striking religious drama in verse, Eliot revived interest in verse as a medium for serious modern drama and also showed possible ways the literary techniques of modernism could contribute to reviving intellectually important religious drama.

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Author T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote Murder in the Cathedral with the specific intent of it premiering at the 1935 Canterbury Festival in the cathedral's Chapter House--less than 200 feet from where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Thomas Becket, was actually murdered. By selecting this performance location--in a non-theatre setting--Eliot's play better served the audience in showing the contemporary relevance found in the story as well as presenting constrasts between the past and the present. Eliot's decision to write the play in verse was also unique, since few dramas had been written in non-prose over the previous three centuries. Likewise, religious dramas had also long been out of fashion; yet Murder in the Cathedral has come to be recognized as a masterpiece of spiritual vs. human conflict.

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What is the significance of Murder in the Cathedral as a play?    

One of the really interesting aspects of this play is the way in which history is shown to merge with the present in a very real and tangible way. The play was originally written for performance as part of the Canterbury Festival of 1935, and was performed in the cathedral only fifty yards away from the precise location of Beckett's assassination.  Clearly, the way in which Eliot wrote this play to be performed in such an unconventional location indicates that he was attempting to do something very different with the play.

When we bear this in mind, there is therefore a merging between the distance that normally separates the audience from the action. Any member of the original audience would have been very aware that he was seeing history re-enacted in a very real and meaningful fashion. Eliot uses this to emphasise the links between history and the present. Although Beckett was killed in 1170, any audience would be very aware of how the issues in the play, as one man seeks to be obedient to his notion of what he feels God wants him to do in conflict with what his state wants him to do, remained just as relevant then in the 1930s as they do in today's world. What is special about this play is therefore the way in which the past and present are blended through setting.

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