Wednesday, 9 January 2002

Jean Anouilh: Becket (1961)

Translation: Lucienne Hill, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Eyre Methuen, 1963
Review number: 1029

The relationship between Henry II and Backet is a fascinating one, particularly with the way that it changed once Becket was ordained and became Archbishop of Canterbury. Though more accessible, Anouilh's version of the story is probably less well known in English than Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It consists of a series of scenes from the lives of the two men, which are bookended by Henry, naked before the cathedral altar performing penance for Becket's death.

Anouilh isn't particularly interested in historical accuracy, and there are a number of errors, such as Henry referring to his father as a king. More seriously, since it plays an important part in the play, is making Becket's background Saxon rather than Norman. (One of the themes which interests Anouilh is the relationship between conquerors and conquered.)

Henry is presented more sympathetically than Becket, who is made clever but cold, obsessed with the idea of honour (not his own, but first the King's and then God's, and meaning not something chivalric but the preservation and extension of their rights). Henry, on the other hand, is passionate and entranced by the man who has shown him that there is more to life than the interests of his bestial barons: food and drink, fighting and sex. The combination of their characters - which does bear some relation to the medieval sources even if these were unlikely to think in such terms - was inevitably to prove explosive once Becket transferred his loyalty to the church.

This change of heart, the big mystery about Becket's life story, is still really left unexplained by Anouilh, though he clearly connects it to the oaths sworn on ordination. It is Henry who is the memorable and convincing character of the two even if Becket is the nominal centre of the play.

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