Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I should not like to close without attempting to set before you, though only in dim outline, the ideal towards which poetic drama should strive. It is an unattainable ideal: and that is why it interests me, for it provides an incentive towards further experiment and exploration, beyond any goal which there is prospect of attaining. It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musician in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the namable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed towards action—the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express—there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. There are great prose dramatists—such as Ibsen and Chekhov—who have at times done things of which I would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, but who seem to me, in spite of their success, to have been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express.
—T. S. Eliot, “Poetry and Drama”
Eliot’s biographer Peter Ackroyd observes that this “dramatization of the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury” (to quote this edition’s helpful front cover) was a popular success when first staged in 1935. No doubt the dramatic action’s historical remoteness and the play’s Christian didacticism account for its relative lack of popularity today, but admirers of “Prufrock” and The Waste Land should know that this play contains some of Eliot’s most intense and memorable poetry, much of it in the same vein (“a jugular vein,” as they used to say at Mad magazine) as those earlier, more openly skeptical if spiritually searching poems Eliot wrote before his 1927 conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.
The action of the play is simple: Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, returns after seven years of exile in France, whereto he was forced because of his ongoing quarrel with King Henry II about whether or not the church in England should be under the dominance of Rome or should become more independent, in line with the needs of the state. (This is my sketchy understanding of the situation; Eliot leaves all of these political and historical details in the far background, and the contemporary reader who does not know the details will have to look them up.) Becket is greeted by priests and by a chorus of local women, who both lament the suffering they have endured without their spiritual shepherd and announce their premonition of doom. Becket then confronts a series of tempters—they offer worldly pleasure, power in the form of reconciliation with the king, power in the form of rebellion against the king in league with the aristocracy, and, finally and most subtly, the morbid and self-righteous pleasure of a willed martyrdom. Becket dismisses all of these, and the first part ends. In an interlude, he preaches a Christmas sermon in which he expounds Christianity’s unique requirement that its believers “rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason,” a matter of literary interest as well as religious, given Eliot’s attempt to write a modern Christian tragedy. In the second part, Becket’s doom arrives in the form of four knights, working (or are they?) at the behest of the king, who perform the titular murder. Then, rather comically, they defend themselves to the audience in lawyerly or political prose. The play concludes with the chorus’s prayers; now that their worst fears have been realized, they can give thanks to God for the gift of a saint at Canterbury.
In outline, the Christian didacticism stands out; but in reading the play—and here you or the shade of Tom Eliot will have to forgive me my nihilism—what comes to the fore is the drama’s psychological subtlety and its saturation with morbidity. Becket, who was once a worldly politico, a man who grew up, like Falstaff, in Cheapside, and who seems moreover to have heard “the chimes at midnight” in his youth just like the fat knight, has become a figure of remarkable and severe asceticism, which expresses itself as a fatalism that seems more appropriate to a Greek than to a Christian hero:
We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
the cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.
When the fourth tempter tries to get him to seek martyrdom, we are struck by the paradox that it would be difficult to tell the difference between pursuing his doom and making it inevitable by doing what he takes to be God’s will. As he himself observes:
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
And then there are the laments of the women of the chorus. The one that comes just before Becket’s murder is an outrageous catalogue of Gothic grotesqueries, convincingly medieval, yes, but also the most memorable thing in the play, certainly more memorable than the prayers. It goes on for three pages; I will quote just a bit:
I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened
By subtile forebodings; I have heard
Fluting in the night-time, fluting and owls, have seen at noon
Scaly wings slanting over, huge and ridiculous. I have tasted
The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon. I have felt
The heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd. I have heard
Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal, jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noise of mouse and jerboa; the laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird. I have seen
Grey necks twisting, rat tails twining, in the thick light of dawn. I have eaten
Smooth creatures still living, with the strong salt taste of living things under the sea; I have tasted
The living lobster, the crab, the oyster, the whelk and the prawn; and they live and spawn in my bowels, and my bowels dissolve in the light of dawn.
Between “jackal, jackass, jackdaw” and those dissolving bowels, it is hard not to see Eliot’s sly irony, his inveterate dry skepticism, even in the grave and holy proceedings of this martyrdom. There is a strain of Decadence here that the admirer of John Webster (who “saw the skull beneath the skin”) cannot eradicate, however much he wishes that he were, as he once put it, “classicist in aesthetics.”
In short, Murder in the Cathedral is a remarkable study of the psychological character of the martyr, and even the irreligious can read it for its insights. The tempters pretty clearly exist in Becket’s mind, but I wonder if the whole play is not best construed as a mental projection, so that the chorus too is a part of his psyche: his wailing anima, as Jung would say. No less than Hamlet, about which Eliot was so ambivalent because it hit so close to home, this play is a dramatization of the problem of trying to act when the intellect counsels “detachment from action,” to quote Eliot’s 1951 essay, “Poetry and Drama,” from which I borrow my epigraph. The Christian hero must act “out of time,” rather than in it, must somehow act within time as if within eternity. Eliot ends the paragraph from which I quote this way:
For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.
We are being told to ascend from purgatory to paradise, to leave poetry behind and seek God. But even if we cannot, the virtue of an art that produces “serenity, stillness and reconciliation” is perhaps underrated in this time of mandatory subversion. It is, of course, an open question as to whether or not we can leave this blood-, death-, bowel-, and worm-haunted play with a feeling of calm. To end with its most famous single line, spoken by Becket to the agitated chorus as he consoles them with the thought that they will forget their sufferings later, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”