T. S. Eliot’s

Murder in the Cathedral

Teresa Gibert

Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was T. S. Eliot’s first full-length drama and his only history play. Invited by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, to write a play for the 1935 Canterbury Festival of Music and Drama, Eliot chose to feature as his protagonist Archbishop Thomas Becket, whose assassination at the hands of four English knights in the service of King Henry II had taken place in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This well-known historical event had also inspired other plays, some of which had been presented at previous editions of the same festival, including Tennyson’s Becket (staged in 1932 and 1933). Unlike earlier dramatic treatments of the subject, Eliot’s play focused on the religious themes of temptation and martyrdom instead of exploiting the more common topic of the confrontation between Henry II and his former Chancellor and friend, or dwelling at length on the conflicts between royal and ecclesial authority. Starting as an occasional stage production specifically designed to be performed for a Christian audience in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral rather than for the general public in a conventional theatrical setting, Murder in the Cathedral became Eliot’s most successful and endurable play.

Murder in the Cathedral has often been considered in the light of Eliot’s theory for religious drama and his recurrent comments on the close relationship between drama and liturgy. In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), speaker E expresses Eliot’s own opinion that “the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass” (400). Accordingly, the two acts of Murder in the Cathedral follow the balanced pattern of the Anglo-Catholic Mass, which is divided into two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This parallelism is reinforced by the inclusion of a prominent structural device, Becket’s Christmas Eve sermon, which is strategically placed as an Interlude between Part I and Part II of the play just as a homily is delivered in the middle of the Mass.

Apart from extensively drawing on liturgical and biblical sources, Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral under the influence of the anonymous Everyman, which he hailed as the greatest English morality play in his address “Religious Drama: Medieval and Modern” (1937) and whose versification he had “kept in mind,” a literary debt he would acknowledge when he discussed the composition of his play in his 1950 lecture “Poetry and Drama” (597). The use of these old sources of inspiration partly helped him to evoke the atmosphere of a distant age and a neutral language style slightly reminiscent of twelfth-century speech without actually resorting to either Anglo-Saxon or Norman French. In addition, Eliot incorporated and heavily depended upon the Greek dramatic element of the Chorus, a conventional device he had employed in The Rock (1934). The Chorus of the Women of Canterbury that opens, closes and intervenes at other crucial moments in Murder in the Cathedral does not merely give information, “bear witness” and comment upon events. It performs the complex role of speaking to and for the audience because it functions as a collective “character” which not only the author explicitly identified with himself but also the audience can easily identify and sympathize with. As we are encouraged to respond to the intense emotional suffering of these ordinary women, we feel invited to be actively involved in the performance and end up sharing their gradual understanding of the significance of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Likewise, we become participants in the play as we are cast in the role of the members of the Archbishop’s 1170 Christmas congregation, together with the Chorus, and thus enter into a special relationship with Becket, who addresses us directly in order to enlighten us with his preaching about the paradoxes of birth and death, war and peace, rejoicing and mourning “at once for the same reason” (260).

In “Poetry and Drama” Eliot summarized the straightforward plot of Murder in the Cathedral as follows, “A man comes home, foreseeing that he will be killed, and he is killed”; he also explained that he “did not want to increase the number of characters” (597). Further to those already mentioned, there is a Messenger (who brings the news of Becket’s triumphal return to England after seven years of exile in France), three Priests (who represent three degrees of understanding of the theological meaning of Becket’s death), four Tempters (who, in turn, offer worldly pleasures, political power by renewing friendship with the King, social power by rebelling against the King, and an everlasting spiritual power over people by seeking martyrdom out of pride) and four Knights (who are instruments of evil and bear the real names of the murderers, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Traci, and Richard Brito). Leaving aside the allegorical Tempters, the other three groups of characters in the play represent the three estates: clergy (the Priests), nobility (the Knights) and commoners (the Chorus).

