T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral

T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral

T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral

T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral

Excerpt

T. S. Eliot, for whom the Essays of Emerson were “already an encumbrance,” to cite his own testimony, was haunted by transcendence, very much in the mode of his Emersonian ancestors, rather than in the more severe and traditional mode, Anglo-Catholic and Counter Reformation, towards which he aspired. Michael Goldman argues that the fear of being haunted by transcendence is the central design of Eliot’s dramas, including Murder in the Cathedral. Since Murder in the Cathedral was composed for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935, the play assumes that its audience will be at least ostensibly Christian. Francis Fergusson aptly applied to Eliot’s Canterbury drama Pascal’s analysis of the three discontinuous orders, nature, mind, charity, which Eliot had commended to “the modern world” in his introduction to the Pensées. On this reading, the Chorus are in the order of nature; Tempters, Knights and Priests belong to the order of mind; Thomas alone is in the transcendent order of charity.

Representing the order of divine love is, as all would agree, a rather difficult task, particularly upon a stage. Dante is the inevitable master here but no one would think of mounting a production of the Paradiso. Sweeney Agonistes, in my humble judgment, is by far Eliot’s finest dramatic work, easily surpassing Murder in the Cathedral and its successors. Dame Helen Gardner, who admired both Eliot’s poetry and his dogmatic convictions, admitted that the Canterbury drama lacked action and had an unconvincing hero, but found it “intensely moving and at times exciting when performed.” I have attended only one presentation of the play, somewhat reluctantly, but my reactions are to be distrusted, even by me, since I am not precisely the audience Eliot had in mind. Eliot remarked, in his “Thoughts after Lambeth,” that there could be no such thing as “a civilized non-Christian mentality.” I wonder always at a view of civilization and its discomforts that...

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