Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral Study Guide

In 1935, T.S. Eliot, famed poet of modernist despair and convert to the Anglican Church, was commissioned to write a play for Kent's annual Canterbury Festival. There were few explicit restrictions on subject matter.

That Eliot chose to dramatize the death of Thomas Becket in his play Murder in the Cathedral was therefore both totally appropriate and somewhat unexpected. Considering that Eliot was such an innovative writer, his decision to tread the familiar ground of Canterbury's death posed an interesting question about what he would bring to the story.

What Eliot created in the play was a mixture of theology and tragedy. The play is set solely around Canterbury in the days after Thomas returned from seven years of exile in France. Though based around historical record, the play eschews psychology and political interpretations in favor of a more serene and spiritual consideration of the sacrifice of martyrdom. Written to be performed in the actual Canterbury Cathedral, the play is sculpted to mirror the experience of a Catholic mass; Eliot even gives the actor playing Thomas a sermon during the Interlude that he would have preached alone at the pulpit.

The play was a great success at the festival, and soon enough opened in London, after which it toured England. Since that time, Murder in the Cathedral has remained Eliot's arguably best known and most produced play. It has spawned several film and theatrical interpretations and remains an important part of the Thomas Becket myth in the Western world.