Winner of the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.
I studied this play in Grade 13 English under one of the best teachers I have met, Paul Walimaki. I took to this like a duck takes to water.
The action occurs between 2 and 29 December 1170, chronicling the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket following his absence of seven years in France. Becket’s internal struggle is the main focus of the play.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one takes place in the Archbishop Thomas Becket’s hall on 2 December 1170. The play begins with a Chorus singing, foreshadowing the coming violence. The Chorus is a key part of the drama, with its voice changing and developing during the play, offering comments about the action and providing a link between the audience and the characters and action, as in Greek drama. Three priests are present, and they reflect on the absence of Becket and the rise of temporal power. A herald announces Becket’s arrival. Becket is immediately reflective about his coming martyrdom, which he embraces, and which is understood to be a sign of his own selfishness—his fatal weakness. The tempters arrive, three of whom parallel the Temptations of Christ.
The first tempter offers the prospect of physical safety.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.
The second offers power, riches and fame in serving the King.
To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?
The third tempter suggests a coalition with the barons and a chance to resist the King.
For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
Finally, a fourth tempter urges him to seek the glory of martyrdom.
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
Becket responds to all of the tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
The Interlude of the play is a sermon given by Becket on Christmas morning 1170. It is about the strange contradiction that Christmas is a day both of mourning and rejoicing, which Christians also do for martyrs. He announces at the end of his sermon, “it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr”. We see in the sermon something of Becket’s ultimate peace of mind, as he elects not to seek sainthood, but to accept his death as inevitable and part of a better whole.
Part II of the play takes place in the Archbishop’s Hall and in the Cathedral, 29 December 1170. Four knights arrive with “Urgent business” from the king. These knights had heard the king speak of his frustration with Becket, and had interpreted this as an order to kill Becket. They accuse him of betrayal, and he claims to be loyal. He tells them to accuse him in public, and they make to attack him, but priests intervene. The priests insist that he leave and protect himself, but he refuses. The knights leave and Becket again says he is ready to die. The chorus sings that they knew this conflict was coming, that it had long been in the fabric of their lives, both temporal and spiritual. The chorus again reflects on the coming devastation. Thomas is taken to the Cathedral, where the knights break in and kill him. The chorus laments: “Clean the air! Clean the sky!”, and “The land is foul, the water is foul, our beasts and ourselves defiled with blood.” At the close of the play, the knights step up, address the audience, and defend their actions. The murder was all right and for the best: it was in the right spirit, sober, and justified so that the church’s power would not undermine stability and state power.
A touring company brought MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL to Sault Ste. Marie. Naturally my grade 13 class went to see it. On the stage there were five knights not four. Paul Walimaki, our English teacher, asked the class why we thought the director had changed the symbolism in the play.
Each student gave the answer they thought best.
Walimaki saved me to the last. When I spoke there was a near riot in the classroom. People shouted, “No! No! No! No!”
I found myself in the office of the principal. He said, “You have entirely the wrong attitude…If you leave this school today you will starve in two weeks! Where do you think you are going?!”
I replied, “To see if you are right.”
That night in the dead of winter I arrived on the streets of Toronto from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I thought I had a friend in Toronto. I found out I had not.
A few months later a chance encounter led to me meeting the fellow who had played the fifth knight. “What were you doing in MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL?” I asked him. He told me. I discovered I had been right.
“The spoken words have richness as they flow off the cultivated tongues of handsomely costumed performers who, at least, look their medieval roles. Father John Groser, an English cleric, is grandly dignified and benign as the conscientious Archbishop who coolly calculates his martyrdom and Alexander Gauge is forceful as King Henry in a scene especially written for the film. Any number of other English actors are eloquent as Tempters, Priests and Knights, and Mr. Eliot quite effectively puts his own voice (but not his person) into one scene—the key scene, in which the Fourth Tempter persuades Becket to play for martyrdom.”–New York Times.
This is a film of not action but thought. If you understand the ideas at play, the everlasting battle between the state and the individuals it exists to govern, than you understand as well that now is the moment when the state all over the world is at its most triumphant and malign. It is not hard to imagine the thoughts expressed here are close to those Jesusl wrestled with.
Henry II made his man Becket head of the church because Becket had faithfully served his King. What Henry did not understand (and few rulers have ever understood this) is that there are among us men and women who serve faithfully the master under whom they work.
