The first part of the play is set in the Archbishop's Hall on December 2nd, 1170. The Chorus – which comprises women of Canterbury, all commoners – enter and stand near the cathedral. They are uncertain what has drawn them to this place, but have a sense that something great and terrible will soon occur. They are extremely pessimistic about their lives and their potential for happiness. They explain that they are accustomed to suffering. In extremely poetic tones, they describe how the landscape has wizened as winter has come: "the land became/brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud" (175).
They then reflect on Thomas Becket, their Archbishop. It has been seven years since Thomas left in exile, and since then, they "have suffered various oppression,/ But mostly [they] are left to [their] own devices." They live a life that avoids controversy and conflict, since they are thereby left alone by people in power, even if that life has its share of misery. They are particularly concerned about the impending tragedy that they sense is coming, for it will cause them additional and undue challenges. They speak of spring as "ruinous" and summer as "disastrous." Realizing that God controls destiny and that neither they nor "statesman" can influence it, they resign themselves to simply "wait and to witness" (176-177).
Three priests enter the hall. The First Priest repeats the lament that Thomas has been gone seven years, and the Second Priest wonders aloud whether the religious power of Thomas and the Pope has any impact on the political intrigues that exist between the English King Henry and the French King. The Third Priest speaks harshly of worldly political concerns, since they are motivated by greed and personality rather than by justice. The First Priest worries that the "poor at the gate" (the Chorus) will be left behind in their spiritual lives because of such political chaos (177).
A Herald arrives, bringing news that Thomas has returned to England and will soon arrive in Canterbury. The First Priest hopes his return means he has made peace with Henry, but worries it might also mean impending war. The Herald confirms that Thomas has returned not because of a new peace, but from "pride and sorrow," backed by the French King, the Pope, and the legions of English people who celebrate him in the streets. Though no war has been declared, the Herald remembers Thomas's last words to Henry before his exile – "I leave you as a man/Whom in this life I shall not see again" – and worries this means violence will soon follow his return (178). The Herald then leaves.
The First Priest immediately expresses his worry. He remembers how, when Thomas was Chancellor, he was "flattered by the King" but hated by the barons whose affairs he oversaw. In particular, it was Thomas's excessive virtue that made him both effective as Chancellor and hated by the barons, since that sanctimony left him "always isolated." The Second Priest insists that Thomas will give them political guidance and tell them how they should feel. The Third Priest begs for patience – "let the wheel turn… For who knows the end of good or evil?" (179).
The Chorus, who has listened to this entire exchange, does not wish to be embroiled in these questions. Instead, they wish for Thomas to return to France, since his return means they will be confronted by difficulty. They wish to simply "perish in quiet." They give a long litany of their daily lives, explaining the many challenges, miseries, and difficulties that have confronted them during the past seven years, and still they have gone on "living and partly living" (180). Though it is not a pleasant life, they understand it, whereas the disaster that might follow Thomas's return is beyond their comprehension. They repeat their desire for him to return to France and leave them to an existence of "living and partly living."
The Second Priest insults them for this attitude and asks them to "put on pleasant faces" to greet Thomas, who is soon to return (182).
In telling the Becket story, Eliot drew less upon biographical material than upon classical forms of drama to explore his themes. In this opening section, before the protagonist enters, the play already establishes the dramatic context in which Becket's ultimate question – how will I accept martyrdom? – is staged. Here, Eliot establishes his use of Greek tragedy, medieval theology, and poetic verse as the tools to understanding his version of Becket. Additionally, the play's most central themes are introduced even before Becket enters.
The most notable influence on Eliot's style in Murder in the Cathedral is Greek tragedy. As noted below, he is not relying on a pastiche, and so any attempts to deliberately relate his structure to that of a tragedy are imperfect. However, by consciously appropriating some signature elements of tragedy (particularly from the early tragedies written by Aeschylus), Eliot provides some insight into his perspective.
Arguably the most important element of the play is the Chorus. In Greek tragedy, a chorus played a central purpose. Certainly, the heroes of Greek tragedies were 'great' men or women, people of power, prestige, and great ambitions. Even when the heroes were not entirely moral or just, they had big personalities and confronted life with strength and gusto. The chorus was important because it provided a context into which the decisions of these 'great men' were made. Their poetic speeches allowed the playwright to comment on the action, in effect explaining to the audience how he interpreted the myth he was telling. The chorus was also important because it allowed the actual theatre audience to be part of the action. Because a chorus typically comprised common characters, the audience became engaged in the action of the myth. They were given a mouthpiece. As Nietzsche explains in his Birth of Tragedy, the chorus both separated the audience and immersed them in the action, since it allowed them characters with whom they could emotionally relate.
From the beginning of Murder in the Cathedral, the women of Canterbury function in much the same way. Their speeches are often touted as the most magnificent of the play, and many scholars believe it is through the chorus that Eliot creates the only lasting drama of the play. These claims rely on the basic question that the women raise – is it better to live a life of acceptable misery, or to challenge the order of life in hope of something better? The former is not pleasant, but it's predictable and easy to understand, even for a common person. The latter can promise some great reward, but requires a passionate refusal to accept the status quo. At the beginning of this play, the women are firmly committed to the former option. They would prefer an existence of "living and partly living" to one of fiery passion and spiritual responsibility. It is useful to understand this perspective at the top, since the play's dramatic momentum will involve not only a change in Thomas, but also a change in the Chorus by the end.
One other effect of using a Greek chorus in the play is to introduce the theme of fate. The Chorus suggests a supernatural sense to the impending events, since they have felt themselves drawn toward the cathedral. In other words, they have not chosen to come but instead feel as though they are being controlled by God's hand. Because the Greek plays were so reliant on an understanding of fate, the use of a chorus implies the same sense. This is extremely important to understand even before Thomas's entrance, since the story of Thomas and Henry is often told in terms of individual personality conflicts. By aligning the events to come with a fate controlled by God, Eliot announces that his intention will be less to explore the psychology of individuals than to explore the forces by which God runs the universe.
