Murder in the Cathedral: as A Poetic Drama

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      Nineteenth-century England, although productive in other fields of literature, was rather weak in drama. But it was not perhaps for want of trying. Practically all the great poets, Wordsworth, Shelley Byron, Browning, Tennyson, tried their hand at poetic drama, but failed to bring about a revival of the genre. Thus, there was no drama of significance between Sheridan's plays, and Shaw's and Wilde's early efforts in the late 19th century. Even these latter playwrights wrote in prose. Though witty, and social in spirit, Shaw's plays deal mostly with social evils.

In such a light, even rhetorical speech had its place in poetic drama if it suited the occasion. Each and every line had to be dramatically relevant. Let us see how far Murder in the Cathedral follows these tenets of poetic drama.
Poetic Drama

      Poetic drama, however, seemed to have dwindled into nothingness, after its glory in the Elizabethan age. However, prose drama soon become decadent after Shaw; plays now tended to be superficial in their treatment of subjects; they did not grasp the depth, tension and complexity of contemporary life. The aim was chiefly entertainment and those standards had fallen. It tended to exclude issues of a deep and fundamental nature, concentrating as it did on social or economical issues. This to some extent resulted in some poets trying to revive the tradition of verse plays.

Revival of Poetic Drama:-

      W.B. Yeats was of the view that drama should turn away from naturalism or realism and rationalism and get its results through the emotions; that can be achieved only through poetry. Yeats and some other Irish dramatists like J.M. Synge and Sean O' Casey contributed to the revival of this genre. Some of their plays, though in prose, had a poetic quality about them. Stephen Phillip's Herod in 1901 could be seen as, the 'poetic play marking the beginning of the revival of poetic drama in the 20th century. Some other names are also important in this revival movement. They are John Masefield, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Fry. The greatest influence was T.S. Eliot who formulated a dramatic theory regarding poetic drama in a number of critical essays and lectures.

Eliot's Views:-

      At the time of writing Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot's view was that the audience should be made aware that what they were watching and that the audience should not be made aware of the medium but only be concerned with the drama as a whole.

      He further said that the subject for poetic drama should be such that it cannot be adequately dealt with in prose, i.e., a subject that can be treated in prose was not fit for poetic drama. Poetic drama had to deal with intense emotions basic to the human heart. Poetic drama has a richness in it and this was due to the presence of an "under- pattern" - a kind of doubleness in the action as if it took place on two planes at once. Poetic drama also had the ability to achieve a better concentration and unity - because verse by its very nature gave richness, depth and unity to a play. There should further be, said Eliot, a moral attitude on the author's part which he can share with his audience. Eliot also held the view that the author would have to follow certain conditions and conventions in writing poetic drama. Self-control was necessary, if he had to succeed in communicating to his audience, and communication in drama was a great problem as it had to be immediate and done through strange actors and directors.

      The versification had to be of a flexible or elastic kind that could be modulated to suit the different characters in different situations. The poetry had to be integral to the drama, i.e. it had to be dramatically justified and not be merely incidental or just an embellishment or a decoration. In such a light, even rhetorical speech had its place in poetic drama if it suited the occasion. Each and every line had to be dramatically relevant. Let us see how far Murder in the Cathedral follows these tenets of poetic drama.


      Firstly, its subject was historical and as such presented an easy nance for Eliot to use verse. There was a tradition of historical subjects being dealt with in verse. The plot was the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

New Poetic Form:-

      Eliot's purpose required the creation of a new poetic form. For this, he turned far back, to the ancient Greek dramatists and the English Morality plays of medieval times. He avoided Shakespeare, as that form had been perfected in the Elizabethan age and using it would only result in what he called "pale imitations". He is mainly indebted to Greek tragedy for the form of his play. It can be said to be a series of episodes linked by Stasima or choral odes. He modeled much of the versification upon Everyman, a Medieval Morality play.


