murder in cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral is a poetic drama by T. S. Eliot that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Eliot drew heavily on the writing of Edward Grim, a clerk who was an eyewitness to the event.

The play, dealing with an individual's opposition to authority, was written at the time of rising Fascism in Central Europe, and can be taken as a protest to individuals in affected countries to oppose the Nazi regime's subversion of the ideals of the Christian Church.

Some material that the producer requested Eliot to remove or replace during the writing was transformed into the poem "Burnt Norton."


The action occurs between December 2 and December 29, 1170, chronicling the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket following his absence of seven years in France, whose internal struggle is the main thrust of the play.

The play is divided into two "parts" separated by an "interlude." Part one takes place in the Archbishop's hall on December 2, 1170. The play begins with a Chorus singing, foreshadowing the coming violence. The Chorus is a key part of the drama, with its voice changing and developing during the play, offering comments about the action and providing a link between the audience and the characters and action, as in Greek drama. Three priests are present, and they reflect on the absence of Becket and the rise of temporal power. A herald announces Becket’s arrival. Becket is immediately reflective about his coming martyrdom, which he embraces, and which is understood to be a sign of his own selfishness--his fatal weakness. The tempters arrive, three of whom parallel the Temptations of Christ.

The first tempter offers the prospect of physical safety.

Take a friend's advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

The second offers power, riches and fame in serving the King.

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?

The third tempter suggests a coalition with the barons and a chance to resist the King.

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke

Finally, a tempter who may be the devil himself, urges him to seek the glory of martyrdom.

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:

Becket responds to all of the tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

The Interlude of the play is a sermon given by Becket on Christmas morning 1170. It is a highly erudite talk about the strange contradiction that Christmas is a day both of mourning and rejoicing, which Christians also do for martyrs. We hear again Becket's thoughts about martyrdom, which are seen throughout the play. He announces at the end of his sermon, "it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr." We see in the sermon something of Becket's ultimate peace of mind, as he elects not to seek sainthood, but to accept his death as inevitable and part of a better whole.

Part II of the play takes place in the Archbishop's Hall and in the Cathedral, December 29, 1170. This part of the play is much more realistic in detail and dialog, and may be seen as akin to modern drama. Four knights arrive with "urgent business" from the king. These knights had heard the king speak of his frustration with Becket, and had interpreted this as an order to kill Becket. They accuse him of betrayal, and he claims to be loyal. He tells them to accuse him in public, but they make to attack him, but priests intervene. The priests insist that he leave and protect himself, but he refuses. The knights leave and Becket again says he is ready to die. The chorus sings that they knew this conflict was coming, that it had long been in the fabric of their lives, both temporal and spiritual. The chorus again reflects on the coming devastation. Thomas is taken to the Cathedral, where the knights break in and kill him. The chorus laments: “Clean the air! Clean the sky!," and "The land is foul, the water is foul, our beats and ourselves defiled with blood." At the close of the play, the knights step up, address audience and defend their actions very effectively. The murder was all right and for the best: it was in the right spirit, sober, and justified so that the church's power would not undermine stability and state power.

Several themes have been noted in Eliot's play, including a kind of resurrection or fertility ritual theme with a progression from conflict; to pathos, suffering and sacrificial death; to lamentation; to recognition of natural order; to glorification of God. This is from the old nature myths and rituals. Note the sophisticated use and development of chorus’s voice, from awareness and worry, to various denials and arguments, toward anger and lamentation, and finally acceptance. A first level of meaning is the contest between spiritual and temporal powers, and justification of the spiritual toward God. Also note Becket’s own personal foibles and pride set against these larger issues. Ultimately, Becket can be seen as a Christ figure, possibly reinforcing Eliot’s own commitment to Christianity of this time of his life.


First performance

George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, was instrumental in getting Eliot to work as writer with producer E. Martin Browne in producing the pagent play The Rock (1934.) Bishop Bell then asked Eliot to write another play for the Canterbury Festival in 1935. Eliot agreed to do so if Browne once again produced (he did.) The first performance was given on June 15, 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral. Robert Speaight played the part of Becket. The production then moved to London and ran there for several months.

Other performances

The play was later made into a black & white film. It was directed by the Austrian director George Hoellering with music by the Hungarian composer Laszlo Lajtha and won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. It was released in the UK in 1952. In the film the fourth tempter is not seen. His voice was that of Eliot himself.

The 1964 colour film Becket dealt with the same story, but was based on a play written by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh.

Reception and criticism

Eliot's own criticism

In 1951, in the first Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture at Harvard University Eliot criticized his own plays in the second half of the lecture, explicitly the plays Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and The Cocktail Party. The lecture was published as Poetry and Drama and later included in Eliot's 1957 collection On Poetry and Poets.


The play was lampooned by the Canadian/U.S. TV comedy show SCTV. In a typically surreal SCTV sketch, the play is presented by NASA with space-suited astronauts as the actors, and the proceedings narrated by Walter Cronkite as if it were a NASA moon mission.

Further reading

  • Browne, E. Martin. The Making of T.S. Eliot's Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Hoellering, George. "Filming Murder in the Cathedral." T.S. Eliot: A Symposium for His Seventieth Birthday. Ed. Neville Braybrooke. New York: Books for Libraries, 1968. pp. 81-84


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