‘Bearing Reality’ – T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 2019

Opportunities to see one of T. S. Eliot’s plays in performance come along rarely, and opportunities to see Murder in the Cathedral performed in a cathedral are rarer still, so Scena Mundi’s production of the play gives viewers a valuable chance to experience the tale of Becket’s martyrdom in a setting that infuses its lines with a thrilling sense of place. At the crossing beneath the tower of Southwark Cathedral, characters circulated between the pillars and up and down the nave, while Becket knelt at the altar and preached his Christmas Day sermon as though to an actual congregation made up of audience members. The acoustics of the building are not always forgiving, particularly when voices are speaking in chorus, but the blend of subject matter and setting made this an evening to remember.

Murder in the Cathedral was Eliot’s first foray into the theatre (four more plays were to follow between 1939 and 1959) and it shows him branching out into a new genre, testing the possibilities of what characters can be made to say and do before an audience. It is not a straight historical retelling of events so much as a probing of motivations, a study in the decisions taken, or not, and the consequences that ensue. Hearing Becket say that ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’ as his fellow priests look to usher him away from the murderous knights we are reminded that left-over lines from the play found themselves repurposed in 1936’s ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of what would, in time, become the Four Quartets and the capstone of Eliot’s poetic career. It is a play that requires close attention from its audience, not so much to the well-known events it covers – the 850th anniversary of which will be upon us in December 2020 – but the language in which a conflicted man wrestles with the prospect of death and his place in a divine order of things.

Jasper Britton’s performance as Becket is rich and complex: his politician turned priest has little problem in dismissing the Tempters’ suggestions that he seek either a rapprochement with the King or an alliance with the barons but is less secure when offered the “vision of eternal grandeur” of a self-sought martyrdom. Distinguishing between a death as part of a divine scheme and a death actively pursued by human will, albeit anticipating a divine plan, is the difference between resignation and presumption, and the Archbishop wrestles with them just as Eliot does in much of his poetry, from the ‘give, sympathise, control’ injunctions at the close of The Waste Land to the acceptance that “all manner of things shall be well” at the close of ‘Little Gidding’.

Around Becket, the Women of Canterbury provide the choral counterpoint to the events unfolding in the city and its cathedral. Simultaneously rejoicing in their Archbishop’s return from a seven-year exile and conscious that in so doing the routine of their lives (“living and partly living” as they have been) will be wrenched into disorder, they capture the mood of a society that fears confrontation and its effects, preferring a half-life without discord to a full measure of upheaval. They remind us that Becket’s very personal fate will have repercussions far beyond himself, and that while his martyrdom belongs in a divine order its temporal impact will be immense.

The agents of that martyrdom are, of course, the four knights who arrive at the Cathedral on 29th December and are first seen in angry exchanges with the Archbishop about his return and his relations with the King. The audience has seen them before, though, in so far as they function as the four Tempters in Act One, thereby setting up the sense that Becket’s rejection of the options offered previously leads inevitably to acceptance of the death that he sees as his place in a larger design. In a work that Eliot (a great fan of crime fiction) once considered calling ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ they take us into the very modern realm of motives and alibis. Eliot’s master-stroke in the play, of course, was that having committed the murder the knights should appeal directly to the audience’s sympathies, taking turns to point out that they stood to gain little from the act, were following orders made necessary by Becket’s intransigence, were somewhat intoxicated, and were – in the final analysis – put in an impossible position by a man seeking his own end and more deserving of a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound mind’.

These direct addresses turn audience members from spectators into witnesses – a dynamic that becomes particularly intense when we have sat in a cathedral and seen the play’s action unfold. The first knight’s injunction that, having heard their justifications, we “disperse quietly to [y]our homes … do[ing] nothing that might provoke any public outbreak” re-establishes the awkward relationship between the individual and the state that Becket has managed to transcend but which continues to trouble those still alive at the play’s conclusion. Is it possible to return to “living and partly living” after being witness to such things? The play offers no direct guidance, and the closing choral prayer that ‘Blessed Thomas’ will now intercede in Heaven for the people of Canterbury blurs History and the present (another theme that the Four Quartets would pursue much further) without necessarily showing how a good man or woman could reconcile a sense of divine will and a recognition of temporal authority without it costing their life to do so.

Written as it was the first half of the 1930s, when temporal authority (in Europe particularly) was assuming a disturbingly totalitarian guise, Eliot’s play has lost none of its power to unsettle. In its closing prayer, the Chorus admits that ‘we’ are all more likely to “shut the door and sit by the fire” than to do anything that might leave one open to “the blessing of God”, a blessing which comes in the form of privation as much as reward. Becket’s path to sainthood, like Eliot’s own definition of Christianity, is a demanding one, and as it sends its audience / congregation back into the modern world Murder in the Cathedral is a play that has lost none of its unsettling quality, particularly when staged and performed in so thoughtful and evocative a manner as this production.

For more information on Scena Mundi’s production see https://www.scenamundi.co.uk/boxoffice