Murder in the Cathedral
T. S. ELIOT 1935
In 1163, a quarrel began between the British King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. The men had been good friends, but each felt that his interests should be of primary concern to the nation and that the other should acquiesce to his demands. Becket fled to France in 1164 in order to rally support from the Catholic French for his cause and also sought an audience with the Pope. After being officially (although not personally) reconciled with the King, Becket returned to England in 1170, only to be murdered as he prayed in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry’s Knights. Three years later, he was canonized and pilgrims—Henry among them—have made their way to his tomb ever since.
The allure of such a story for a dramatist is obvious: there is a great conflict between human and divine power, a strong central character and a number of complicated spiritual issues to be found in his death. In 1935, T. S. Eliot answered this “calling” to compose a play for that year’s Canterbury Festival; the result was a work that revitalized verse drama—a form that had not been widely employed for almost three hundred years. Critics praised Eliot’s use of verse and ability to invest a past historical event with modern issues and themes, such as the ways in which lay persons react to the intrusion of the supernatural in their daily lives. In part because it is a religious drama which appeared long after such plays were popular, Murder in the Cathedral is still performed, studied, and regarded Page 229 | Top of Articleas one of Eliot’s major works, a testament to his skill as a poet and dramatist.
T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888, into a family that stressed the importance of education and tradition. His paternal grandfather had moved to St. Louis from Boston and founded Washington University; the young Eliot entered Harvard University in 1906 to study French literature and philosophy (he received a baccalaureate degree in 1909 and a master’s degree in 1910). In 1910, Eliot attended the Sorbonne and studied under the philosopher Henri Bergson; he later studied at Oxford and completed his dissertation on philosopher F. H. Bradley in 1916, when he was living in London with his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood.
During this phase of his life, Eliot was befriended by the American poet Ezra Pound, who helped him shape and publish his poetry, specifically “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which first appeared in the journal Poetry. 1917 saw the publication of Eliot’s first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations which was greeted with enthusiasm by its readers. Eliot’s success, however, was not enough to relive the stress he felt from his failing marriage; he suffered an emotional breakdown and sought treatment at a sanitorium in Switzerland. It was there that he completed the first draft of what is regarded as his best—and most difficult to interpret—work, The Waste Land. Upon returning to London, Eliot edited the poem (at Pound’s request) and published it in the American journal the Dial. More and more readers began paying attention to Eliot’s new verse forms, which reflected the angst and desperation of people who had just lived through the terror and chaos of World War I.
Eliot renewed himself personally as he had the world of poetry: in 1927, he became a British subject and a confirmed member of the Anglican church. During this same year, he stated his controversial creed of conservatism, describing himself as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, royalist in politics and classicist in literature.” In 1930, another of his important poems, Ash Wednesday, was published, and in 1932 Eliot returned to the United States to become the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. He was almost completely estranged from his wife and remained in the United States to lecture at
various universities. In 1934 his first play, Sweeney Agonistes, was produced, followed the same year by his second drama, The Rock. However, it was 1935’s Murder in the Cathedral that drew as much attention to Eliot’s play writing as his poetry. His next play, The Family Reunion, was produced in 1939, followed in 1943 by the poem Four Quartets. Vivien died in 1947 and in 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Order of Merit by George VI. His next play, The Cocktail Party, was produced in 1949 and proved to be a critical and commercial success. Two other plays followed: The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman Page 230 | Top of Article(1958). During his play writing career, Eliot continued to write verse, essays, and volumes of criticism. He was remarried in 1957, this time to Valerie Fletcher, to whom he remained married until his death in 1965. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
The action of Murder in the Cathedral occurs in and around Canterbury Cathedral; Part One takes place on December 2, 1170, the day that Archbishop Thomas Becket returned to England and twenty-seven days before his murder by four knights of King Henry II. When the play begins, a Chorus comprised of the Women of Canterbury huddle outside the cathedral, certain that something is about to happen but unable to articulate any details: “Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Towards the cathedral.” They then describe their lives to the audience and these descriptions mark them as common people who fear any threat of change: “We try to keep our households in order,” they explain, but “Some malady is coming upon us.” Ultimately, they decide that “For us, the poor, there is no action, / But only to wait and witness.”
Three Priests enter and briefly discuss a major issue of the play: the differences between temporal (i.e., worldly) and spiritual power. The Third Priest claims that, “King rules or barons rule” and that politicians “have but one law, to seize the power and keep it.” The First Priest hopes that the Chorus has not become too jaded and hopes that they will realize that they have a “friend” in “their Father in God.” (Clearly, the populace and their religious leaders are living in spiritually trying times.)
A Messenger then arrives and informs them that their archbishop, Thomas Becket, is returning to England after a seven-year absence. Due to a feud with the King, in part over the degree to which the church would assert its power in the British government, Thomas has been exiled to foreign shores and has been seeking support for his ideas in Catholic France. The Priests’ reactions to this news varies: The First Priest comments on Thomas’s pride, which makes him “fear for the Archbishop” and “fear for the Church”; the Second Priest looks towards his superior’s return in the hope that “He will tell us what we are to do, he will give us our orders, instruct us”; the Third Priest dismisses the very act of predicting what will happen, for, as he says, “who knows the end of good or evil?” Instead, he thinks they must simply “let the wheel turn.”
The Chorus expresses its terror at the thought of Thomas’s return: although they have endured previous hardships, they are unprepared “To stand to the doom of the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world.” They are merely “small folk drawn into the pattern of fate” and beg the still-absent Thomas to “leave us, leave us, leave sullen Dover and set sail for France.”
After the Chorus is scolded by the Second Priest for their “croaking like frogs,” Thomas enters, calling for “Peace” and telling the Priests that the Women of Canterbury “speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding.” He explains how he managed to arrive safely in Canterbury and remarks that “the hungry hawk” may still strike at any moment. However, he explains that “End will be simple, sudden, God-given” and that “All things prepare the event.” His faith in the divine will is thus asserted.
Thomas is then visited by four Tempters, symbolic characters who approach and attempt to lure Thomas away from his devotion to the Church. The First Tempter offers Thomas the glory of his past friendship with the King. The Second Tempter offers political power in the form of Thomas’s former position at Court: the Chancellorship. The Third Tempter tells him to “fight for liberty” and end “the tyrannous jurisdiction / Of king’s court over bishop’s court, / Of king’s court over baron’s court.” All three Tempters are easily dismissed by Thomas, who asks, “Shall I, who keep the keys / Of heaven and hell, supreme alone in England, / Who bind and loose, with power from the Pope, / Descend to desire a punier power?” Proclaiming that he “has good cause to trust none but God alone,” Thomas refutes all of their enticements with assertions of his faith in God’s will.
