Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot

To wrap up Modern March, I saved the play "Murder in the Cathedral" for last.   Eliot first wrote it in 1935 for the Canterbury Festival, and subsequently lengthened and changed it a bit.  The edition I read was the 4th and final, from 1938 (I presume, since my paperback is from 1963).

This is a dramatization of the murder of Thomas a Becket in December of 1170, by knights of Henry II.  The form is much like a Greek play; most of the lines are in verse, and there is a chorus of poor women of Canterbury.  It's also, I think, like a medieval mystery play.  It is not divided into acts, but into two parts and an interlude.

First we see Thomas return from seven years' exile on the Continent.  After the women and the priests, he is assailed by three tempters who try to turn him from his path.  I thought the tempters were really interesting; each speaks in a different poetic style, and the second one talks in the alliterative Anglo-Saxon form you see in Beowulf.

The interlude consists of the Archbishop's Christmas sermon on the peace of Christ and martyrdom, foreshadowing his own fate.

In the second part, knights arrive with the intention of killing Thomas.  Each makes his case, and each is meant to mirror one of the tempters.  Despite the priests' pleading, Thomas is adamant that he will not resist his murder.  After the deed is done, the tone changes completely; each knight steps forward and addresses the audience in the style and tone of a modern politician/bureaucrat.  I thought that was just wonderful!  The play then goes back to the priests and chorus.

As ever, I don't understand Eliot much, but I did enjoy reading the play.  Someday I will tackle "Prufrock" and then, the summit of my ambition: the "Four Quartets."


  1. I keep meaning to read this in concert with the Christopher Fry play about Thomas a Becket, and I keep forgetting! Wouldn't that be interesting though, to read the two of them side by side? I think Christopher Fry and TS Eliot were contemporaries, and TS Eliot got all famous famous, and Christopher Fry is gradually being forgotten (to my complete sadness).

  2. I love this play! How it echoes ancient Greek tragedies. How pedestrian the knights are. How St Thomas is fighting his own vanity. I find it haunting.

  3. Now I have to go find the Christopher Fry play! What a great idea, Jenny.

    I agree, Faith. I would love to see this performed sometime...


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