In spite of choosing a suitable subject matter for a drama written entirely in verse, Eliot shifted to prose in Becket’s sermon and in the final speeches of the Knights, who comically justify the murder in a burlesque scene where much of the humour is derived from the way they suddenly leave the medieval setting and step into the modern world of their audience to give their unconvincing reasons while always taking themselves seriously. These prose speeches stand in striking contrast with the rest of the dialogues in the play. Eliot deliberately excluded blank verse from the versification of Murder in the Cathedral as a means to avoid any echo of Shakespeare and privileged instead other verse forms, primarily the four-stress line with “some use of alliteration, and occasional unexpected rhyme” (“Poetry and Drama,” 597). Through a variety of meters and rhythms and relying on his typical visually rich imagery (e.g. the pervasive metaphor of the turning wheel, wintry images and a range of wild animals, including birds and sea creatures), he achieved very powerful aesthetical effects. Both reverting to the style of Ash Wednesday and anticipating that of Four Quartets, Murder in the Cathedral is the most poetic of Eliot’s poetic dramas.

  • Bibliography for the Study of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral
  • Ayers, Robert W.Murder in the Cathedral: A ‘Liturgy Less Divine.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 20, no. 4, 1978, pp. 579-598.
  • Badenhausen, Richard. “‘When the Poet Speaks Only for Himself’: The Chorus as ‘First Voice’ in Murder in the Cathedral.” Yeats Eliot Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 1992, pp. 78-84.
  • — . “T. S. Eliot Speaks the Body: The Privileging of Female Discourse in Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party.” Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot, edited by Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004, pp. 195-214.
  • Beckett, Carole M. “The Role of the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 53, 1979, pp. 71-76.
  • Browne, E. Martin.Murder in the Cathedral.” The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. Cambridge UP, 1970, pp. 34-79.
  • Campbell, Douglas G. “Drama as Monument: Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Liberal and Fine Arts Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1981, pp. 9-17.
  • Clark, David, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Murder in the Cathedral. Prentice Hall, 1971.
  • Cuda, Anthony. “A Precise Way of Thinking and Feeling: Eliot and Verse Drama.” The New Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding, Cambridge UP, 2016, pp. 116-30.
  • Cutts, John P. “Evidence for Ambivalence of Motives in Murder in the Cathedral.” Comparative Drama, vol. 8, no. 2, 1974, pp. 199-210.
  • Däumer, Elisabeth. “Blood and Witness: The Reception of Murder in the Cathedral in Postwar Germany.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 43, no. 1-2, 2006, pp. 79-99.
  • Davidson, Clifford. “T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and the Saint’s Play Tradition.” Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 21, no. 2, 1985, 152-169.
  • Donoghue, Dennis. “T. S. Eliot and the Complete Consort: Murder in the Cathedral.” Third Voice: Modern British and American Drama, Princeton UP, 1959, pp. 76–93.
  • — . Murder in the Cathedral. The Complete Poems and Plays. Faber and Faber, 2004, pp. 237-282.
  • — . “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry. With the Original Preface.” Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927-1929, edited by Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli and Ronald Schuchard, vol. 3 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, 8 vols, Johns Hopkins UP and Faber and Faber, 2015, pp. 396-412.
  • — . “Poetry and Drama.” A European Society, 1947-1953, edited by Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, vol. 7 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, 8 vols, Johns Hopkins UP and Faber and Faber, 2018, pp. 589-610.
  • Fergusson, Francis. “Action as Passion: Tristan and Murder in the Cathedral.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 9, no. 2, 1947, pp. 201-221.
  • Fry, Frances White. “The Centrality of the Sermon in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Christianity and Literature, vol. 27, no. 4, 1978, pp. 7-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/014833317802700405
  • Geraldine, Sister M. “The Rhetoric of Repetition in Murder in the Cathedral.” Renascence, vol. 19, no. 3, 1967, pp. 132-141.