The Fourth Tempter, however, approaches Thomas from a different angle. Advising Thomas to “Fare forward to the end” and “think of glory after death,” this Tempter argues that “Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb” and that Thomas should “Think of pilgrims, standing in line / Before the glittering jeweled shrine.” Allowing himself to be martyred will, the Tempter promises, eventually see his enemies “in timeless torment.” Without martyrdom, Thomas will be only a footnote to future scholars who “Will only try to find the historical fact.” Page 231 | Top of ArticleUnlike the first three Tempters, whose offerings are easily mocked and spurned by Thomas, this Tempter causes the Archbishop to experience a crisis of conscience: he asks, “Who are you, tempting me with my own desires?” and asserts that the Tempter offers only “Dreams to damnation” since the very act of courting one’s fame through martyrdom is an act of “sinful pride.”
After a short passage in which the three Priests and Chorus express their paranoia, fear of “a new terror” and the thought of being abandoned by God, Thomas announces his decision to remain in Canterbury. “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain,” he begins, explaining that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” In other words, allowing himself to be martyred is the “right thing” to do—as long as he does not do so for “the wrong reason”—a desire for fame and retribution. Acknowledging to the Priests and Chorus that “What yet remains to show you of my history / Will seem to most of you at best futility, / Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic, / Arrogant passion of a fanatic,” Thomas concludes, “I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end” and invokes his “good angel” to “hover over the swords’ points.” The Archbishop will allow himself to be martyred only if it is the will of God, for he will not act in order to hasten his own murder. His own pride must not seduce him into presuming that he can know the mind of God.
This short scene depicts Thomas preaching in the cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170. In his sermon, Thomas explores the meaning of a number of paradoxes inherent in the celebration of Christmas, the first being that, since Christ died to redeem the sins of the world, “we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.” A similar paradox is then explored in the meaning of the word “peace” as Christ used it when he said to his followers, “My peace I leave with you”; after describing the afflicted lives of the disciples (who suffered “torture, imprisonment, disappointment” and “martyrdom”) Thomas concludes that Christ’s peace is “not as the world gives”—in the form of, for example, an end to war—but as spiritual solace.
His final paradox lies in the nature of martyrdom: “we both rejoice and mourn at the death of martyrs,” he explains, for the “sins of the world” have killed an innocent person who will, nonetheless, be “numbered among the Saints in Heaven.” Thomas expands upon this idea by asking his listeners to remember that martyrdom “is never the design of man,” for “the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.” Obviously considering his own possible martyrdom, Thomas’s definition both instructs his listeners and allows him to once again consider his possible fate. “I do not think I will ever preach to you again,” Thomas remarks in closing, noting that “in a short time you may have another martyr.”
Four days have passed since Thomas’s sermon in the cathedral, but the Chorus is still fearful and awaiting a sign from God in the form of a cleansing Spring. As Part One saw the entrance of the four Tempters, this Part features four Knights, who enter the Archbishop’s Hall, telling the three Priests that they have “urgent business” from the King that they must share with Thomas. Impatient and anxious, the Knights bully the Priests until Thomas appears, remarking, “However certain our expectation, / The moment foreseen may be unexpected / When it arrives.” The Knights charge Thomas with being “in revolt against the King” since he “sowed strife abroad” and “reviled / The King to the King of France, to the Pope, / Raising up against him false opinions.”
After they level other charges and demand that he absolve those bishops that he had previously excommunicated, Thomas refuses, explaining, “It is not Becket who pronounces doom, / But the Law of Christ’s Church.” He exits and the Knights follow, leaving the Chorus to describe the odd harbingers of evil that they have recently witnessed in the natural world. Thomas reenters to comfort the Chorus, telling them that “These things had to come and you had to accept them.” The Priests, however, refuse such advice and drag Thomas into the cathedral while he protests, “all things / Proceed to a joyful consummation.”
The scene then shifts inside the cathedral, where the Priests are barring the doors while Thomas insists,’ I will not have the Church of Christ, / This sanctuary, turned into a fortress.” “The Church will protect her own,” he states, but the Priests argue that the Knights are “maddened beasts.” Thomas persists, however, and commands the Priests to open the door. The Knights enter (“slightly tipsy” as Eliot notes in the stage direction), searching Page 232 | Top of Articlefor “Becket the faithless priest.” After refusing to recant any of his former convictions or renounce any of his former actions, Thomas prays: “Now to Almighty God . . . I commend my cause and that of the Church.” The Knights then begin to kill him, during which the Chorus laments the curse being placed on their land and their lives. After their cry of “Clean the air! clean the sky! wash the wind!” Thomas is finally dead.
It is at this moment that Eliot surprises everyone in the audience by having the four Knights directly address them: “We know that you may be disposed to judge unfavorably of our action,” the first Knight explains, adding, “Nevertheless, I appeal to your sense of honor. You are Englishmen, and therefore will not judge anybody without hearing both sides of the case.” The other three Knights then take turns justifying their actions, stressing the fact that they acted in a “perfectly disinterested” manner and that Thomas was not the “under dog” as he was presented in the play. Ultimately, they ask the audience to “render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” When they exit, the Priests discuss the murder’s meaning and eventually leave the Chorus to proclaim to God that “the blood of Thy martyrs and saints / Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.” Finally, they beg forgiveness of God for doubting his “blessing” and petition their new Heavenly patron: “Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”
Thomas Becket is the Archbishop of Canterbury and hero of the play. When the play opens, the viewer learns that he has not been in England for the last seven years because of a power struggle with King Henry II, who wants the church to serve the state. His return from France provokes a variety of reactions from the Chorus, the Priests, and the four Knights who serve the King; as the play progresses, Thomas responds to a number of these reactions with the calm, measured voice of one who believes “there is higher than I or the King.”
Although he is repeatedly tempted away from his desire to lead his people and threatened with death by the four Knights, Thomas becomes convinced that only “The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns” and places the question of whether or not he will be martyred into the hands of God. He accepts his martyrdom as part of a larger pattern that he, with his human limitations, cannot fully understand.
Richard Brito (Fourth Knight)
See The Four Knights
Similar to those found in ancient Greek drama, the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral serves as a mediator between the play and the audience. Composed of women of Canterbury, this group originally fears the unknown act that their “eyes are compelled to witness” and begs Thomas to return to France; they have accepted their common and often miserable lives (where “King rules or barons rule”) and do not wish to “stand on the doom” of their church. At the play’s conclusion, however, they have been enlightened to the fact that there is a higher power at work in the world other than that found in politics and they sing praises to the wisdom of God: “We thank thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood,” they proclaim, for “the blood of Thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth, shall create holy places.”
