Literature

A Summary and Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral is often called T. S. Eliot’s first play, but technically, it wasn’t even his second. But before we address this, let’s take a closer look at the play itself. Murder in the Cathedral is probably Eliot’s best-known play, and his only completed work of historical drama.

Eliot himself later summarised the ‘plot’ of Murder in the Cathedral as being about a man coming home, foreseeing that he will be killed, before being killed. Nevertheless, the success of the play is in how Eliot sets up this inevitable conclusion and stages the central figure of Thomas Beckett, so a slightly more detailed summary may help before we offer a critical analysis.

Murder in the Cathedral: summary

Eliot concentrates the action of the play on December 1170, the month of Thomas Becket’s murder. Becket has returned to England following his exile in France, necessitated by his heated disagreements with the King of England, Henry II. Henry and Becket had formerly been close friends, and the King had appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in the hope that his friend would prove a loyal servant of the Crown. However, Becket came to regard his spiritual office as far superior to any worldly royal authority, and the two men fell out.

Drawing on ancient Greek drama, Eliot uses a Chorus – in this case, a group of poor women – to mediate between the action of the play and the audience who witness it. Early on in the play, the Chorus pray that Becket will return to France, following a premonition that disaster will befall him if he remains in England. Even Becket foretells his own death.

Four Tempters try to bribe Becket away from his religious course. The first reminds him of his carefree youth and friendship with Henry. The second reminds him that before he was Archbishop, he was Lord Chancellor, enjoying much political power. The third tries to persuade Becket to stir up a revolt against the King. The fourth tempts Becket with martyrdom and all of the holy glory that stems from giving one’s life for the Church. Becket rejects all of these for various reasons – even the last one. Famously, he asserts that seeking martyrdom for his own glory would be to do ‘the right deed for the wrong reason’.

An Interlude follows Becket’s encounter with these four Tempters. This interlude focuses on Becket’s Christmas Day sermon, which once again prophesies Becket’s own martyrdom: an event he sees as succeeding a long line of previous Christian martyrdoms.

Then, on 29 December, four Knights turn up at Canterbury Cathedral, denouncing Becket for disloyalty to his King and demanding that he return to his exile in France. Becket refuses to abandon his Church and his parishioners, and the Knights leave in order to eat. While they’re gone, the Chorus and Priests at the Cathedral urge Becket to flee to safety in France. Becket refuses, and also rejects their request that he bar the doors of the Cathedral so the Knights cannot return. Indeed, Becket demands that the doors be flung wide open: he is actively welcoming his martyrdom.

The four Knights return and kill Becket, leaving the Chorus to mourn his death while also praising his act of martyrdom. The Knights turn to the audience and request their forgiveness for the murder of Becket.

Murder in the Cathedral: analysis

T. S. Eliot’s plays are not nearly as celebrated as his poetry, but Murder in the Cathedral was, among other things, an important bridge between his early and mid-career poetry and his final great poetic achievement, the sequence known as Four Quartets, which he wrote between 1935 and 1942. Indeed, lines from an early draft of Murder in the Cathedral were even repurposed for ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the Four Quartets, which Eliot completed in the same year as Murder in the Cathedral premiered.

The play’s premiere has an interesting background. Eliot was commissioned to write Murder in the Cathedral for performance in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent: the very same building in which Thomas Becket’s martyrdom had taken place almost 800 years earlier. The play was first performed by candlelight in the Chapter House on 15 June 1935, as part of the Canterbury Festival.

As Robin Grove notes in an illuminating chapter on Eliot’s work for the theatre, in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot (Cambridge Companions to Literature), Murder in the Cathedral might be analysed as a work of drama which celebrates martyrdom, in contrast to George Bernard Shaw’s earlier medieval play, Saint Joan (1923), which had sought to demystify Joan of Arc’s martyrdom. Eliot, who had converted to Anglo-Catholicism (i.e., High Church Anglicanism) in 1927, wants to show how Beckett’s submission to something greater than himself is a noble and courageous religious act.

However, as is made clear by the most famous and oft-quoted line from the play – Becket’s own statement about refusing to do ‘the right deed for the wrong reason’ – Becket must not be martyred in pursuit of his own glory. It must be done for God, and for the Church, if done at all. But this does not mean that we should view Murder in the Cathedral as ‘only’ about Christian faith, any more than Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is just about whether an individual should accept the authority of Henry VIII as Head of the Church in England. Both plays are more broadly about the individual’s case of conscience, and whether we should oppose tyranny and immorality by actively fighting it (when we know we are likely to lose) or by taking a quiet stand which involves our becoming a sacrificial victim. There is, in other words, more than one way to ‘oppose’ something.

Although Becket is obviously placed centre-stage (literally) in Murder in the Cathedral, it is worth observing that he doesn’t appear in the play’s title, in stark contrast to Tennyson’s earlier dramatising of the same event (his 1884 verse-drama Becket) or Jean Anouilh’s later Becket or the Honour of God (1959; memorably filmed as Becket with Richard Burton in the title role, opposite Peter O’Toole as Henry II). Martyrdom involves a degree of self-erasure or abnegation, rather than a glorification of the individual.

Not only this, but Eliot keeps something of Becket, as a paragon of the Christian martyr, remote and unknowable. His true motives, in fact, remain unknown to us, shrouded in mystery and illuminated only within his own conscience. Eliot’s plays are often criticised for their lack of dramatic tension, or even action of any real kind, and his characters for their paucity of psychological depth. But in Murder in the Cathedral this seems deliberate, and entirely appropriate to the play as a kind of ritualistic piece, which has much more in common with classical drama than with modern theatre, or even (despite Eliot’s use of iambic pentameter) with the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre he admired so much.

In this connection, observe not only the use of a Chorus but also the play’s adherence to the Three Dramatic Unities as set out by Aristotle: the unity of time (a few weeks in December 1170), place (Canterbury Cathedral), and action (Becket’s murder). And, of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that the play was conceived as a piece of drama to be performed in the Cathedral itself, rather than in a more conventional setting (although it later transferred to London).

It is worth also noting that it was not Eliot’s first play, as such: in the 1920s and early 1930s he had tried, unsuccessfully, to write two modernist plays, Sweeney Agonistes (which, its subtitle announced, was a kind of ‘Aristophanic melodrama’) and Coriolan. And then, in 1934, Eliot was commissioned to write a pageant-play for the rebuilding of a number of London churches. This play, The Rock, which remains one of Eliot’s least-known works (and out of print), paved the way for the ceremonial and ritualistic qualities of Murder in the Cathedral.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.