Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
Nobel Prize Winners
T. S. Eliot's short play, Murder in the Cathedral, was originally written for the Canterbury festival and tells the story of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett (1118-70) by Henry II's henchmen. It is essentially an extended lyrical consideration of the proper residence of temporal and spiritual power, of the obligations of religious believers to the commands of the State, and of the possibility that piety can be selfish unto sin.
Beckett is one of the more interesting characters from history. Rising from a lowly birth in the Cheapside section of London, largely thanks to the patronage of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1154 he became both archdeacon of Canterbury and Henry's chancellor. Theobald expected him to defend the prerogatives of the Church, but instead he became fast friends with Henry, partook of a sybaritic lifestyle, and extended the power of the State at the expense of the Church. So when Theobald was succeeded by Beckett, Henry expected to have a compliant ally running the Church, but instead Beckett adopted an ascetic lifestyle and became a fearsome defender of the rights of the Church. After dividing on many minor issues, matters came to a head when Henry tried exerting the authority of Crown courts to punish clerics who had been convicted by ecclesiastical courts. Henry determined to reign him in, put Beckett on trial for misappropriating funds while serving as Chancellor, and Beckett was forced to flee to France.
The play opens as Beckett returns to Canterbury in December of 1170, after seven years in exile. Four Tempters approach him, separately, and offer him reasons why he should cease to resist Henry. The first Tempter offers the prospect of physical safety if he will go along to get along :
The safest beast is not the one that roars most loud,
The second offers worldly power, riches and fame in the service of the King :
King commands. Chancellor richly rules,
The third offers him an alliance with the barons and the opportunity to work against the King :
For a powerful party
The final Tempter, who may be the Devil himself, offers Beckett the chance to supplant the King, but with a caveat :
Fare forward to the end.
Supreme, in this land?
Supreme, but for one.
And so Beckett resists this blandishment just as he has the others, but then the fourth Tempter cannily tempts him with his own dream, the desire for martyrdom :
What can compare with glory of Saints
Here Thomas Beckett realizes the peril of his own soul :
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
If he selfishly seeks martyrdom out of a personal desire for immortality, rather than selflessly accepting the risk of death while defending what he believes is right, then he will commit treason against the very Lord he is supposedly serving.
In Part Two of the play Beckett is confronted and murdered by Four Knights, acting at the behest, explicit or otherwise, of Henry. Beckett had further antagonized Henry, upon his return, by opposing the coronation of Henry's son. This prompted the King to his infamous utterance : "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" On December 29, 1170, four knights of his court assassinated Beckett inside the Canterbury cathedral, turning an already heinous act into a cause celebre throughout Christendom. Eliot uses this section of the play to explore the possibility that Beckett was actually wrong in his argument with Henry.
In their initial confrontation the Knights are quite worked up, but Beckett answers reasonably :
THE THREE KNIGHTS :
You are the Archbishop in revolt against the King;
This is not true.
But is that "Saving my order" which sticks in the craw of royalists, the idea that Beckett owes a higher duty to the Church, on some things, than to the Crown. Just as the Knights are about to strike him down they are interrupted by some priests and Beckett has time to prepare himself for the now inevitable end, though the priests urge him to hide :
PRIESTS (Severally) :
My Lord you must not stop here. To the minster.
All my life they have been coming, these feet.
All my life
Beckett can now sense that he is approaching the proper attitude of selflessness, that he is truly accepting martyrdom in defense of the ideas and ideals of the Church, rather than selfishly seeking martyrdom for personal reasons of fame and glory. So when the Knights return and the priests propose barring the doors, he says :
Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!
Indeed, so long as the Church stood for a higher set of ideals, separate from petty political concerns, it did endure and served a vital function in society. This endurance depended on the willingness of men like Beckett to sacrifice their all for these ideals, eschewing political power and wealth and running the risk of offending the temporal powers.
Eliot, however, does not leave it at that. He also allows the murderers to have their say, and they do so in a direct conversation with the audience :
[The KNIGHTS, having completed the murder, advance
FIRST KNIGHT :
We beg you to give us your
attention foe a few moments. We know that you may be disposed to
As they put their case, it becomes clear that this murder is not self-serving either :
THIRD KNIGHT :
We are not getting anything out of this. We have much more
to lose than to gain.
When we consider the unification of power in the hands of central authorities which the forging of the modern State required, few can argue with the point that the Archbishop and his defense of the Church courts did indeed need to be "put out of the way." We may, we must, disapprove of their methods, but the Knights should be seen as just as much duty-bound as Beckett.
It is this kind of interplay and the confrontation between Church and State which informed society at it's healthiest. It was men like Beckett and the Knights, willing to sacrifice even their lives in discharging their respective duties, who created the great Western institutions. So long as there were men like Beckett for the State to reckon with, to stand as moral examples and human rebukes to the power of the State, there existed a serious counterbalance to the worst excesses of that power. Indeed, such was the weight of Christian revulsion against this murder that Henry had to scourge himself publicly to atone for it.
Today we still have our King Henrys, trying to aggrandize power to the central authority, and we have many henchmen, willing to serve the all powerful State, though few will accept the consequences of their actions as willingly as did these Knights. But we have virtually destroyed the countervailing institutions, such as the Church, which once made it possible to hold rulers responsible for their actions. Pope John Paul II has tried mightily to restore the credibility of the Catholic Church as an institution of serious moral authority, but his own clerics and certainly the clerics of other denominations of Christianity have pretty much abandoned this mission. Religion today is less about obedience to moral precepts than about social gathering, some kind of mushy spirituality and a bland liberalism which manifests itself in opposition to capitalism and support for huge government spending programs.
All of this came home to roost most graphically in the Clinton Impeachment unpleasantness. In the absence of any accepted societal moral standards, the ruler had virtually no restraints on his behavior. His henchmen defended him out of a simple interest in power, without having to consider the ethical consequences of his or their actions. And there was no institution with sufficient moral credibility to call anyone to account for themselves, particularly after the Carvillians had finished smearing the Independent Prosecutor. Meanwhile, on all sides, men succumbed to the soul-killing temptation which Beckett discerned :
The last temptation is the greatest treason
Regardless of whether the President should or should not have been impeached when the issue is considered in the abstract, most people's opinions on the matter were driven by purely partisan concerns. This is just one example of how timely this play remains. It's not quite as good as Robert Bolt's Man for all Seasons (see Orrin's review), but I highly recommend it.
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-OBIT : T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76 (Tuesday, January 5, 1965, NY Times)
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MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL:
THOMAS BECKETT (born 1118, Cheapside, London d. Dec. 29, 1170)
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