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  • The Formal and Moral Challenges of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral
  • James Matthew Wilson (bio)

T. S. Eliot’s great play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) challenges its audience on several fronts. It is a difficult play, whose formal artifices, typical of modernist literature though they are, often prove unappealing or confusing to contemporary audiences.1 But such artistic properties serve the larger spiritual purpose of the play, and that purpose, too, may well confuse or irritate. In the work, Eliot confronts his own early intellectual influences, Irving Babbitt and Matthew Arnold. He challenges his audience to reconsider its assumptions about the nature of morality, the scope of politics, and the legitimacy of the modern state, whether in its liberal, fascist, or communist formations. For its audience in our day no less than that of the 1930s, Murder seeks to wrench one out of a complacency with the “unreality” of our everyday lives, to force us into a kind of crisis in which we may accept and bear witness to the will of God—or refuse it. Precisely because the play is challenging in its form and style, the substantive challenge of its content may be lost on the contemporary reader, if its historical contexts and intellectual genesis are not first examined. In this article, I shall consider both of these things in order to provide a reading of the play that emphasizes the stark moral, or religious, gauntlets Eliot throws down in each of its two parts. [End Page 167]

Titled after the fashion of the mystery novels Eliot enjoyed, Murder’s plot would seem to be the stuff of a simple entertainment. Eliot himself provides a pithy synopsis in his retrospective essay, “Poetry and Drama.” In Murder, Eliot writes, “A man comes home, foreseeing that he will be killed, and he is killed.”2 Accumulated upon this brief action, however, is a panoply of detail that entirely departs from the conventions of the mystery novel, most of which seems to suspend the inevitable death of Bishop Thomas Becket without actually creating the feeling of suspense. This includes, as a central device of the play, a chorus of the women of Canterbury that imitates the role of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, while especially emphasizing its dramatic and real impotence: “For us, the poor, there is no action, / But only to wait and to witness.”3 Also included are devices that resemble medieval psychomachia, wherein Becket is confronted by four internal Tempters, and subsequently killed by four stylized Knights, who, in part 2, break the faintly medieval decorum of the play to speak in the frank terms of a modern English politician. This mingling of archaic and modern political rhetoric is typical of high modernist art, especially the drama of W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats, and may test the patience of its audience. Eliot seems to have appreciated that these formal challenges might result in boredom rather than interest or awe; he later confessed,

My play was to be produced for a rather special kind of audience—an audience of those serious people who go to [theater and arts] “festivals” and expect to have to put up with poetry—though perhaps on this occasion some of them were not quite prepared for what they got. And finally it was a religious play, and people who go deliberately to a religious play at a religious festival expect to be patiently bored and to satisfy themselves with the feeling that they have done something meritorious.4

The author seemed to appreciate—with a sigh—that the play may at least serve as penance for the pious, if it did not appeal to the pretensions of the consumers of modern art. [End Page 168]

The actual reception of Murder belies Eliot’s posterior doubts about it. The play enjoyed a critically acclaimed first run at the Canterbury Arts Festival of 1935, followed immediately by an extended run at a small theater in London, followed later by a tour of England, a tour in the United States, and, before long, a revival production on Broadway. Though this last was brief and was not regarded as a...


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