restricted access Satiric Theme and Structure in Murder in the Cathedral
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SATIRIC THEME AND STRUCTURE IN MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL THE MOOT QUESTION WITH WHICH CRITICISM of Eliot's Canterbury play seems inevitably to grapple is whether in the light of its Christian and historical context it can be called a tragedy, and be valued as such. In comparing the play with Tennyson's Becket, John Peter for example puts a higher value on Murder in the Cathedral; but if Becket succeeds only in trying to be a kind of Shakespearean tragedy, yet Eliot's play would seem to suffer in comparison with it on one point: the idea of Thomas suffering a "tragic" death just does not come off.l Making the same comparison, Grover Smith suggests that even though "remission of guilt, as well as retribution, comes within the scope of tragedy, one would still be nearly right in designating Murder in the Cathedral a comedy."2 If the play is not clearly tragedy or comedy, then it is, according to critical commonplace, something of both, modeled after Greek ritual and medieval morality.s The incidental humor, in Thomas' dialogues with the Tempters and the Knights, has frequently been remarked upon by critics, apart from their felt responsibility to provide synopses of the play. But no one to my knowledge has yet suggested that these dialogues constitute an expressly satiric theme and a satiric structure. I do not propose to make a generic identification once and for all. Theorizing about satire, like criticism of Eliot's play, is a matter of debate and legitimating claims, predilections for "pure" literary structure vying with interests in authors' intention and in deciphering ideology.4 I would have to concede that satire is a "mixed animal" anyway. Nor do I want to simplify the large implications of the play's central theme, though an extended identification of it outside the structure of the play seems to me unnecessary to a literary argument about it. The issue of the genre t"Murder in the Cathedral," Sewanee Review, LXI (1953), 362-383. 2 T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays (Chicago, 1956), p. 184. 3 David E. Jones says "Eliot's indebtedness to the form of medieval English drama is not great. . • . For the form he is mainly indebted to Greek tragedy." The Plays of T. S. Eliot (London, 1960), p. 51. Carol H. Smith says that "the events in Murder in the Cathedral are presented as neither tragic nor comic, but Christian, for Thomas goes to glory although he suffers martyrdom. In Eliot's conception of drama, neither laughter nor tears is the desired response, but rather peace which passeth understanding." T. S. Eliot's Dramatic Theory and Practice (Princeton, 1963), p. 102. 4 For a representative range of theoretical views, see "Norms, Moral or Other. in Satire: A Symposium," Satire Newsletter II (1964), 2-25, and the second symposium on satiric personae, III (1966). 89-153. 387 388 MODERN DRAMA February of the whole play cannot be attended to by a consideration of onlysome of its parts. Nonetheless, I do say that Thomas' dialogues with the Tempters and the Knights are crucial to an understanding of the central theme and the structure of the play; they can be identified as; an imaginative mode, which Northrop Frye calls Menippean satire,. written in a contemporary context which makes it possible.5 Of course, the dramatic action hinges on the prospect of whether and how Thomas, on behalf of the authority of the Church, is going: to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the State. The Cathedral setting is, as Francis Fergusson says, "neither Canterbury in 1935 nor Canter-· bury in 1170 but a scheme referring to both, and also to a social order like that which Sophoclean tragedy reflects."6 The conflict of religious: and social values in an expressly literary context has a history which goes back to pre-Christian eras. Antigone, in transgressing the laws of Creon's society, committed an act at once holy and criminal. Creonchastizes her on social grounds in that she "dared defy the law.'" But on her side, Antigone committed a crime of piety in obeying the "immortal unrecorded laws of God." Creon, for his part, in spite...