Sir Hugh de Morville (Second Knight)
See The Four Knights
Baron William de Traci (Third Knight)
See The Four Knights
The Four Knights
Sent by King Henry to kill Thomas, the Four Knights parallel the Four Tempters of Part One. While the Tempters offer intellectual and spiritual trickery, the Knights threaten Thomas with physical violence, ultimately following through on their threat when they kill him near the end of the play. When they arrive at the cathedral and demand that Thomas acquiesce to the King’s demands, he refuses. They murder him and then “present their case” to the audience in the form of a mock inquest in which they assert their blamelessness in the entire affair. Although their names are mentioned during their speeches to the audience, the Knights are not as different from each other as are the Three Priests.
The Four Tempters
During Part One, Thomas is visited by four Tempters who promise him a number of rewards in Page 233 | Top of Articlereturn for recanting his former judgments against the King and his minions. The First Tempter tells him that “Friendship is more than biting Time can sever” and asks Thomas to befriend the King (as he did once before) so that there will be “Fluting in the meadow” and “Singing at nightfall.” The Second Tempter suggests that Thomas should reclaim the Chancellorship (from which he resigned after his feud with King Henry); doing so would, the Tempter assures him, let Thomas “set down the great” and “protect the poor.” The Third Tempter, dubbing himself “A country-keeping Lord who minds his own business,” attempts to seduce Thomas into representing the barons at court in order to “fight a good stroke / At once, for England and for Rome, / Ending the tyrannous jurisdiction” of Henry’s reign.
All three Tempters are easily deflated by Thomas, who is unaffected by their empty promises: “Shall I,” he asks, “who ruled like an eagle over doves, / Now take the shape of a wolf among wolves?” The Fourth Tempter, however, is more difficult for Thomas to dismiss, since he tempts him with his “own desires” of becoming a saint and martyred leader of his people. Eventually, the Fourth Tempter teaches Thomas about the degree to which his own pride stands between him and the will of God.
The Messenger arrives in Part One to announce to the Priests that Thomas is returning to Canterbury. He peppers his news with his own thoughts on Thomas, remarking that “He is at one with the Pope” and that his new “peace” with the King is, at best, a “patched-up affair.”
The Three Priests
As a unit, the three Priests provide a context for Thomas’s religious speculations and offer the audience different opinions of him before he enters the play. Throughout Murder in the Cathedral, the Priests express their desire to help Thomas guide his people and remain safely in Canterbury. Although they may seem interchangeable by virtue of their names (“First Priest,” “Second Priest,” and “Third Priest”), they are distinguished at times by Eliot according to the way in which they approach the danger of Thomas’s return. The First Priest, for example, is uneasy and remarks, “I fear for the Archbishop, I fear for the Church,” before concluding that Thomas’s troubles began when he wished for “subjection to God alone.”
The Second Priest, less world-weary than the First, voices the hope that Thomas will dispel “dismay and doubt,” for “He will tell us what we are to do, he will give us our orders, instruct us.” The Third Priest expresses neither the doubts of the First nor the optimism of the Second; his only certainty is that fate will unwind as it must: “For good or ill, let the wheel turn,” he remarks, “For who knows the end of good or evil?” These differences, however, fade in Part Two, when the Priests act as a group in order to convince Thomas to flee the cathedral.
Reginald Fitz Urse (First Knight)
See The Four Knights
Flesh vs. Spirit
Throughout Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas is warned about the danger of his remaining in Canterbury and the threat of danger from his enemies, who seek to please King Henry by murdering him. Before he enters, the Chorus begs, “O Thomas return, Archbishop; return, return to France,” for he comes “bringing death into Canterbury”; when he does arrive, Thomas tells them and the three Priests that none should fear his possible death, for “the hungry hawk / Will only soar and hover” until there
is an “End” that will be “simple, sudden, God-given.” The very fact of his return suggests Thomas’s refusal to fear death and belief that God will decide whether he will live or die: as he tells the Priests, “All things prepare the event.”
Thomas’s disregard for earthly pleasures and power is heightened during his conversations with the first three Tempters. When the First Tempter offers him “wit and wine and wisdom” if he will only “Be easy” in his condemnation of King Henry, Thomas calls his temptations a mere “springtime fancy” belonging to “seasons of the past.” When the next Tempter urges him to take up again the Chancellorship and “guide the state again,” Thomas argues that “what was once exaltation / Would now only mean descent” to a “punier power,” since, as an Archbishop, he is able to “keep the keys / Of heaven and hell.” “To condemn kings, not serve among their servants,” he explains, is his “open office.”
Clearly, Thomas is not interested in any form of temporal power. The Third Tempter attempts to appeal to Thomas’s political and religious faith, stating that Thomas could help the barons fight for the “liberty” of England and Rome; still dismissive of man’s law, however, Thomas asserts that if he “break” the tyranny of the King, he must not do so for promises of power but must “break myself alone.” The fact that Thomas is able to so easily refuse these Tempters reflects his desire to serve divine—rather than human—law; this also accounts for his turmoil when facing the Fourth Tempter, who questions Thomas’s desire to become a martyr for purely spiritual (as opposed to temporal) reasons. Once Thomas considers his own heart and concludes that he must not be tricked by his own pride into coveting his martyrdom, he is assured that even if he is killed, his “good Angel, whom God appoints” will “hover over the swords’ points.”
Thomas’s unshaken devotion to his spiritual life is seen throughout the Interlude and Part Two. When preaching to his congregation on Christmas Day, he tells them that martyrdom is “never the design of man,” for “the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God” and “who no Page 235 | Top of Articlelonger desires anything for himself.” He then bluntly acknowledges his acceptance of his possible fate by saying, “I do not think I shall ever preach to you again” and “it is possible that in a short time you may have another martyr.”
In Part Two, when faced with the menace of the four Knights, Thomas refuses to flee (as the Priests beg him to do), since he is “not in danger: only nearer to death.” Believing that “all things / Proceed to a joyful consummation,” Thomas orders a Priest who has bolted the Cathedral door to open it. He then proclaims, “I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man.” As the Knights kill him, Thomas does not beg for any mercy or postponement; instead, he begins a prayer in which he “commends [his] cause and that of the Church” to “Almighty God.” Although tempted with physical pleasures and threatened with physical violence, Thomas remains true to what he sees as the “pattern” of God’s will in his life.
Closely allied with the theme of flesh vs. spirit is that of obedience, an issue of the play that is seen in Thomas’s unflagging devotion to God. The very nature of the argument between Thomas and King Henry, occurring before the play begins, is centered on this issue: Henry wants Thomas to obey his (and thus the state’s) commands, but Thomas is a man described by the First Priest as one “Loathing power given by temporal devolution, / Wishing subjection to God alone.” Convinced that God is his only judge and ruler with any authority, Thomas mocks those who view themselves as sources of power in a worldly sense: “Only / The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns.” Another example of Thomas’s belief in the power of divine law is found in his rebuttal of the Second Tempter, who offers him his previous power as Chancellor:
Temporal power, to build a good world, To keep order, as the world knows order. Those who put their faith in worldly order Not controlled by the Order of God, In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder, Make it fast, breed fatal disease, Degrade what they exalt.