      Eliot developed a suitable verse form which was neither archaic (which would have isolated the theme from any contemporary relevance) nor completely of contemporary idiom (that would not be suitable for characters decidedly removed from this age). The vers form was such that it worked both ways: keeping up the historical illusion while bringing home the relevance of the theme to the contemporary situation.

      However, it is to be noted, as Eliot himself was aware, that this form was suitable for Murder in the Cathedral alone and not for all verse plays. As he said, the versification in this play is flexible, avoids Shakespearean overtones and has a natural style. It is suited to the emotions which are to be expressed, and the character who expresses them.

      Nowhere in the play do we find any versification which is not dramatically valid. It is the power of this dramatic verse that gives the play its unique quality of unity and intensity. As poetic drama demands that it deal with emotions and themes fundamental to mankind, Murder in the Cathedral deals not merely with the story of the murder of Thomas Becket; not only with his martyrdom but with its significance for the common man. It deals with man's relationship to God. In this aspect, it can be called a religious play. Such a fundamental aspect of human existence is fit for poetic treatment. "Imagined with intense emotion, it demands expression in heightened speech". Another important fact about poetic drama is that it deals with something of permanent relevance. This is true of Murder in the Cathedral: its theme is of universal significance. Its treatment is again always dramatically relevant. "Each character speaks and expresses what he or she is". The vocabulary, idiom and rhythm of the language are perfectly modulated to suit the occasion - the Chorus is a perfect example of this.

      Imagery, too, has a functional value in the play and is not used for mere decoration. The images are integral to the drama. The verse lends a quality of richness to the play and this leads to another important aspect of the play.

Doubleness of Action:-

      Poetic drama, said Eliot, can suggest levels of reference beyond the immediate one, of the dramatic action, for poetry can easily bring the deep reserves of significance in myth and religion into drama. This his is partly because in myth and religion we apprehend reality in a manner not wholly intellectual but through emotional and instinctive response, and for emotional involvement, poetry is the best mode with its metaphor and imagery.

      There is this "doubleness of action" in Murder in the Cathedral; the simultaneous revelation of more than one plane of reality. lt is not limited to the representation of more than one plane of reality. It is not limited to the representation of the killing of Thomas or even to his finding the true path of martyrdom. Although there is the spiritual progress or the chorus-from its initial aversion to involvement in the martyrdom of Thomas, it grows to acceptance and spiritual understanding. And this development on the part of the chorus cannot be seen separate from the primary action, but is absolutely integrated with it.

The Chorus:-

      Firstly the Chorus helped Eliot, as he himself admitted, in augmenting the meager material that was the essential action of thee play. They reflect in their emotion the significance of the action. Eliot restored the full-throated Chorus of Greek tragedy in this play. He uses it to open out the action into its full significance. The Chorus represents the mass of humanity which Christ came to save and its original function is enlarged in the light of the Christian liturgy. They are the "articulate voice of the body of worshippers." (Raymond Williams)

      It is in the choric speeches that we get the most interesting dramatic verse. As it mediates between audience and action, providing background, and building up an atmosphere of powerful tension we are involved and move with it from opposition to final reconciliation to martyrdom. And it is the verse that produces this effect.


      Poetic drama, said Eliot, was an unattainable ideal and the dramatist's task was to strive to get as near as possible. Naturally, Murder in the Cathedral is not a perfect example of the general but is a good enough one. What it lacks, and Eliot himself is aware of, is individualized characterization. The presence of just one dominant Character - Becket - reduces the chances of dramatic conflict and dialogue suffers as a result. Eliot has also said that prose had no place in poetic drama and yet we have two prose passages in this play. This, however, cannot really be called a demerit as both passages are dramatically relevant in prose.

      The play has been charged with having no proper dramatic development but this again is a dubious complaint, since its treatment demands that we see it as a ritualistic presentation rather than apply to it the standards of the realistic drama.


      The play derives its greatness from its dramatic verse. Eliot had said: "The greatest drama is a poetic drama, and dramatic defects can be compensated by poetic excellence. Indeed, the defects of Murder in the Cathedral shrink to negligible proportions in the face of the beautiful verse, the gripping poetry of the Chorus."

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