Murder in the Cathedral is too Passive to be Effective Martyrdom Drama

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      Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is a historical play but more than that it is a study of martyrdom. The subject could have been treated on another level in which most people's expectations of "dramatic conflict" could have been met with satisfactorily. However, Eliot ignores many "human" aspects of Thomas the historical figure - his warmth and vitality and ironic vigour - to emphasise the religious aspect. The play is a religious drama and emphasis is laid on Thomas Becket's bitter fulfilment of God's purpose. A martyr or a saint is by definition perfect, and perfection can, indeed, be dull. A perfect man or woman seems the most "undramatic" of all subjects for drama. A saint is a saint because of his or her passive acceptance of suffering. The death of a martyr thus appears, in one critic's words, a "hopeless subject for a drama". However, it is debatable whether Murder in the Cathedral suffers from being too passive.

Conflict, the essence of drama is not lacking in the play though Helen Gardner declares: "If in the first Act the strife is with shadows, in the second there is no strife at all", Even analysing the play while reading it, one is aware of conflict. Thomas has not overcome his shortcomings - he can still he tempted. It is significant that the temptations grow progressively serious as they appear. It is not quite correct to say that the first three temptations are "hardly more than recapitulation of what has now ceased to tempt." Of course, they are retrospective but they have not entirely lost their powers, as Thomas says of the first temptation
Murder in The Cathedral

      Conflict, the essence of drama is not lacking in the play though Helen Gardner declares: "If in the first Act the strife is with shadows, in the second there is no strife at all", Even analysing the play while reading it, one is aware of conflict. Thomas has not overcome his shortcomings - he can still he tempted. It is significant that the temptations grow progressively serious as they appear. It is not quite correct to say that the first three temptations are "hardly more than recapitulation of what has now ceased to tempt." Of course, they are retrospective but they have not entirely lost their powers, as Thomas says of the first temptation:

The impossible is still temptation
The impossible, the undesirable,
Voices that sleep, waking a dead world,
So that the mind may not be whole in the present

      A martyr is not born a saint: Those critics who declare that a martyr is a "hopeless" subject for a drama presume that a martyr is born a saint, i.e., perfect, and thus above the temptations which might beset an ordinary man. This is not quite true. The lay man, as D.E. Jones says, may be able to assess fully the appeal of the material world to the churchman. Of course, Thomas is most dangerously placed when faced with the fourth temptation - the greatest and, to 'Thomas, an unexpected one. It is the most subtle. Outwardly it tells Thomas to become a martyr, but for the wrong reason. The question is whether Thomas does, indeed, overcome this last temptation. Helen Gardner feels that we have to take it for granted that Thomas dies with a pure will. However, as D.E. Jones observes, the very limits of dramatic art prevent Eliot from being more clear at this point. It is not difficult to take Thomas at his word when he says Temptation shall not come in this kind again." Nothing in his action from that moment onwards goes against his words.

      Conflict is real and not illusory: The question of the play being "too passive" to be effective drama, is inevitably related to the question of "conflict". Unless there is conflict, there can be no effective drama. We have seen that a saint or martyr is not above temptations and the conflict is apparent in the challenge faced and overcome by Thomas in Murder in the Cathedral. It is not possible to agree with Helen Gardner here that the "strife is with shadows". The conflict is not illusory; it is real. What one can say is that it is an internal conflict externalized for dramatic ends. It is true that the outcome of the conflict is known; thus suspense is lacking. However, this is equally true of plays based on old legends - when everyone knows the result and yet dramatic interest is not lost, e.g., Oedipus, or any of Shakespeare's plays. The lack of suspense does not make a play undramatic" - or one will never see any play more than once.

      External conflict: In the second part, Helen Gardner says. There is "no strife at all." It is again a debatable assertion. The conflict is very much there in the confrontation between Thomas and the Knights. One can say that it is hardly a 'conflict' as Thomas offers no resistance but passively submits. However, one tends to forget that the play is effective on stage. There is enough dramatic interest in the manner Becket receives the Knights; the treatment Eliot gives them is skilful in engaging the audience's sympathy with Becket.

      Dramatization of a situation: The important factor is to approach Murder in the Cathedral not as a dramatization of a story but rather as a dramatization of a situation and the presentation of a quality of life. Thomas's death is not 'tragic' in the conventional Sense, as Othello's, for example, is. The 'murder' in the Cathedral is not a murder, but an act of redemption. The dramatic effect springs from the different planes from which the characters see the situation. All characters comprehend their situation on a plane lower than that of Thomas. The Knights not only think and feel with all the limitations of their calling, but offer an instance where the difference of levels is realized for the audience. It is significant that the play concentrates, not so much on the historical aspect, as on the present situation. The conflict is between worldly values and spiritual values. The dramatic theme of the play is the nature of martyrdom and its relevance to humanity. The play is more than the "story of Becket"; it is a play about the making of a saint, with a rich contemporary relevance. The attitude of common man is, of course, reflected in the reactions of the Chorus - the poor women of Canterbury. In the reaction of the Chorus to the situations, one gets true dramatic effect.

      Conclusion: Whatever critics may say about the "passivity" of the play, it is undeniable that the play comes across, on staging as a balanced and dramatic experience. lt is a play in which the conflict is not merely between two characters but between two sets of values, and this conflict is seen on different levels - within Thomas and later with the Knights, and in the Chorus of women, throughout the play till the end when they accept the act of Thomas's martyrdom in the right spirit. As the poor women of Canterbury speak at the various moments in the play, we are fully aware of the intense conflict in their mind - a universal conflict between getting involved and staying aloof from a situation. The Knights speeches can be seen as an expression of the worldly evaluation of martyrdom. Murder in the Cathedral is a dramatization of a situation involving that universal moral struggle in which any man, who is obliged by circumstances to choose between life and integrity, participates.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Q. "If in the first act the strife is with shadows in the second there is no strife at all." Refute or substantiate this view of Murder in the Cathedral.
Or
Q. Murder in the Cathedral is too passive to be effective drama and the death of a martyr is a hopeless subject for a drama Do you agree.

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