Murder in the Cathedral is one of the stranger plays I have had the pleasure of reading. Full of both highly lyrical meditations on life and faith and passages of religious obscurity, it ultimately fails to toe the fine line between theatricality and poeticism.
Many of the speeches run on for far too long and the play even includes a sermon half way through. Completely dissipating any sense of pace that the play may have had, the character of Thomas A Beckett monologues forâ€¨several pages on Christian ideas of peace. Although it is true that Eliot’s poetic power never deserts him, it doesn’t translate at all well to a genuine stage performance that will entertain the average theatre-goer.
From my point of view, it is a play to be read and not seen. Once this fact is accepted, it seems as strong as much of his poetry, employing themes of existential purpose, temptation and the relations between church and state. These renewed focuses, combined with the novel idea of changing historical setting, reinvigorates much of this play – as read on the page, at least. Subtly drawing parallels between Beckett’s individual resistance to authority to the rise of anti-individualistic Fascism in 1935 when it was first performed is, in my opinion, one of Eliot’s defter artistic ploys, and makes the play both timeless yet also powerfully pertinent to the period. Watching this would be perplexing – trying to understand complex references and nuanced verse in the theatre would probably be too much of a strain for the average viewer.
Yet as an English Literature student, studying the play reveals much of its complexity in an enjoyable way that shows how good it really is.
In short, I’m not saying I don’t like Eliot. All I am saying is, don’t go and watch his plays.