Here, Thomas asserts that the only order is that found in the will of God and that any attempt to stray from one’s obedience to it can only result in the “fatal disease” of chaos. Only God can provide any sort of harmony between one’s temporal and spiritual lives and Thomas chooses to remain in the “confident ignorance” of one who does not know—but who nevertheless trusts—the force of Providence.
While Thomas’s refusal to flee the cathedral certainly proves his obedience to God, it is in an earlier conversation that Eliot dramatizes the conflicting forces within Thomas that solicit his obedience. After speaking to the Fourth Tempter, who asks, “What can compare with the glory of Saints / Swelling forever in presence of God?” Thomas must examine his own conscience to determine whether or not his pride is encouraging him to (as the Tempter commands), “Seek the way of martyrdom.” Thomas’s problem lies not in dying, but in determining if he is doing so out of an obedience to his pride or his God. Eventually, he reaches the enlightenment for which he searches:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Thomas has learned that the “right deed” (martyrdom) must not be performed for the “wrong reason”: his self-interest. To allow his desire for glory to interfere with the will of God—which is, ultimately, what will determine his fate—would be like “treason” in its attempt to subvert the authority of an all-powerful ruler. Only by remaining obedient to God can he ever hope to “do the right deed” and become a martyr for his church and his people. He will remain God’s obedient servant, living in “confident ignorance” of God’s eternal plan.
“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 Page 236 | Top of Articleslave 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 dieater 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 mey 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 rhetoric 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 mania,” 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 Page 237 | Top of Articleonly 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.
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 bolb; I 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 nineteenth-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.
Since the publication of his first book of verse, Prufrock 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 Page 239 | Top of Articleliterature. 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.”
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 Laughlin 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, Denis 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.”
Moron is an educator specializing in literature and drama. In this essay, he examines the ways in which Eliot’s play explores the processes an individual must undergo if he is to give his life for his faith and how such a gift affects the martyr’s world.
In Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) he presents a man on the verge of an emotional
crisis who finds that his fear of humiliation and of committing a social faux pas prevent him from revealing to a woman the depth of his love for her. “There will be time,” he remarks, “For a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions,” since he knows that he will change his mind a hundred times before doing anything so brave. He asks, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe” with his desire to be frank; since he is “no prophet—and here’s no great matter,” since he is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” he sees himself as insignificant, “an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” Terrified of acting, yet dissatisfied with the results of inaction, fearful of revealing himself, yet dying to “say just what I mean,” Prufrock stands in sharp contrast to a later Eliot hero, Thomas Becket, as seen in Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
Becket is a man who does “dare / Disturb the universe” with his arrival in Canterbury and refusal to concede to King Henry’s demands; he needs no time for a “hundred indecisions” since he sees that the path chosen for him by God is clear. He is “like a prophet” and Prince Hamlet in that he serves the aims of a supreme, supernatural figure and sees himself as one faced with a task that can only culminate in his own death; unlike Hamlet, however, this knowledge causes him no great suffering of mind. While Prufrock’s fear of rejection inhibits him from taking action, Thomas’s determination to serve God prevents him from seeking asylum in a world governed by human law. Throughout the play, Eliot explores the ways in which Thomas’s lack of “Prufrockian” fear allows him to answer his calling from God and how one who accepts such a call must do so at the expense of any and all temporal comforts. Rejecting this world in favor of the next may seem to Henry’s Knights like the ultimate faux pas, but in doing so, Thomas renews his own spiritual life as well as the spiritual lives of the common people and the very world that martyrs him.
Eliot’s original title for the play was Fear in the Way, and it is evident from the opening Choral ode that fear is a constant in the world of the play. The “poor women” huddle near the cathedral not for spiritual comfort but because “Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Toward the cathedral. We are forced to bear witness.” Already God is at work, “compelling” the women (and the audience) to attend to the drama at hand. Unlike the audience,
who by virtue of its position is intrigued, the women are terrified of any change in their lives: although they have “suffered various oppression” such as “various scandals,” “taxes,” and “private terrors,” they have “Succeeded in avoiding notice, I Living and partly living.”
While a viewer might think that the intrusion of God into their lives would be welcomed as a form of deliverance from the “poverty and license” they describe, the women wish to maintain the status quo, which may be rife with “minor injustice” but which is also predictable and, more importantly, understandable. To be called by God to do anything—even to “witness”—is too terrifying a task, especially when they learn that their Archbishop is returning:
O Thomas our Lord, leave us and leave us be, in our humble and tarnished frame of existence, leave us; do not ask us To stand to the doom on the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world. Archbishop, secure and assured of your fate, unaffrayed among the shades, do you realise what you ask, do you realize what it means To the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate, the small folk who live among small things, The strain on the brain of the small folk who stand to the doom of the house, the doom of their lord, the doom of the world?
The Chorus has accepted the world’s indifference to them and all of its concomitant troubles and wishes to “live among small things” rather than answer the call of God, who will obviously make greater demands. Only through Thomas’s death (which is his own answer to his calling) will they come to understand the greatness and glory of God.
As if God were presenting the Chorus with an example of one who rejects the very fears they vocalize, Thomas enters the play as one who knows he may die but who accepts this as part of a larger scheme. He tells the Chorus and the Three Priests that there is an “eternal action, an eternal patience / To which all must consent” and that the “End will be simple, sudden, God-given.” Already he is prepared to die for his return—but if he already knows this, why would Eliot write the play? In his The Third Voice: Modern British and American Drama, Denis Donoghue argues that an audience’s knowledge of Thomas’s death eliminates the dramatic force that his death may have. However, he seems to be missing the point that Eliot can use an
audience’s knowledge of Thomas’s impending death as a way to refocus its attention. The viewer then becomes more attuned to the issue of how Thomas will meet his death instead of whether or not this death will occur—and how Thomas struggles with the weight of martyrdom is Eliot’s subject here.
Because a viewer knows Thomas will die, his thoughts on death and martyrdom take on an added significance, like when Henry Fonda’s character in John Ford’s film Young Mr. Lincoln walks into the sunset with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing on the soundtrack. As Thomas explains to the Priests, “Heavier the interval than the consummation.” The mental and spiritual processes leading to an acceptance of martyrdom and the means by which an individual gives himself completely to his faith are Eliot’s concern here, and by having the audience know the end of the play before it begins (a function of its title), he is able to prod the viewer into becoming interested in the same things as himself.