There is a certain social commentary in the use of the chorus as well. Their desire to go on living in comfortable misery rather than in passionate conflict comes partly from their belief that they do not control anything in the temporal world. The wars and personality conflicts of kings and archbishops bring torment to their lives, even though they have no hand in shaping these events. Eliot is not overly optimistic about the strength of the common mob, and the extremely violent imagery they use in their speeches proves this. Instead, Eliot reveals how terribly the common mob is affected by the 'great' men of tragedy. His play will not empower the Chorus in the temporal realm, but rather their growth in the play will involve a spiritual purpose, one they do not yet recognize in this opening.
Though they are higher in social stature, the priests are mostly powerless as well in this opening. They are equally reliant on events outside their control – namely, the return of Thomas Becket and what that will mean for the conflict between church and state. By not naming his priests (or any of his characters except for Thomas), Eliot suggests his intention to tell a mythic story rather than an individual one. Again, his story will explore the spiritual weight of Becket's martyrdom rather than its social or psychological factors. However, the priests do delineate the particulars of these social factors in a way that confronts Eliot's audience with the different interpretations of the murder.
The First Priest is defined by his mournfulness and worry. He is supremely concerned about what trouble might come from the Archbishop's return. This perspective conforms to those who think of Becket's story as one of immovable personalities. The world cannot handle these great men at odds. The Second Priest is more pragmatic and focused on the social and political impact of Thomas's return. He interprets the clash with Henry as being about land ownership and political power. This relates to a common reading of Becket's story: at its core, it is about politics, power, and wealth.
The Third Priest offers the philosophy most aligned with Eliot's: he is patient. He recognizes that they should "let the wheel turn." The "wheel" is a common image from medieval theology. Traced to medieval philosopher Boethieus, the wheel suggests that God sits at the center of a wheel so that He understands all action in the world, while we exist on varying spots of the wheel, unaware of what the force turning the wheel means. In other words, understanding is beyond our control as humans. We argue and attempt to understand the import of Becket's personality, politics, and religiosity, and yet we understand nothing. What Becket will soon do – die for a cause – is much greater than its physical and social factors. In fact, the only way to understand it is to approach it from a higher plane, from the center of the wheel. Naturally, such understanding is impossible for mortal humans, but we must acknowledge our own limitations before even attempting the task of transcendence. Eliot has often cited the medieval allegory Everyman as his primary influence in Murder in the Cathedral, and one can see this influence both in his use of verse and in the expression of this medieval theology.
Both the priests and the Chorus introduce the play's primary thematic conflict in this opening: action vs. suffering. When the Chorus says, "For us, the poor, there is no action,/But only to wait and to witness," they are expressing the main dilemma all humans face in life, according to Eliot (177). Do we attempt to act, to influence things usually beyond our control, or do we simply wait and watch what comes? Both choices have a downside, and Thomas will explore how this theme resonates both in our lives and in his martyrdom in the subsequent sections. Both the Priests and Chorus will learn over the course of the play that to witness something is to be involved in it.
The opening also does important work in establishing Thomas's character, as Eliot sees it. This is done primarily in the First Priest's description of Thomas as Chancellor. What he describes is a man too taken by pride over his own virtue. Thomas's sanctimony left him "always isolated… always insecure." This sanctimony and pride help the audience understand the flaw that Thomas will have to overcome in order to die a true, holy martyr. In effect, this sets up Thomas's dramatic conflict in the play.
Finally, it is worth establishing the various poetic devices Eliot uses in the play. There is a deliberately archaic quality to Murder in the Cathedral. In addition to the medieval theology already discussed, Eliot's use of verse marks the play as something non-modern, which is particularly relevant considering the fame he had reached for modernist works like The Wasteland earlier in his career. There are two ways to understand this. The first is that the verse links his story to the liturgy of a mass. Many scholars have spent time dissecting the ways that Eliot's structure parallels that of a Catholic or Anglican mass, which has a similar dichotomy to that of Greek tragedy. While the higher figures are on stage dictating a philosophy, the audience is not meant to be passive, but instead is included in the action. Without an audience/congregation to respond to the liturgy, the ritual has no impact. By using verse, Eliot stresses that he considers his play to be less story than ritual action, through which an audience will be transformed much as the Chorus will be transformed.
The verse's shifts can help us understand character. Sometimes, characters will rhyme (it does not happen in this opening section), which indicates a suaveness or confidence. Another example can be found in the "living and partly living" speech that the Chorus gives. Notice how during their litany of misery, the verse uses short lines and the repetition of "living and partly living." This call-and-response structure gives the speech a sense of order. It contrasts with the lines that begin with, "But now a great fear is upon us…" Thomas's return brings the fear of chaos, and the lines therefore grow longer and less structured. Eliot frequently uses verse to such effect.
Finally, Eliot constantly uses literary elements. In his essay "Hamlet and His Problems," Eliot introduced a literary concept called the "objective correlative," in which an objective element reflects the interior state of a character. The Chorus shows frequent use of the objective correlative in the way it describes the seasons. They are ironically plagued by summer and comforted by the ravages of winter, which symbolizes their preference of quiet misery over loud conflict. The heat of summer parallels the heat of a passion they would like to avoid, and so it makes sense that the summer is so brutal. Many of their subsequent descriptions of landscapes or weather reflect their fears. Similarly, they tend to personify Earth, to see it as moving beyond their control. It plagues or rewards them as it sees fit, as though the Earth itself were an individual.