Luke 18:8 New Living Translation (NLT)
8 I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man[a] returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” ( https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+18%3A+8&version=NLT ).
When I first read, “How many will he find on the earth who have faith?” it was much more powerfully rendered: It was, “Do you think when I return I shall find so much as one person believing?”
I replied, “If in my time, me.”
People think Jesus came to form a new religion. He did not. He came to set us free.
The word “religion” comes from two Latin words. The first is “re” which means “back.” We see this in words like rebate, rebound, regret, refund, refuse, remember, retaliate…” The second part “ligion” comes from “ligare” which means “to tie.” Our word “ligament” comes from this.
The word “religion” means “to tie back,” “to bind.” That which is tied back, bound is not free.
Words are tools we use for communication. Like all tools if not kept sharp they lose their edge.
The hard truth is that not many take the time to keep their tools sharp. This is something tool manufacturers rely on. It is also something governments rely on.
How often do we hear, “it’s only words?”
We are literally each of us like Christ the word made flesh. Without our words (thoughts) we are simply meat walking around.
When we understand the importance of precision in our thoughts (words) we understand the importance of not lying to ourselves. That teachers in classrooms teach God does not exist and Jesus, if he lived, was but a man reveals the poverty of the Northrup Fryes, the Gretta Vospers, the many like them against the Beckets; against those who knelt to let their heads be severed from the bodies not long ago on the shores of the Mediterranean facing Rome.
Today we see people like Gretta Vosper ( http://www.grettavosper.ca ) turning their backs on the ideas that are at the heart of Becket’s life and death, at the heart of Eliot’s play and at the heart of each of our lives.
This is the crux: To do the right thing not out of fear of punishment (from God, king or employer) nor out of hope for reward (from God, king or employer) but simply because it is the right thing.
When I was younger (in my teens) I chose not to believe in God mainly because the God we are called to believe in ties us back.
Nonetheless, while I chose not to believe in the God all churches would have us believe in intuitively I understood the deeper issues.
I remember clearly the day I was asked, as we all were, to speak extemporaneously (off the cuff) before my grade 11 English class in Chipman, New Brunswick. Our teacher, Mrs. Mills, was a woman not afraid to use the strap. She brooked no license.
As I spoke I saw a word coming out that, if used, meant I would get the strap. I looked for another word. There was not one. I accepted the penalty.
The next day another student (one who literally hated me) used the word I had used.
I went to Mrs. Mills. I said to her, “What are you doing here? Showing me as teacher’s pet?! I used that word yesterday. Nothing happened. He uses it today. He gets the strap. Are you treating me like teacher’s pet?”
She replied in words I have never forgotten. She said, “I watched you choosing. I watched you accepting the responsibility of your action. You were right. It was the right word. He was just walking through the door that you opened.”
In that moment I understood the difference between liberty and license.
People who call themselves Christians see the growing lack of faith around the world as a battle to be fought.
They are wrong. The growing lack of Faith is a sign that the moment when all will finally be understood is drawing near.
T S Elliot understood this.
This is the drama at the center not only of this poem but also at the center of each of our lives.
That so few understand this is not a problem.
It is the will of God.
In his book THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS forensic scientist Frederick T. Zugibe describes the sweating of blood in the garden of Gethsemane that many think as merely metaphor for the physical reality it is: hematidrosis ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hematidrosis).
As I meditate upon what it is that each of us is called daily to do in our lives I find myself in that garden with Jesus. I may not literally be sweating blood. I do, know, however, what the stakes are.
My father’s family, the Hartts in Minto, New Brunswick, were Roman Catholics. They were then and are now the most respected in the town. My father’s brother, Douglas Hartt, served as Director General of Public Works Canada in the government of Pierre Trudeau.
My mother’s family, the Smiths, were Church of England. Her father was a blacksmith. The car wiped out his trade. Progress rides roughshod over the past. Her mother cleaned houses and washed floors. They literally came from the wrong side of the tracks.
While we lived in New Brunswick we went to the Catholic Church. When we moved to Ontario my mother started taking us to the Church of England. She wanted us all to go there. I refused not because I saw one as better than the other but because she had agreed to raise us as Catholics. She drove a wedge between us. She hammered it home.
At that time I had nothing but contempt for the church. At this time I have nothing but contempt for the church.
