Friday, 12 January 2001

T.S. Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral (1938)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 713

The best known of Eliot's five plays, Murder in the Cathedral is about the killing of Thomas a Beckett in 1170 in Canterbury cathedral. Really part of the long concluded struggle between secular and religious authority, aspects of Beckett's death have conspired to make it seem more important than it really was: the dramatic way in which the murder took place; the vague connection with one of the most important developments in medieval England, the concept that not even the king was above the law; and the massive cult which developed quickly around Beckett and which survived until the Reformation.

The short play has two scenes, one about a month before the murder, when Beckett returned to Canterbury from exile in France, and the actual murder itself. As an interlude between them stands Beckett's Christmas Day sermon from that year, and the second scene also includes an interlude in which the four knights who killed Beckett plead their case to the audience. These interludes are in prose, and the rest of the play is blank verse.

Murder in the Cathedral is a very intellectual play, though apparently compelling on stage. Much of the dialogue is more like philosophy than drama, and much of the structure is related to medieval mystery and miracle plays. This is particularly apparent with the four tempters who come to Beckett in the first act, trying to persuade him (for example) to renew his friendship with the king. In no sense is Eliot attempting to be historically accurate or even convincing; in real life people would never speak the way they do in this play. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read.

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