Thomas’s interaction with the Four Tempters allows Eliot to dramatize these very processes of denial and self-examination that a martyr must undergo if he is to remain true to his calling. The First, Second, and Third Tempters are easily spurned by Thomas, who knows that their promises of temporal power and comfort are “puny” when compared to those offered by God: “Shall I,” he asks, “who ruled like an eagle over doves, / Now take the shape of a wolf among wolves?” Rejecting their insinuations that he can set right the world and its temporal problems, Thomas remarks, “Only I The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns.” Like Hamlet, Thomas believes “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” and will (again like Hamlet) “Let be,” making the rejection of the Three Tempters a matter of course.
The Fourth Tempter, however, challenges Thomas on a much different—and more difficult—level. The strict meter of his verse attests to his potential bewitching of the future martyr:
As you do not know me, I do not need a name, And, as you know me, that is why I come. You know me, but have never seen my face. To meet before was never time or place.
These figures have never met before because the “time or place” were not ripe with such a spiritual crisis, and it is the crisis of self-examination that this Tempter forces on Thomas. The Tempter asks, “But what is pleasure, Kingly rule” compared to “general grasp of spiritual power” and tells him that “Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb”; Thomas should “think of pilgrims, standing in line / Before the glittering jeweled shrine” and “Seek the way of martyrdom.” If he refuses, he will become a footnote and “men shall declare that there was no mystery / About this man who played a certain part in history.” As Thomas admits, the Fourth Tempter has exposed his “own desires”; like Prufrock, who imagines himself “pinned and wriggling on the wall” with a “magic lantern” throwing his “nerves in patterns on a screen,” Thomas must now discern his own motives in seeking martyrdom:
Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness, Does not lead to damnation in pride? I well know that these temptations Mean present vanity and future torment. Can sinful pride be driven out Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer Without perdition?
The Tempter’s answer to this question is an almost word-for-word recitation of Thomas’s opening speech to the Chorus:
You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer. You know and do not know, that action is suffering, And the suffering action. Neither does the agent suffer Nor the patient act. But both are fixed In an eternal action, an eternal patience To which all must consent that it may be willed And which all must suffer that they may will it, That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still Be forever still.
For what reason does the Fourth Tempter answer Thomas with his own words? The answer becomes more clear if the audience considers this Tempter—like his three counterparts—as not an external figure but a part of Thomas himself. Finding no allure in physical pleasure and certainly no use (after his split with the King) for temporal government, Thomas can reject these ideas quite Page 243 | Top of Articleeasily. This part of himself, however—the part of his soul that does, to some ambiguous degree, covet fame and glory—is more difficult to resist. If he is to be martyred, he must look deep within himself, listening to his own voice, in order to be sure that he is not the slave of vanity. Seen in this light, the Fourth Tempter is unlike Satan, who tempted Christ, but like a mirror into which Thomas must gaze if he is to know himself. The Forth Tempter is a counselor more than an enemy.
Because of the Fourth Tempter’s “friendly advice,” Thomas is able to determine that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” But what has Thomas decided? To let himself be killed? This is decided by him before the play even begins. To reject martyrdom? This is never an issue or possibility; Thomas wants to know if he seeks the “right thing” for the “wrong reason” of his own pride, not whether or not martyrdom itself is “right” or “wrong.” What Thomas learns here from his own words being thrown back at him is that “action is suffering.”
It is worthwhile to pause here and consider the implications of these words. For Thomas, who earlier in the play says that the women “know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer,” to “act” would entail inaction, i.e., not protesting his death by sword when it finds him. To “suffer” would entail physical suffering (in his time of dying) but the word also carries the more important sense of “to allow” or “to be the object of some action.” This is the key to Thomas’s decision: he will “act” (through inaction) not because of his own pride, but by allowing himself to “suffer” the presence and workings of God. Only by seeking a martyrdom grounded in spiritual obedience (rather than temporal fame) will Thomas remain undefiled and avoid the “damnation in pride” that he fears. He now “knows” that “action is suffering” but “does not know” the actual experience of it yet. When this time does come, however, he will “no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end,” obeying temporal commands and threats, but will instead “act and suffer” to obey the will of God.
Thomas’s newfound enlightenment is offered to his congregation when he preaches to them on Christmas Day. Besides providing a dramatic fulcrum to the two halves of his play, the sermon allows Eliot to demonstrate the depth of Thomas’s understanding of the nature of martyrdom. Christmas is, of course, the birthday of the ultimate martyr and Thomas uses this fact as a way to present the paradoxes inherent in martyrdom. For example, he speaks of the fact that they rejoice in the birth of one who died for their sins, explaining that “only in our Christian mysteries” can they “rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.” He also addresses the meaning of the word “peace” in Christ’s statement to His apostles, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you,” concluding that Christ “gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.”
A viewer can see the extent to which Thomas’s sermon here is self-reflexive, since he too will soon find spiritual—rather than physical—peace. A final example of how the sermon reveals the working-through of the mysteries in Thomas’s mind is found in his discussion of God’s “first martyr, the blessed Stephen.” Thomas states that “by no means” is it an “accident” that “the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the birth of Christ,” so urging the congregation to ponder the “pattern” of God’s will as he has done. He concludes by indirectly asserting his own triumph over the thoughts presented to him by the Fourth Tempter, saying, “Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men.”
The true martyr has “lost his will in the will of God” and does not even desire “the glory of being a martyr.” Knowing that he is balanced on the knife’s edge of divinity, Thomas pleads with the people to adopt his course of allowing God’s will to work in their lives and to “suffer” His presence in Canterbury.
Part Two of the play presents the martyrdom that Thomas awaits. As Part One examines the processes involved in the individual’s acceptance of martyrdom, Part Two examines the ways in which others may view and consider the same. The nervous First and Second Priests speak of the possibility of God acting through Thomas “To-day,” but the Third Priest knows that such anticipation is pointless:
What is the day that we know that we hope for or fear for? Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from. One moment Weighs like another. Only in retrospection, selection, We say, that was the day. The critical moment That is always now, and here. Even now, in sordid particulars The eternal design may appear.
Time is the mother of meaning (an issue raised in Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”) and the Third Priest is now certain, like Thomas, that the “critical moment” may arise even in “sordid particulars.” As if to respond to this statement, the Page 244 | Top of ArticleFour Knights enter the play, much like Thomas’s perfectly timed entrance in Part One. God’s will is now hard at work, a fact acknowledged by Thomas when he enters and states, “However certain our expectation / The moment foreseen may be unexpected / When it arrives.” The Four Knights, however, have no interest in any discussion of “the pattern” or “the wheel” and demand that Thomas recant his former judgments to appease “The King’s Justice” and “the King’s majesty.” Thomas’s refusal to do so reveals the extent to which he has (as he stated in his sermon), “lost his will in the will of God”: it is not “Becket who pronounces doom,” he explains, “But the Law of Christ’s Church.” Theory has been converted into practice and no threat can weaken Thomas’s resolve: he is “not in danger” but “only nearer to death.”