  • Kantra, Robert A. “Satiric Theme and Structure in Murder in the Cathedral.” Modern Drama, vol. 10, no. 4, 1968, pp. 387-393. http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.10.4.387
  • Leach, Elsie.Agamemnon as a Source of Murder in the Cathedral.” Yeats Eliot Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 1991, pp. 14-18.
  • Malamud, Randy. T. S. Eliot’s Drama: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Greenwood, 1992.
  • — . “Eliot’s 1930 Plays: The Rock, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Family Reunion.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Wiley Blackwell, 2009, pp. 239-250. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444315738.ch20
  • McGill, William J. “Voices in the Cathedral: The Chorus in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Modern Drama, vol. 23, no. 3, 1980, pp. 292-296. http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.23.3.292
  • Michael, Krystyna. “Neomedievalism and the Modern Subject in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 34-43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2014.2
  • Niloufer, Harben. “T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Twentieth-Century English History Plays. Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 105-155.
  • Osborne, Carol. “Demolishing the Castle: Virginia Woolf’s Reaction to T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” CEA Critic, vol. 70, no. 3, 2008, pp. 46-55.
  • Ouchakova, Olga.Meurtre dans la Cathédrale de T. S. Eliot, un mystère moderne.” Renaissances du Mystère en Europe - Fin XIXe siècle - début XXIe siècle, edited by Anne Ducrey Tatiana Victoroff. Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2015, pp. 249-258.
  • Peter, John.Murder in the Cathedral.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 61, no. 3, 1953, pp. 362-383.
  • Pickering, Jerry V. “Form as Agent: Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 1968, pp. 198-207.
  • Pike, Lionel J. “Liturgy and Time in Counterpoint: A View of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Modern Drama, vol. 23, no. 3, 1980, pp. 277-291. https://doi.org/10.1353/mdr.1980.0015
  • Robinson, James E.Murder in the Cathedral as Theatre of the Spirit.” Religion & Literature, vol. 18, no. 2, 1986, pp. 31-45.
  • Schrock, Chad. “The Passage T. S. Eliot Took.” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism, vol. 64, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74-89. https://doi.org/10.1093/escrit/cgt033
  • Sharoni, Edna G. “‘Peace’ and ‘Unbar the Door’: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Some Stoic Forebears.” Comparative Drama, vol. 6, no. 2, 1972, pp. 135-153.
  • Smith, Carol H.The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral.” T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice: From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman. Princeton UP, 1963, pp. 76-111.
  • Speaight, Robert. “With Becket in Murder in the Cathedral.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 74, no. 1, 1966, pp. 176-187.
  • Spurr, Barry.Murder in the Cathedral (1935).” Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T. S. Eliot and Christianity. Lutterworth Press, 2010, pp. 233-240.
  • Tiwari, Shubha, and Maneesha Tiwari.Murder in the Cathedral.” The Plays of T. S. Eliot. Atlantic, 2007, pp. 80-107.
  • Vericat, Fabio L. “Church Radio: The Sermon and the CBS Broadcast of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 94-110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.43.1.06
  • Villiers, Rick de. “Mr Eliot’s Christmas Morning Service: Participation, Good Will, and Humility in Murder in the Cathedral.” Literature and Theology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2020, pp. 166-183. https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/fraa003
  • von Rosador, Kurt Tetzeli. “Christian Historical Drama: The Exemplariness of Murder in the Cathedral.” Modern Drama, vol. 29, no. 4, 1986, pp. 516-531. http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.29.4.516
  • Vozzella, Thomas R. “T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: The Dramatic Music.” The Choral Journal, vol. 44, no. 9, 2004, pp. 39-41.
  • Williams, Pieter D. “The Function of the Chorus in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” The American Benedictine Review, vol. 23, no. 4, 1972, pp. 499-511.
  • Wilson, James Matthew. “The Formal and Moral Challenges of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 167-203.
  • Wyman, Linda.Murder in the Cathedral: The Plot of Diction.” Modern Drama, vol. 19, no. 2, 1976, pp. 135-45.

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