Community of Society in The Murder in The Cathedral

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      Murder in the Cathedral is a modern religious play, successful on stage. Eliot shows in this play how drama can be an instrument of the community in the two senses corresponding to its original function, as an extension of the liturgy and as an interpretation of God's word in terms of flesh and blood. The audience becomes the congregation to which the significance of martyrdom is explained and which is invited to participate in the celebration of the act of martyrdom.

Murder in the Cathedral is a modern religious play, successful on stage. Eliot shows in this play how drama can be an instrument of the community in the two senses corresponding to its original function, as an extension of the liturgy and as an interpretation of God's word in terms of flesh and blood. The audience becomes the congregation to which the significance of martyrdom is explained and which is invited to participate in the celebration of the act of martyrdom.
Murder in The Cathedral

      Eliot's concern is not just with the Church the body of believers; it is with the whole of society in which he diagnosed the sickness of the wasteland. Eliot saw the fragmentation of a society which no longer had the spiritual faith to visualize anything in its wholeness. He proposed that drama should oppose the compartmentalization of life in general and the sharp division between religious and ordinary life. Eliot himself declared that dramatists should strive towards a kind of re-integration of the religious and the secular element in drama, just as a re-negotiation was required in life itself.

      Eliot saw contemporary society as a spiritual wasteland - a state in which people had become so absorbed in the mundane, the materialistic and the commercial way of life, that they had forgotten the significance of the spiritual. It is the state of spiritual apathy that Eliot describes in his Waste Land. In such a state, the stone, the trees and the sun, the barren land represent the spiritual barrenness. The women of the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral speak of a similar state when they describe their life - which they do not want to disturb. They are afraid because they have lost their spiritual bearing. They speak of the land which has become "brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud". They acknowledge that the Archbishop has been kind to them, but they do not want him to return, for, instinctively, they know that it will cause an upheaval which they are most unwilling to face. It reflects their spiritual apathy. They prefer "to pass unobserved". They refer to their ordinary day-to-day routine which reflects (as does the verse form) the complete submergence of the human being in a materialistic, commercial and spiritually barren way of life:

Kings rule or barons rule....
We try to keep our households in order;
The merchant, shy and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune,
And the labourer bends to his piece of earth.

      The poor women of Canterbury represent common human beings and their fear of disruption of their ordinary life. The images of the wasteland are seen by them in the disturbance of the quiet season, which they fear:

Winter shall come bringing death from the sea,
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears,
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams.

      All the seasons are seen as disastrous. They feel that "some malady" is going to befall them; in their ignorance, they are not aware that the "malady" already exists - the malady of spiritual barrenness. They see evil in everything - the wind, the sea and the sky: The healing power of Nature is not visible to them.

      The poor women of Canterbury are sure of impending disaster, but in their spiritual ignorance misinterpret its significance. They intuitively foresee the martyrdom of Thomas, but they fear it for the wrong reason. Their mundane secular lives have blunted their spiritual awareness, making religion meaningless. They declare :

We do not wish anything happen.

      They have gone about doing their daily work, enjoying and lamenting over ordinary happenings. They have been -

Living and partly living.

      The constant repetition of the line in the passage brings out clearly "their half-life" or mere existence. It is an affliction of modern society and Eliot clearly saw it as such. Their soul has become too accustomed to the material way of life; they fear any happening that may cause them to become aware of something greater and more important. They do not know, as Thomas says, "what it is to act or suffer"

      The compartmentalization of the modern world separates "action" from "suffering", unaware that in true spiritual sense both coincide -

In an eternal action, an eternal patience fixed
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist...

      Thomas himself, though on a higher spiritual plane than the other characters, has to ward of temptations bred of the "wasteland" temptations to achieve worldly fame and material power over men He has also to overcome a greater danger - the temptation to become a martyr for the wrong reason, to achieve eternal earthly glory. He, too, knows and does not know the true meaning of action and suffering.

      The Chorus at this point speaks of chaos and disturbance. Significantly, it implies the spiritual confusion on different levels - in Thomas's mind, in the common people's mind, and in the Priests. The Chorus speaks frantically of life's disillusion. It speaks of Thomas as "obstinate, blind, intent on self-destruction". It refers to the possible killing of Thomas due to his refusal to compromise on his religious principles. But, on a deeper level, the words reflect the spiritual "self-destruction" Thomas faces by giving in to the fourth temptation. In the context the lines.

