Murder in The Cathedral as Devotional Morality Play

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      The morality play was a dramatic form which developed in the medieval age in England. It was an allegorical dramatization of the conflict between Good and Evil for the possession of the soul of Man - or Everyman who represented mankind. The play had certain staple features the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, personification of virtues and vices, an allegorical representation of the Seven Deadly Sins, all concentrating upon the single central figure - Everyman or the representative of mankind. Everyman had to choose between good and evil, all the while being subject to temptations of the worldly, material or evil ways. On another level, the play dramatised the Christian theme of conflict between the evil forces and the good forces for the soul of "saved", though after undergoing quite a few obstacles. The audience of such a play, of course, derives a "moral - man is beset by evil in this world and is in danger of being spiritually lost, but temptations should be overcome and man should adopt the good life. In a morality play, however the here or the Everyman figure is quite passive, with the conflict taking place between the good and evil Angels.

T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, in a broad manner of speaking, resembles the old English morality plays. It is as F.O. Mathiessen says, a drama of temptation, like many of the morality plays. It dramatizes Becket as a type of Christian heroism conquering pride and attaining martyrdom. The conflict is almost wholly within the hero, at times almost as a monologue. Murder in the Cathedral, as G. Wilson Knight remarks, is a devotional morality - at its heart it is a sermon.
Murder in The Cathedral

      T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, in a broad manner of speaking, resembles the old English morality plays. It is as F.O. Mathiessen says, a drama of temptation, like many of the morality plays. It dramatizes Becket as a type of Christian heroism conquering pride and attaining martyrdom. The conflict is almost wholly within the hero, at times almost as a monologue. Murder in the Cathedral, as G. Wilson Knight remarks, is a devotional morality - at its heart it is a sermon.

      Thomas Becket in Eliot's play is presented as an archetypal figure, the religious martyr, who wrestles with an archetypal problem the subtle temptations of the religious conscience when it has set itself up against the State. True, one cannot call Thomas "Everyman" for his situation is not wholly synonymouse with that of any ordinary man. But, on a broad level, he undergoes the mental conflict between good and evil. He begins with an attitude towards martyrdom that is anything but pure. He seeks to do the right deed but for the wrong reason. Eliot delineates the mental struggles of any great and religious man in this archetypal situation.

      Thomas is beset by the first three Tempters, each offering a different variety of worldly success and power in lieu of martyrdom. Then comes the fourth Tempter the most subtle and dangerous of them all. Appealing to spiritual pride he tempts Thomas to become a martyr for the wrong reason.

      Murder in the Cathedral is not, however, a simple morality play. It has complex overtones and planes of meaning which lay quite beyond the scope of the old morality play. As the fourth Tempter speaks, Thomas realizes this folly, and cries in agony:

Can I neither act nor suffer without perdition ?

      The the fourth Tempter speaks the same words that Thomas had earlier used for the Chorus:

You know and do not know.

      It is at this point that the poor women of the Chorus speak of the near despair besetting them - "What is the sickly smell.. the earth heaving to parturition of issue of hell... All things are unreal or disappointing. The Priests tempt Thomas on their own level telling him to leave off confrontation for it is best to

Abide the coming of day...

      The Chorus declares the fear that Thomas is going to destroy himself, and with his destruction they, too, will be destroyed. The lines have meaning on two planes. The Chorus is referring to physical death, but in the context of the mental struggle in Thomas the words imply the surrender to spiritual pride which will lead to damnation. Ultimately Thomas overcomes the deadly temptation to do the right deed for the wrong reason. But the dreadful moment of the last temptation has been vividly emphasised by the Chorus:

God is leaving us. more pang, more pain than birth or death.
Sweet and cloying through the dark air
Falls the stifling scent of despair
...The Lords of Hell are here, feet swing and wing through the dark air.

      Murder in the Cathedral is not an ordinary morality play. In the Temptation scene, the lines of the Chorus act as the counter-acting force - for they tell Thomas that his position at the moment is precarious. But they are quite ignorant of the real significance of their words - "they know and do not know". As G. Wilson Knight points out, lines are spoken from a Dantesque overview knowing and foreknowing events as from the eternal dimension. Thomas's martyrdom is more than hinted at; the Chorus is aware of it, though not of its true significance. Thomas is aware of it as well as of the "strife with shadows" that will go before it. Of course, he did not expect the fourth Tempter.

      Murder in the Cathedral is not merely concerned with the central figure of Thomas. Within the play, the Chorus represents common humanity - the nearest prototype of Everyman of the morality plays. The play depicts the spiritual progress of the Chorus which ultimately realises the true significance of martyrdom. It realizes what Thomas tried to explain in his Christmas morning sermon, in the Interlude. The Chorus expresses twentieth century fears in a world sliding in to spiritual barreness. The four Knights address the audience and their speeches offer a temptation of the audience - to accept Thomas's martyrdom in the worldly plane as a mad man's suicide. But the final Chorus expresses the true implication of martyrdom, the realization that joy and pain, light and dark, action and suffering all canonised and revolved into a complete whole in God's Will.

      On a symbolic level, the Chorus has triumphed over evil; has made efficacious the martyrdom of Becket, for the act would have been futile if its significance had not been realized by the "common man."

      In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot is concerned with showing "the ways of man to God, not only in the twelfth century but in the twentieth century" says Patricia M. Adair. In terms of versification, too, Eliot goes back to the mediaeval morality play Everyman. Murder in the Cathedral fuses contemporary poetic idiom with echoes of the language of the mediaeval morality play and sets forth the eternal and universal struggle in which any man who is obliged by circumstances to choose between life and integrity participates, as David R. Clark points out'.

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