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Murder in the Cathedral

The Rock, The Making of T. S. Eliot's Plays, Four Quartets

becket play eliot death

the first of T. S. Eliot's major verse-dramas, published in 1935; it deals with the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and was first performed in 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, close to the site of Becket's death, after which it ran successfully in London and on tour. The work resulted from a suggestion by the Bishop of Chichester, who had been favourably impressed by Eliot's ecclesiastical pageant The Rock (1934), that he should write a play for the Canterbury Festival. Its first part establishes the conflicts between Church and State which determine Becket's martyrdom; by overcoming the Four Tempters, who respectively offer pleasure, political power, treason, and spiritual pride, he accepts that his death will accord purely with God's purposes. In the second part, Becket is murdered by the Four Knights, whose subsequent prose speeches argue for ‘a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State’ and conclude that Becket, ‘a monster of egotism’, effectively engineered his own death. The play ends with a prayer of praise and supplication by the Chorus of Women of Canterbury, whose commentaries throughout are the medium for Eliot's richest poetic effects. It is arguably his most theatrically effective play, Becket's murder providing a central action which his later dramas lack. E. Martin Browne, who collaborated on the play's production and later wrote The Making of T. S. Eliot's Plays (1966), recommended the excision of certain passages, one of which beginning ‘Time present and time past …’ opens ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the Four Quartets.

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