The Reading Room
T.S. Eliot’s Merging of the Classical and the Christian in Drama
T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is perhaps one of the best mergings of the Classical and the Christian traditions in dramatic form that I have ever encountered. Though the subject matter is indisputably Christian, the form of the play, its themes, mythic undertones, and poetry all strike resoundingly the notes of a classical tragedy, resulting in a masterful dialogue between the two traditions.
In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot writes of the last days of Thomas Becket of Canterbury, a Catholic martyr slain at the command of King Henry II. As Becket returns to England, everyone, including himself, knows that he is doomed to die. This foreknowledge of impending doom for the protagonist is steeply rooted in the tradition of Greek tragedy. It and the lamenting choir and monologues on fate and death which Eliot also employs, are staples of the genre. Contrary to the ancient tragedies, however, is the result of the foretold death, for the Church “rejoice[s], that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.” (Murder in the Cathedral Interlude). The Church mourns as well, as all men must, but there is not merely mourning for the martyr, as there is only mourning for the tragic Greek hero. Instead there is a twining of joy with mourning, Life Immortal with Death Mortal, in a strange and wondrous Mystery for Eliot, one found “only in these our Christian mysteries” (ibid.). Found only here, maybe, but not impervious to explication through other tools.
Eliot uses the classical tradition as a means of investigating this mystery, finding significance in the liturgical and natural seasons of the year in which this martyrdom takes place, finding a connection between the passing of the seasons and the moral decay of the earth, for:
war among men defiles this world, but death in the Lord renews it, And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only a sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.” (Part II, Chorus).
It is no coincidence that Becket’s death is in winter, a season of pure horror and despair. As the Chorus cries out in terror:
I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickenedby subtile forebodings; I have heard
fluting in the nighttime, fluting and owls, have seen at noon
scaly wings slanting over, huge and ridiculous. I have tasted
the savour of putrid flesh in the spoon” (Part II, Chorus).
Yet Becket, by accepting his fated death at the hands of this horror, reverses all of this, changing the season from one of horror to one of cleansing, of renewal. In a reversal and fulfillment of the tragic hero, when the martyr accepts his death as the will of Providence, it is not, as it would be for the tragic hero, a defeat, but a triumph, for the martyr “conquers, now, by suffering” (Part II). As Becket says, “I have therefore only to make perfect my will [with God’s]…to meet death gladly is only / The only way in which I can defend / The Law of God” (Part II). Becket meets his death willingly, and so triumphs through a means totally alien to the ancient Greek tragic hero, creating a moment which “shall pierce…with a sudden painful joy / when the figure of God’s purpose is made complete” (Part II).
This moment, this martyrdom, thus accomplishes something the death of an ancient tragic hero never could: it transforms the season of winter from a time of horror to one of cleansing, a promise of renewal soon to be confirmed with spring. Like the Greek myth of Hades carrying off Persephone into the Underworld and thereby causing the changing of the seasons, Eliot links the cycles of time with supernatural events. However, he does something with this link no classical tragedian would ever dream of, for it is not the gods or fate that move and shape and renew the world, but man. And man does not simply renew the land but permanently connects it to the eternal world, providing a place that will remind the people every year on the same day of their great hope in eternal life.
It is in recognition of this that the Chorus ends the play by praying:
“We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood. For the blood of Thy martyrs and saintsShall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.
For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guide-books looking over it
…from such ground springs that which forever renews the earthThough it is forever denied.” (Part II, Chorus)