You’ll often find me in my office here with a cup of tea reading a history of something or ‘nother. It might be a true history, i.e. Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce, which I’m reading now, or it might be a fiction based on history, as is the case with Murder in the Cathedral. Now, fiction based on historic figures can be a bleedin’ tricky proposition. As James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter, said in his introduction to the play, “Historians and storytellers don’t have much in common, but they do share this: the past, once it gets hold of you, does actually come alive. For scholars, this is troublesome. For writers, it’s the good stuff.” And for readers, too, it can be the good stuff!
Politics are always a bitch. And Murder in the Cathedral demonstrates this reality quite well. Generally thought to be the best of T.S. Eliot’s five plays, Murder in the Cathedral is about the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Beckett in 1170 in his cathedral. But it’s really about the now long-concluded struggle in Britain between secular and religious authorities that was still raging at that point in time. It is a dramatization in verse of the murder of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury, which over the years has become more important than it really was. In stark truth, it was really a rogue killing by soldiers who thought, mistakenly, that they were carrying out what their King wanted done. Beckett died from an act of stupidity, not from, as popular history has suggested, an act of the Crown! Henry II could be stupid and easy to anger, but even he knew the danger of murdering an archbishop.
Murder in the Cathedral is a play in two acts, not a long play by any means, but a complicated play nonetheless. The script runs under a hundred pages, and is told mostly in verse. Yes, verse. This play is one of the few contemporary plays set primarily in verse! The two acts consist of the first, which is set about a month before the murder, when Becket has returned to Canterbury from exile in France, and the second, which details the actual murder itself. As an interlude between them stands Beckett’s Christmas Day sermon from that year; the second act also includes an interlude, in which the four knights who killed Beckett plead their case to the audience. These interludes are in prose, and the rest of the play is blank verse. Watch for the peasants commenting on why kings and archbishops matter not a whit! It’s a very concise summation of why a peasant cares not to be noticed, nor to take notice.
The murder itself is far less important to Eliot — and to the course of history — than his belief, shared to this day by most of the British people, that not even the king was above the law, and the rather strange cult which developed quickly around Beckett upon his death, which survived until well after the Reformation. As such, the play is mainly centered on Beckett, not Henry. The core of the play takes place during the few days leading up to the murder of Beckett, whose internal struggle over the nature of his opposition to Henry II is the main thesis of the play. Having come into conflict with secular authority, Archbishop Beckett is visited by a succession of tempters, who variously urge him to avoid conflict or to seek martyrdom. All of this is a reflection of Eliot’s own Anglo-Catholic beliefs. Is Beckett willing to accept his death for the good of the Church? Do the four knights who killed Beckett truly understand what they’re doing? This was one of the most important developments in medieval England, as it has shaped the fabric of Britain to this very day.
I’ve never seen Murder in the Cathedral performed as a play, but it should make a compelling performance — certainly the film made in 1952 was. What I do know is that it reads well, which is rare indeed for the script of a political drama. Not as well as James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, but a stirring affair nonetheless. Keep in mind that the dialogue in Murder in the Cathedral has much in common with the structure of medieval mystery and miracle plays. Just look at the words of the four tempters who come to Beckett in the first act in an attempt to persuade him to renew his friendship with the king. To my ear as a musician, it feels like a call and response. Like Goldman in The Lion in Winter, Eliot is not attempting to be historically accurate or even all that convincing — actual conversation never sounds the way the characters speak in either of these plays.
If you can find a copy, get The Film of Murder in the Cathedral (T. S. Eliot and George Hoellering, London, Faber and Faber, 1952), and read the preface by Eliot, in which he touches upon the differences betwixt the play as theatre piece and the play as the basis for a film. (Eliot provides the voice of the Fourth Tempter. He also notes that a recording of him reading the entire play was made! What a lovely recording that would be to hear!) I suspect Murder in The Cathedral is a much more difficult play to successfully undertake than The Lion in Winter as it’s a darker, more intellectual affair. The Lion in Winter is simply politics at the family level, but this is politics at a much more elevated level.
(H.J. Goulden for ‘Friends of Canterbury Cathedral’, 1935; myriad re-printings over past 75 years)