Passing from deception to deception.
From grandeur to grandeur to final illusion,
Lost in the wonder of his own greatness,
The enemy of society, the enemy of himself.

      Take on a deeper meaning than what they appear on the surface. "Destroy yourself and we are destroyed", cry the poor women of Canterbury. They even now interpret "destruction" in terms of physical death - natural from a set of people whose lives circle around "sleeping and eating and drinking and laughter", not dreaming of anything beyond. As the Chorus and the Priests and the Tempters counsel Thomas to avert action, he comes to his awakening:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;

      He also realizes that his spiritual awareness has not reached the society of human beings and, in fact, will never reach a certain section. One set of people will always think of his martyrdom as:

Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic,
Arrogant passion of a fanatic.
But no one will escape involvement.

      Becket's sermon on Christmas morning tries to explain the meaning of martyrdom not only to the audience within the play (the, Chorus of poor women) but also to the actual audience of the play. It brings to the contemporary audience the significance of some of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian religion, by which apparent contradictions and opposing elements are reconciled. At the still point of the Will, action and suffering, will and submission, pain and joy all merge. The true martyr "has found freedom in submission to God".

      In the course of the play, the Chorus of poor women of Canterbury, representative of common humanity, gradually develops spiritually. They show a spiritual progression. At the beginning of Part II, the Chorus once again expresses fear, and associates Spring with death. Images of death recur all through the lines. The cycle of seasons is referred to, closely associated with the Christian idea of "death in the Lord renewing life on earth, and the yearly cycle of the disappearance of the seed into the ground and its re-emergence as new life in Spring. But the Chorus is not aware of how closely all these things are related.

      As Thomas is about to be killed, the Chorus cries out desperately. Its words reflect the confusion of the spiritual vacuum in images which associate death with the rose and the hollyhock, and horror with all-natural creation. The women feel ashamed that they cannot prevent the act that is to take place. They express their horrifying vision of the void:

Emptiness, absence, separation from God.

      As Thomas is dragged off by the Knights, the Chorus is not yet spiritually aware of how Thomas's death will purify them. They can only see it as a terrible event which would lead to great disaster and a physical wasteland - barren boughs bleeding when broken, dry stones, a rain of blood, and so on. But they are blind to the spiritual wasteland in which they are existing - in which they cannot appreciate that the blood of the martyr cleanses and fortifies, brings glory and purity. They see the martyrdom as:

An instant eternity of evil and wrong.

      The Knights, having killed Thomas, now address the audience directly in modern idiomatic prose. This is not a gimmick, but a means of involving the twentieth-century public in the eternal significance of a martyrdom. The interpretation of the event given by the Knights reflects their spiritual barrenness. They are so totally immersed in worldly affairs - politics, logic, economics and human laws - that the spiritual significance of Becket's death is totally beyond their comprehension. Logic and intellect are not enough to grasp spiritual mysteries; there is a need for faith - a commodity sadly lacking in contemporary society which is so engrossed in life lived on the material, physical plane. Logic and reason, as the Knights' speeches go to show, would reduce martyrdom to "suicide while of unsound mind". Only faith and intuition can realize its true meaning, but these aspects of the human psyches have been deadened by the mechanical materialism of modern life. The address of the Knights involves the audience which has to overcome the temptations of seeing martyrdom in the wrong light.

      The benefit of the martyrdom is not on the material or political plane. Even the Chorus see it, earlier, from the material point of view; thus they lament it as a terrible happening. The last choric ode, of course, shows that the poor women have at last gained a spiritual awareness which makes them see the significance of martyrdom. The rain of blood is no longer seen as defiling.

      The blood of the martyr purifies - it fortifies the spiritual wasteland. The poor women are at last aware that all Nature shows God's glory - the contradictions are illusory, for at the still point, time and timelessness, the hunter and the hunted, evil and good are all reconciled and integrated. The blood of the martyrs "shall enrich the earth." Eliot in this play, as in most of his other writings, offers a character (in this case Becket) as a symbol to be "recommended to those who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being".

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