The Chorus’s reaction to Thomas’s fearlessness marks their gradual understanding of what they were “compelled to witness” in the opening of the play. Stating that they have seen “subtle forebodings” of the “death-bringers” in such natural signs as “The horn of the beetle, the scale of the viper” and the smell of “incense in the latrine,” the women beg Thomas for forgiveness for voicing their original fears. Thomas’s cult of personality is growing stronger with each moment he remains alive. Naturally, Thomas forgives them with the command “Peace” and explains, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” an insight that is proven by the actions of the Four Knights and the previous lamentations of the Chorus: to Thomas, the only “reality” is that of God’s will—all else is the vanity of temporal power and “toiling in the household.”
The Priests, however, are still fearful and plead with Thomas to hide in the cloister. Thomas refuses, stating, “I have therefore only to make perfect my will.” It is at this point that Eliot again highlights the mental process of martyrdom by making Thomas’s actions here slightly ambiguous and hinting—but only hinting—at his previously rejected desire for fame. Thomas commands the Priests to “Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors!” because he “will not have the house of prayer” turned “into a fortress”: “The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not / As oak and stone.” This train of thought is in perfect keeping with Thomas’s earlier rejection of human law in favor of God’s. When the Priests still insist on his hiding, however, Thomas flies into a rage less easily explained by a desire to remain solely an “instrument” of God:
I give my life To the Law of God above the Law of Man. Unbar the door! unbar the door! We are not to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance, Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast And have conquered. We have only to conquer Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory. Now is the triumph of the Cross, now Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!
Thomas’s logic here posits that only by self-sacrifice (“I give my life”) and allowing God to work his will through the Knights (“suffering”) will God’s will be made complete. But why must God work today? At this moment? (Recall the Third Priest’s explanation of how only “retrospection” yields meaning.) Thomas never considers this point and Eliot never addresses it, making this rallying of the Priests’ faith one of the most ambiguous moments in the play. A viewer could easily understand this speech to imply that Thomas fears his not being martyred and that there are still some remnants of worldly pride clinging to his vestments.
While this may be a more cynical way to read the play, the point nonetheless seems valid—but only if that same viewer forgets a simple fact about Thomas: for all his wisdom and strength, he is still a man and still subject to the same apprehensions and doubts as everybody else. It is not surprising, then, that the very human Thomas fears the Knights will be prohibited from entering, for he has already completed a grueling process by which he has prepared himself for martyrdom. “For my Lord I am ready to die,” he states, “That His Church may have peace and liberty.” His resolve is stronger than any audience’s doubts.
Thomas is killed onstage, so that the audience—like the Chorus—will be appalled by the event which God and Eliot have forced them to “witness.” The women long for a time when the land was free from the “filth” they “cannot clean,” found in the murdering Knights:
A rain of blood has blinded my eyes. Where is England? Where is Kent? Where is Canterbury? O far far far far in the past; and I wander in a land of barren boughs: if I break them, they bleed; I wander in a land of dry stones: if I touch them, they bleed. How can I ever return, to the soft quiet seasons?
Although they are terrified by the murder of their Archbishop, the women still do not understand that God’s will is at work here: “We did not wish anything to happen,” they cry, since their usual hardships “marked a limit to our suffering.” Only later will they “know what it is to act and suffer.”
As they finish their ode and Becket dies, Eliot engages the viewer in the greatest surprise of the play: the Four Knights’ direct address to the audience. In On Poetry and Poets, Eliot describes this device as “a kind of trick” added to “shock the audience out of their complacency,” and the mock-inquest performed by the Knights serves several purposes in the total design of the play. First, the viewer sees the trivial nature of temporal power in The Second, Third, and Fourth Knights’ sycophantic praise of the First Knight: “I am not anything like such an experienced speaker as my old friend Reginald Fitz Urse,” states the Third Knight, while the Second Knight praises Fitz Urse for making his point “very well” and the Fourth Knight remarks that their “leader, Reginald Fitz Urse,” has “spoken very much to the point.”
The hollow rhetoric of the Knights, with their appeals to the “hard-hearted, sensible” people in the audience, heighten the sincerity and honesty that Thomas has displayed throughout the play. More importantly, the Knights’ defense “shocks” the audience into understanding the degree to which the issues of the play are still relevant to modern life, as when the Second Knight explains,
No one regrets the necessity for violence more than we do. Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which social justicc may be secured. At another time, you would condemn an Archbishop by vote of Parliament and execute him formally as a traitor, and no one would have to bear the burden of being called murderer. And at a later time still, even such temperate measures as these would become unnecessary. But, if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step. We have been instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that you approve. We have served your interests; we merit your applause; and if there is any guilt whatever in the matter, you must share it with us.
The Second Knight looks forward to a future in which the Church’s “pretensions” are subordinate to the State—a world very much like that of contemporary Western societies. But this is not a “message” play and Eliot is too clever to allow all the previous action to congeal into a tidy set of remarks. Instead, the Second Knight raises the question of how much the Church—or spirituality in general—affects the political lives of a nation’s citizenry and the extent to which those who put their faith in temporal power (like Henry and his Knights) will go to ensure that the State is always in charge.
In The Plays of T .S. Eliot (1960), David E. Jones calls the Knights’ apology “the temptation of the audience,” and the Second Knight’s remarks may seem tempting to one who wishes for no spiritual stake in the life of a nation. But who could be tempted by these “slightly tipsy” assassins with their fawning over earthly leaders and vocabulary of psychobabble (“render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind”) that they use to cloud the issues? At most, they are like the first three Tempters in Part One: easily dismissable. Eliot has included their prose defense in order to show the gulf between men of politics and men of God—a contest in which Eliot never avoids revealing the side for whom he is rooting.
As a final way to illustrate the Knights’ lack of understanding and as a way to illustrate the effect that Thomas’s martyrdom has had on his world, Eliot closes the play with a Choral ode in which the women “Praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory” and describe their new understanding of the “pattern” and the “wheel”:
For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light. Those who deny Thee could not deny, if Thou didst not exist; and their denial is never complete, for if it were so, they would not exist.
The Knights’ sophistry or twentieth century cynicism are no match for devotion of this depth. The Chorus has moved millions of spiritual miles since the beginning of the play: where they formerly asked God to let them “perish in quiet,” they now beg Him to forgive them for their former blindness. They describe their former selves as “the men and women who shut the door” and sat “by the fire”—seeking physical comfort—instead of as those who “fear the blessing of God.” Any previous arguments raised about the depth of Thomas’s devotion and spurning of pride are put to rest here, for the Chorus has been served by its Archbishop, regardless of the motives he may have had:
We now acknowledge our trespass, our weakness, our fault; we acknowledge That the sin of the world is upon our heads; that the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints Is upon our heads. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Blessed Thomas, pray for us.
