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Murder in the Cathedral–T.S. Eliot

After productions of Everyman and Dr. Faustus, the people of the Canterbury Drama Festival turned to living poets to create their next plays. The first of these commissions has turned into a classic: T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. In 1170, four knights followed King Henry II’s question, “Who will rid me of this pestilent priest?” and headed to Canterbury to do the deed.

Why does the murder of a cleric some 850 years ago still demand our attention? Why, over 750 years after the fact did Eliot find it to be the stuff for his commissioned play? Of course, part of the answer to this question lies in the location of the theatre within the Canterbury Cathedral precincts. But this isn’t the entire answer. The death of Beckett resonates over the centuries because it represents the eternal struggle between loyalty to man (or the king) and loyalty to God. This is the same dichotomy that plays out as Peter and John stand before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:19-20.

For Becket, the challenge does not lie at the point of a sword but on the razor edge between following one’s own will and that of God. In John Milton’s world, Paradise Regained comes not at the crucifixion but after Jesus’ temptation. Like Christ, Becket faces and resists his tempters. In that moment, the victory is won. His echo his resolve:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain.
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

As the play ends and the audience watches the four knights come to the front of the stage to plead their cases, one gets the sense of Becket as the victor, freed from the constraints of life, and the knights as the defeated, attempting to convince anyone, perhaps even themselves, that their actions were just.

Posted in English Literature, Modernism.

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