The Chorus: Role in Murder In The Cathedral

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Its History and Nature:-

      The Chorus is an important constituent of classical drama that T. S. Eliot has made use of. The Chorus in the original Greek drama was made up of a group of people who interpreted the action to the audience, while taking part in the action. It commented on the action, explained the significance of character and action and informed the audience about the events that took place either before the action of the play or off the stage.

Eliot remarked that "...the Chorus has always fundamentally the same use. It mediates between the action and the audience, it intensifies the action by protecting its emotional consequence, so that we, as the audience, see it doubly, by seeing its effect on other people"
The Chorus

Eliot on the Chorus:-

      Eliot remarked that "...the Chorus has always fundamentally the same use. It mediates between the action and the audience, it intensifies the action by protecting its emotional consequence, so that we, as the audience, see it doubly, by seeing its effect on other people"

Composition of the Chorus:-

      The Chorus in the play Murder in The Cathedral comprises the women of Canterbury, They introduce themselves in the 'beginning as the "poor women of Canterbury". Later, they talk of themselves as "the scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury". They are "the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate, the small folk who live among small things". In other words, they are ordinary people living ordinary lives, filled with routine events.

Representative Nature:-

      The Chorus here is thus different from that in Aeschylus's plays. It is much more individualized. It represents, in effect, the great mass of individuals which Christ came to save "We acknowledge ourselves as a type of the common man....". The Chorus embodies the experiences of these common people.

Extended Function:-

      The Chorus is like the Christian choir. As R. Williams says: "It is the articulate voice of the body of worshippers." It works as the Christian liturgy and as a means of religious instruction. "It instructs us on the meaning of martyrdom and is an extension of the liturgy in that it invites us to celebrate the act of martyrdom, as a sign of God's Grace relevant to all sorts and conditions of man."

Presage of Evil:-

      The Chorus also foretells the future events, acquainting the audience with the coming events. The women of the Chorus have strong premonitions of impending evil:

"Some presage of an act

Which our eyes are compelled to witness,

...we are forced to bear witness."

Role in the Development of Action:-

      The Chorus develops the action of the play. It initiates concludes, comments on and analyses the action of the play. "It develops the plot. keeps its continuity, and knits various actions into one composite fiber."

      Some of the greatest poetry of the play are in the lines given to the Chorus and as Helen Gardner says, the real drama of the play is to be found in the Chorus.


      The women of the Chorus grow and evolve in the course of the play. They move from the terror of the supernatural expressed at the opening, to the ecstatic realization of the "glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth" in the last scene.

Significance of their Fluctuating Emotions:-

      Helen Gardner says that the fluctuations of the Chorus are the true measure of Thomas Becket spiritual conquest. Each time the women appear, there is a change in their emotions. They began by tearing the events arising out of Becket's return from France. They fear the impending disturbance of the quiet seasons, the unknown, the uncontrollable events erupting into their routine, orderly and settled way of life. They feel that life's security is threatened without realizing that it is a false sense of safety and permanence. They prefer to be left alone. They do not want to be witnesses to anything; they are afraid to be involved. They recognize that the events of the near future are part of God's design, yet they think of it as a malady:

"Some malady is coming upon us."

      Their fear itself is testimony to their understanding, that to witness is to be involved. The Chorus's fears intensify as Thomas faces the united attack of the tempters. The chorus feels an oppressive sense of evil at war with good in Thomas. The fear develops into a sudden panic that the Lords of Hell' will triumph, as Thomas is assailed for a moment by an unqualified skepticism regarding the value of all earthly endeavor:

"God gave us always some reason, some hope, but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky....

God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pangs, more pain than birth I or death...

Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;

Destroy yourself and we are destroyed."

      The women here acknowledge that their spiritual well-being depends upon Thomas. Still, at this stage, they are not aware of the true meaning of safety. They feel the danger but mistake where safety lies. They have yet to learn that safety does not he in escaping suffering, evil and death. The safety that Thomas and they find in the end, is of a different kind.

      The Chorus that opens Part II expresses an acquiescence with the need for Becket's sacrifice and yet they are ashamed of their part in the design - the consent implied by their standing by and doing nothing to stop the murder.

"Nothing if possible but the shamed swoon

Of those consenting to the last humiliation."

      They have now consented to "eternal patience" and admit that they are also to some extent responsible for the imminent death of Thomas. They are aware that they have a share in the sin of the murderers. They have a vision of disorder and, as representatives of humanity, feel involved or responsible for this disorder. As the moment of martyrdom approaches, the Chorus now has a vision of the ultimate horror of the void:

"Emptiness, absence, separation from God."

      This will be their fate unless there is atonement. They turn to the comfort of Christ's sacrifice, which is about to be renewed in Becket's martyrdom. As the murder is committed, the unknown becomes known and the women of the Chorus have been removed to a great distance from the petty safety that their routine lives held for them.

"A rain of blood has blinded my eyes: Where is England?

Where is Kent? Where is Canterbury?

O far far in the past; and I wander in a land of barren boughs: if I break them, they bleed; I wander in a land of dry stones: If I touch them they bleed.

How, how can I ever return, to the soft quiet season ?"

      As yet they are not clearly cognizant of the fact that the blood will refresh the wasteland of "barren boughs" and "dry stones" and purify the world. However, instinctively they cry out:

"Clear the air, Clear the sky!"

      By the end of the play, they have gained a fuller understanding of the significance of Thomas's martyrdom. They experience the moment of "painful joy" that Thomas prophesied and admit that his sacrifice was made on their behalf. The Chorus has at least learned the meaning of suffering. They have realized, that they and the mankind that they represent, have to accept their share of the "eternal burden, the perpetual glory": the burden of sin, the glory of redemption. Thus they have moved from apathy and evasion to a lively faith and humble acceptance. With the change in their attitude, there is, symbolically, a corresponding change in nature. The disorder gives way to order once again. They are gradually integrated with eternal design." (D.E.S. Maxwell)


      The Chorus provides a background and counterpoint to the action. It helps in the buildup of tension and a strong emotional atmosphere as it develops from its initial resistance and hostility to the final reconciliation to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

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