A verse drama by T.S. Eliot, 1935.

As Eliot sank ever more deeply into his Anglo-Catholic schtick and he no longer had Pound around to cut the fat and grain filler out of his work, he turned to writing verse drama. He wanted to reach people. He probably wanted to be Shakespeare.

Murder in the Cathedral was the first of these verse dramas, and the only one I can even begin to tolerate. The title is intended to evoke a whodunnit; it may be a ponderous Eliotian attempt at a "witticism". The joke, such as it is, is that the murderee is Archbishop St. Thomas à Becket, the killers are some of Henry II's knights, and the scene of the crime is Canterbury Cathedral, anno domini 1170. If you happened to be hanging around Canterbury in 1935, this was a big win because Canterbury Cathedral is where the thing was first performed. (If you were hanging around Canterbury in 1170, call me; we should talk).

The background: King Henry II wanted to gain influence over the Church in England. He appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury to that end because Becket was his boy. Once in office, Becket's loyalty shifted to the Church. The two came into conflict over the practice of trying clergy in ecclesiastical courts for civil offenses, and Becket fled to France. While in France he continued to defy Henry, going so far as to excommunicate some of Henry's more loyal bishops.

At the beginning of the play, Becket returns from his seven-year exile in France. He goes straight to Canterbury, arriving in time for Act I. Four Tempters tempt him. Meanwhile, Henry has put on his John Stanfa hat and made an offhand remark to some of his knights about how convenient it would be if Becket weren't around any more. The knights draw the obvious conclusion about what he means, and they depart for Canterbury. When they arrive, Becket explains that he is loyal to a higher power than the king. They reply that they aren't, and they kill him at the altar.

The bloodshed is followed by a flourish of self-exculpatory forensic rhetoric from the knights: They argue persuasively that they've done the right thing, but not too persuasively because the author doesn't agree. Exeunt knights; some priests pray at each other and asperse the audience; good night, good night.

Historically, Henry disavowed the whole thing, the knights fell into disgrace, and Becket was canonized.

The whole thing suffers from Late Eliot Syndrome: No tack is left unsledgehammered. He lectures us about his points rather than demonstrating or illustrating them, and the writing is often less than inspired. Still, it's better than his other verse dramas: The form and the language are at least appropriate to the material, and the material holds up under the weight of the Message. Eliot later attempted to pile similar Messages onto midcentury English bourgeois melodrama -- in verse! It didn't work.

At the height of his powers, Eliot might have done something really interesting with Murder in the Cathedral.

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