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“Peace” and “Unbar the Door”: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Some Stoic Forebears Edna G. Sharoni T. S. Eliot’s role in tracing and analyzing the Stoic elements in the works of his predecessors has been crucial in deepening the perception of modem readers. Thus it seems only fitting to explore his own Murder in the Cathedral for points of compari­ son with the poetic dramas of Stoicism of Chapman, Shake­ speare, and Milton, and to see how the learned literary critic in Eliot has merged with the sensitive poet and with the politically aware, fervently Christian dramatist to synthesize a twentiethcentury play fraught with Christian-Stoic meaning. While the values and point of view of Christian Stoicism are, in varying degree, the rock-bottom foundation of the worlds of Bussy, Lear, and Samson, their authors took pains to construct an artistic milieu in which the overt settings are other than “Christian”: they are secular, pagan, and Jewish, respectively. In Eliot’s play, written expressly for performance at the Canterbury Festival of June, 1935, there is no attempt to divorce situation from philoso­ phy, outer form from inner meaning; rather the two are insepara­ bly linked in firm matrimonial bond, and only by scrutinizing the process of Becket’s ascent to martyrdom from the standpoint of Eliot’s orthodox Anglo-Catholicism can one hope to discern the underlying purpose of the drama. In pursuing his avowedly didactic intent, especially as evinced in the Archbishop’s prose sermon in the Interlude, Eliot seems to follow far more closely in the footsteps of Chapman than of Shakespeare or Milton. In­ deed, the tragic impact of the play is often flawed because of the poet’s tendency to subordinate action to message, dramatic wholeness to poetic ratiocination. Eliot himself provides a significant clue to his design in his 135 136 Comparative Drama essay “Religion and Literature,” which, as it appeared in 1935, can surely be assumed to be concerned with many of the same is­ sues and to reveal the same outlook as Murder in the Cathedral: “What I do wish to affirm is that the whole of modem literature is corrupted by what I call Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life; of something which I assume to be our primary concern.”! This deeply held conviction that the swpematural is the all-important factor in man’s life thus ex­ plains Eliot’s “preoccupation with the nature of sainthood”2 in the Quartets and in his other plays, as well as in Murder in the Cathedral. It also lays him open to the charge, levelled against him by Harold Laski and others, that he is guilty of “an abandon­ ment of the positive life,” and that “he has gone into self-chosen exile because he fears the battle which is waging.”3 Can Christian martyrdom help to cast light upon any of the age-old problems of man’s destiny with which tragedy has long been concerned? We seem here to return once more to the controversy of the active versus the contemplative life as debated by the Stoics of all ages. In structure as well as in meaning, though perhaps not in its overall conclusion, Murder in the Cathedral presents a host of striking parallels with Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Adopting many of the conventions of Greek tragedy, both playwrights use irregular verse, and both employ the device of the chorus for comment, counterpoint, interpretation, and the provision of necessary background material.4 But Milton’s chorus is rather static, while Eliot’s progresses in understanding.5 The messenger, too, appears in both plays, though Milton’s messenger functions more in accordance with the decorum of Greek tragedy by describing and reacting to Samson’s olf-stage death; in Eliot, the messenger is far less functional and Becket is murdered on­ stage, albeit in a ritualistic, symbolic manner far removed from the goriness of the Elizabethans. The strong Miltonic influence upon Eliot is abundantly attested to by the title of his earlier fragments, “Sweeney Agonistes” with its “Prologue” and “Agon,” and by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 135-153
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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