The women now fully “know that action is suffering” and will allow God’s will to work through them. They have moved from Prufrockian doubts to Beckettian certainty and find solace in the presence of a Being that many moderns may be missing. Whether the modern age will produce more Beckets to assuage the doubts of the Prufrocks remains to be Page 246 | Top of Articleseen, but, as Hamlet says and Becket enacts, “The readiness is all.”
Source: Daniel Moran, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Patricia Mosco Holloway
In this review, Holloway examines why Eliot composed his chorus entirely of women. The critic theorizes that, like many martyrs, women represent birth, new life, and renewal. She cites several examples of language and imagery that support this assertion.
When Carole M. Beckett observes that “the dramatic function of the women of the Chorus (in Murder in the Cathedral] is to comment upon the events which they witness,” she, like others, skirts the perplexing critical question of why the chorus is composed solely of women. What, in the design of the play, would necessitate an all female chorus?
The second priest in the play sees little use for the chorus of women:
You are foolish, immodest and babbling women. . . . You go on croaking like frogs in the treetops: But frogs at least can be cooked and eaten.
These women, however, do perform a vital function: they expand our understanding of martyrdom through a metaphor of birth. The female chorus reminds us that both women and martyrs give birth to new life. For a woman, it is the life of her child; for a martyr, it is the life of his belief. In the play, the women’s chorus shows us how before giving birth, a martyr, like an expectant mother, must wait and suffer.
To introduce his metaphor of birth, Eliot first shows us that both the women in the chorus and the martyr are waiting. The women open the play waiting “close by the cathedral” where they acknowledge they “are forced to bear witness.” As it turns out, they will bear witness to the birth of a martyr. At this point in the play, even though they are not consciously aware of waiting, intuitively they are expectant; they wait and wait. In fact, they repeat the word “wait” eleven times in just this first passage. This repetition, as well as words such as “bear” and “barren,” suggests a metaphor of birth. Similarly, Thomas’ diction also points to a birth metaphor when he notes soon after he enters the play:
Heavier tie interval than the consummation. All things prepare the event.
Like the expectant women, he too is waiting for the birth of the martyr. Ironically, that birth will come only with the “event” of his death.
The women in the chorus, however, do not refer literally to Thomas’ death. Instead, they speak metaphorically about an imminent, ominous birth:
the air is heavy and thick. Thick and heavy the sky. And tie earth presses up against our feet. . . . The earth is heaving to parturition of issue of hell.
The image of a round earth pressing up and the words “heavy” and “thick” suggest the physical appearance of women about to give birth. The word “parturition” itself literally depicts the act of childbirth. Later in the play, the women will repeat the image of a “heaving earth” as they again convey the metaphor of birth: “I have felt the heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd.”
Both the women and Thomas await the “absurd” birth described by the chorus, and as they wait, they suffer. The women agonize when they realize they await the death of Thomas. They fear the birth of which they speak because it will be a “parturition . . . of hell”—the hell of their suffering when they experience the physical loss of their beloved Thomas. Like the expectant women, Thomas, too, suffers as he awaits his delivery. He suffers not only mentally through the temptations to his pride and power, but also physically through the pain of his death—the death that will deliver him into his heavenly birth.
Eliot uses the symbol of blood to link the suffering of the martyr and the suffering of the women. Just before he sheds his own blood, Thomas notes:
I am. . . ready to suffer with my blood This is the sign of the Church always The sign of blood.
Blood is not only a sign for martyrdom, it is also a sign for motherhood. The shedding of Thomas’ blood frightens the women, who would naturally associate it with the pain of childbearing, and their first reaction is to rid themselves of this sign of suffering:
Clean the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them.
They echo the birth metaphor a last time when, in the same speech, they refer to themselves as wandering “in a land of barren boughs.”
If, as seems to be the case, Eliot wants to show the similarities between giving birth and the making of a martyr, then a chorus composed of women makes sense not only thematically, but also structurally. After all, it is women who know best how to wait, suffer, and give birth.
Source: Patricia Mosco Holloway, review of Murder in the Cathedral in the Explicator, Volume 43, no. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 35-36.
William J. McGill
McGill explicates the role of the chorus in Eliot’s play, discussing how their choral speeches enhance the poet/playwright’s language and the overall tone of the drama. The critic dissects several of the speeches to prove his point.
In staging T. S. Eliot’s poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral, one of the principal technical and artistic-interpretive problems involves the presentation of the choral speeches. Textually they appear as odes with no specific instructions to indicate differentiation of voices. But the first staging of the play set the precedent for assigning parts within the choral odes to individual voices or varying ensembles. The decision is in part a musical one, involving an assessment of the voices available and an orchestration of those voices to produce a pattern of sound that enhances the aural effect of the language. Obviously, however, the arrangement of voices must also relate to the thematic development of the odes as well. We cannot separate sound and meaning. Thus, while the individual director has some freedom in designating parts of the choral speeches, the poetry itself places strictures on that freedom. What I seek to do here is to provide a reading of the choral odes which identifies the principal thematic and dramatic voices in them.
The choral ode which opens the play serves as prelude not only to the drama which follows, but also to the varying functions of the chorus and to the different voices which articulate aspects of those functions. The initial stanza is a full-voiced statement of the entire chorus speaking as “the poor women of Canterbury” and outlining their roles as harbingers of some danger which they cannot comprehend and which they can neither impede nor hasten, and as reluctant witnesses to whatever consequences that danger may bring. “Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Towards the cathedral. We are forced to bear witness.”
The second stanza takes up the theme of helpless waiting in a somber, yet strong, mellifluous voice (hereafter the first voice). The decline of “golden October” into winter, but not yet the wondrous winter of fresh snow and crystalline frost, rather the dead season of stubbled, muddy fields, sets the image of time suspended while “. . . The
New Year waits, destiny waits for the coming.” In the chill of that mordant time the poor laborer from the fields seeks refuge before the fire, yet even in that refuge is not free: “and who shall / Stretch out his hand to the fire, and deny his master? who shall be warm / By the fire, and deny his master?”
The question points up the reluctance with which the women are drawn to their witness. The long third stanza opens with a querulous, almost whining voice which gives substance to that reluctance. Recognizing that the Archbishop Thomas had always been a gracious master, this second voice nonetheless regrets the possibility of his return. For the poor, what difference does it make who rules so long as things are quiet for them?—“we are left to our own devices, / And we are content if we are left alone.” Left alone, they go about their business, keeping their households in order, trying to accumulate what they can, working their bit of land, “. . . Preferring to pass unobserved,” leading colorless lives. But that hope diminishes. A third voice, dark and husky, Cassandra-like, dispels it with a vision to match the voice: “. . . Winter shall come bringing death from the sea, / Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, / Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears. . . .” The full chorus now returns, and in the wake of this sequence of voices, the women are more fearful, more pessimistic. They have absorbed the qualities of the separate voices and their sense of premonition sharpens: “Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait, / And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.” As before, the first voice intervenes to give resonance to the choral cry, while also developing its particular motif—all that happens depends on destiny which “waits in the hand
of God, shaping the still unshapen. . . .” Confronted by that forceful affirmation of their own helplessness, the women conclude: “For us, the poor, there is no action, I But only to wait and to witness.”