I find myself one with Ralph Waldo Emerson who, in ON SELF RELIANCE, wrote, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued advisor who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, ‘What do I have with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ my friend suggested, ‘–But these impulses may be from below, not from above,’ I replied. ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live as one from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature. Good and bad are but names transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it…I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”
Invited to join New York’s prestigious GROUP THEATER ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_Theatre_(New_York) ) Katharine Hepburn replied, “I want no part of the group dynamic. The group by nature is always second rate.”
I’m with Kate.
So, too, unknowingly as he could never know her, is Becket.
The Rites of Manhood
It’s snowing hard enough that the taxis aren’t running.
I’m walking home, my night’s work finished,
long after midnight, with the whole city to myself,
when across the street I see a very young American sailor
standing over a girl who’s kneeling on the sidewalk
and refuses to get up although he’s yelling at her
to tell him where she lives so he can take her there
before they both freeze. The pair of them are drunk
and my guess is he picked her up in a bar
and later they got separated from his buddies
and at first it was great fun to play at being
an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but by now he wants only to
find a solution to the infinitely complex
problem of what to do about her before he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol
— and what keeps this from being squalid is
what’s happening to him inside:
if there were other sailors here
it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it
later, but he’s alone and the guilt can’t be
divided into small forgettable pieces;
he’s finding out what it means
to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.
ON THE WRITING OF POETRY
A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had started to say them. This is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies, religions, or–but wait!
Back in school, from the first when I began to try to write things, I felt this richness. One thing would lead to another; the world would give and give. Now, after twenty years or so of trying, I live by that certain richness, an idea hard to pin, difficult to say, and perhaps offensive to some. For there are
strange implications in it.
One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity. When I write, I like to have an interval before me when I am not likely to be interrupted. For me, this means usually the early morning, before others are awake. I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble–and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking. Maybe I have to settle for an immediate impression: it’s cold, or hot, or dark, or bright, or in between! Or–well, the possibilities are endless. If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing to come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. There things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.
– WILLIAM STAFFORD –
So many who call themselves poets know not what the words they use means. We get that from Tom Waits in his song, “Down In The Hole”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UbqFJuptvE .
Thanks to radio and television prophets who of themselves have rarely wrestled with the words they steal for profit many think walking the strait and narrow is walking the straight and narrow.
It is not.
I read once that a poem is one who chooses the words/thoughts s/he will live by.
In these days when creating lies for mass consumption is both the goal and the reward that we may install pearl handled showers in our bathrooms there are still those born knowing that that is not and never neither goal nor reward.
Atheist Robin Lane Fox writes, “It is by no means impossible that in the thirty years between 1918 and 19148 more Christians died for their faith than in the first 300 years after the Crucifixion.” (pg. 419) PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS.
And since then probably more than in the first 2,000 years after the Crucifixion.
I admire Gretta Vosper for speaking her truth. I would rather listen to one honest atheist than to a thousand dishonest people who call themselves theists.
Nonetheless, I am amazed that the ideas that have inspired men and women throughout the centuries since Galilee to lay down their lives are lost on her.
Atheist Kurt Vonnegut asked by so called theist President Richard Nixon why he cared for people so below his station in life replied, “The Sermon From The Mount.”
As much as the Christian right hates homosexuals homosexual writer put it beautifully when he said, “One does not have to be a Christian to believe in the Sermon From The Mount.”
I meet so many who say they have a personal relationship with Jesus who clearly neither believe in nor practice the ideas Jesus, the Begotten Son Of God, published in The Sermon From The Mount.
“The Pope is the Anti-Christ,” my Protestant classmates told me when I was a kid in New Brunswick.
Today we see more and more Protestant churches denying the Power of God. “We accept Jesus as a man but not as the Divine Son Of God,” they say.
1 John 4:3 New Living Translation (NLT)
3 But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=+1+John+4%3A3+&version=NLT
MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL is about what it really means to be a human being.
Never under estimate the power of one person to change the world for the better.
All too often that is all that does.
Let that one person be you.
Hope to see you Saturday night at the movies. MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL is the least cinematic great film we can experience. More than anything it is about the Power Of The Word.–Reg Hartt, 3, 2, 2016.
While you are here watching MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL you can meditate upon THE SHROUD OF TURIN. How anyone can look at this and choose not to see what is written on it is something I do not understand. One day I will.