In the opening ode, then, we have three distinct voices standing out from the general chorus, each stressing a particular dimension of the choral function. The first with its recurrent appeal to destiny emphasizes that the women are but passive witnesses; the second with its recitation of the mundane preoccupations of the poor emphasizes that they are drawn unwillingly to fulfill the role of witness; and the third with its darksome, surreal vision emphasizes the fatalism, the pessimism of their witness. The reiteration of these voices develops the tone and consciousness of the full choral voice toward the final revelation.
Thus, in the second choral ode which occurs following the arrival of the messenger who announces the return of Thomas to England, an interchange between the second and third voices impels the women to a sorrowful plea to Thomas to go back to France. The third voice opens with a vivid invocation of the evil that is in the air and an intimation of its consequences: “You come with applause, you come with rejoicing, but you come bringing death into Canterbury: / A doom on the house, a doom on yourself, a doom on tie world.” Then the plaintive second voice breaks in with a long recitation which, in effect, expands by specifics its earlier theme, though now in a more fretful, less certain fashion: “We do not wish anything to happen. / Seven years we have lived quietly, / Succeeded in avoiding notice, / Living and partly living.” That refrain persists, a recognition that the life of the poor, even when they succeed in avoiding notice, is tenuous and drab. The voice finally takes on some of the darksome quality of the others: “We have all had our private terrors, / Our particular shadows, our secret fears.” The third voice picks up this admission and intensifies it: “But now a great fear is upon us, a fear not of one but of many. . . .” That fear is a vivid intimation of the doom foretold in the opening stanza of this ode, and indeed it concludes with the refrain, “the doom on the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world.” This “dialogue” closes with the full voice of the chorus which now echoes the rhetoric of the third voice in a petition, partly a whimper, partly a prayer: “do you realise what you ask, do you realise what it means / To the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate. . . . / O Thomas, Archbishop, leave us, leave us, leave sullen Dover, and set sail for France.”
The third voice returns in a brief speech which follows the appearance of the four tempters. The premonitory sense now assumes graphic physical form—a sickly smell, a dark green cloud, the earth heaving, sticky dew—engaging all the senses. Then the full chorus joins the priests and the tempters in an alternating sequence which, with mounting anxiety, reports the omens and portents that now multiply.
A choral ode follows. The second voice opens, now readier to admit the drabness and sorrow of the life of the poor which seems more partly living than living. A wiser streak of fatalism has diluted the querulous tone of this voice. The third voice follows, and the physical details of the portents become even more distinct, more surrealistic: “. . . The forms take shape in the dark air: / Puss-purr of leopard, footfall of padding bear, / Palm-pat of nodding ape, square hyaena waiting / For laughter, laughter, laughter. The Lords of Hell are here”. With the atmosphere now charged with premonition, a sense of foreboding in every voice, the poor women of Canterbury cry out, “O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved; / Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.” They have now realized, driven by the consciousness of fate and of their helplessness and of the impending violence, that they cannot be mere witnesses. However reluctant they are to watch, they must; however much they yearn to plow their fields, to tend their hearths, to let the princes and nobles rule, they know that the very act of witnessing draws them into the maelstrom.
The increasing anxiety of the poor women of Canterbury, which develops toward the final unison cry of fear that concludes part one, begins part two Page 249 | Top of Articleof the drama unabated, the interlude of Becket’s Christmas sermon having done nothing to alleviate it. The full choral voice poses a series of questions which reiterates the pattern of part one, moving from mere anticipation (“Does the bird sing in the South?”) to anxious expectation (“What signs of a bitter spring?”). Hopefulness rapidly gives way to despair as, in response to each question, the resonant first voice consistently replies in gloomy tones, invoking the sense of destiny. This exchange concludes with a long rhetorical question that reaches the level of pain that tormented the last choral speech of the first part. This dialogue then is a reprise of the chorus’s developing consciousness.
Having set the tone for part two, the chorus withdraws into the role of silent witness to the first encounter between Thomas and the four knights. When the knights depart with the threat to return armed, the dark and despairing third voice takes up the burden of the chorus in a long and gruesome ode. The shift from psychic to physical portents which characterized that voice earlier culminates here in orgiastic horror. The “savour of putrid flesh . . .”, “Smooth creatures still living. . .”, “Corruption in the dish . . .” are no longer signs beheld but immediate experiences, horrors not merely seen but ingested. The “death-bringers” are here. Thomas’s refusal to heed the cathedral priests’ harried pleas to escape brings death itself into full view: “. . . The white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant, / And behind the face of death the Judgement / And behind the Judgement the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell; / Emptiness, absence, separation from God. . . .”
And so death comes to Thomas. As the knights murder him, the full chorus screams in agony, “Clear the air! Clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them!” In frenzied succession the three distinct voices declare the maturation of their motifs. The first voice declares the desecration of England, of life itself, in blood: “Can I look again at the day and its common things, and see them all smeared with blood, through a curtain of falling blood?” The working out of destiny changes forever the world. The second voice, now perhaps older and wiser, yet retains its plaintive edge: the poor have known private catastrophe, have known suffering: “Every horror had its definition, / Every sorrow had a kind of end: / In life there is not time to grieve long. / But this,. . . this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” And the third voice proclaims the final agony and helplessness of the poor: “We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean, united to supernatural vermin, / It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled, / But the world that is wholly foul.” Again, the agonized full cry of the chorus: “Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind!”
But man’s avowal of helplessness and despair, calling from the depths, opens the way to the movement of God’s grace. From the existence of evil comes the possibility of good, and from the violent death of the Archbishop comes a new saint, another saint for Canterbury, a source of solace and comfort to the poor. The concluding choral ode, delivered in procession while a choir sings a Latin Te Deum in the distance, is itself a Te Deum, a hymn of praise to God from those who, having watched, waited, and suffered, now celebrate the rebirth of hope through the martyr’s blood. The ode is antiphonal with the strong vibrant first voice, now proclaiming like a celebrant the joy of God’s destiny, while the full chorus responds, the interchange mounting in vigor and intensity until the concluding Kyrie.
Source: William J. McGill, “Voices in the Cathedral: The Chorus in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral,” in Modern Drama, Volume XXXIII, no. 3. September, 1980, pp. 292-96.
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, Denis. 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.
Laughlin, 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.
Shillito, 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.
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 exploring Eliot’s aims in writing verse drama, chapters on the production history of each play and a full annotated bibliography.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900024