Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama

Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama Nineteenth century England, although productive in other fields of literature, was rather weak in drama. But it was not perhaps for want of trying. Practically all the great poets, Wordsworth, Shelley Byron, Browning, Tennyson, tried their hand at poetic drama, but failed to bring about a revival of the genre. Thus, there was no drama of significance between Sheridan’s plays, and Shaw’s and Wilde’s early efforts in the late 19th century. Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama Even these latter playwrights wrote in prose. Though witty, and social in spirit, Shaw’s plays deal mostly with social evils.


Murder in the Cathedral is a fictionalized verse drama of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket written by TS Eliot and first performed in 1935. Written and performed at a time when fascism was on the rise in continental Europe, the play considers the agency of the individual in resisting temporal authoritarianism.

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Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama There is a concentration on the events of the last few days of Thomas’s life. The play begins with Thomas’s return to England. Historical information is given incidentally. Dramatic intensity is heightened by the exposition concentrating on the present situation. The speeches of the Chorus, the Priests and the Messenger serve to inform on the present happenings. Necessary historical facts are Conveyed without delaying the beginning of the action or interrupting ts movement once it has begun. Historical background is thus smoothly and naturally blended with the action, occurring as it does in Becket’s encounters with the Tempters.

In life, Thomas Becket was a close personal friend and chancellor of Henry II, though he had decided to devote his life to the (Catholic) Church from a relatively young age. During this time Becket enjoyed the earthly pleasure of wealth and influence in the state and even led contingents of knights too fight alongside the king. It was ultimately Henry who suggested that the vacant Archbishopric of Canterbury Cathedral (the highest Church office in England) go to Becket, even though he initially refused. Becket was conscious that were he to become Archbishop the two would likely no-longer be friends, and Henry may even come to hate Becket because the king had been infringing on the rights of the Church, which Becket would not allow. Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama Eventually, despite his protestations Becket was elected to the seat, and as predicted his relationship with the king became strained. After his appointment Becket lived piously, his influence and friends at court ceased to be of importance to him, and he and the king often clashed over the relative powers of the Church and the State. After several other conflicts between the two, the final straw occurred in 1170 wherein Becket excommunicated the Archbishop of York and two other bishops for presiding over the coronation of Henry II’s son, which was the traditional right of Canterbury. Angered by this latest assertion of power Henry condemned Becket. Regardless of the king’s intent, it appeared to those in attendance to be an order for Becket’s death.

In the words of John Peter, the chorus in Murder in the Cathedral rouse “us to participate wholeheartedly in the emotional crises that arise, supplying the action with a background that is, like music, all-pervasive. “This leads us to a consideration of the language and versification, through which the ‘poetry’ is palpable. Eliot, by his own admission, chose his idiom very carefully. Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama  “As a period piece and something out of the ordinary”, observes Donald Hall, “it required a special language”. While writing of a remote period Eliot could not use modern vocabulary style. The importance of Eliot’s versification in July emphasized Sean Lucy’s remark. “The language is the verse, which is the action, which is the theme, which is the atmosphere, which is the meaning.” 

Murder in the Cathedral in the process essays out as a poetic drama essentially Eliot’s own. It not only integrates poetry and drama and restores lost links between religion and theatre, but is also instrumental in making poetic drama a part of contemporary tradition. Eliot gives his drama inwardness, an introspection that goes beyond the reach of outward’ naturalism and captures a ‘deeper’ reality of modern times.


Revival of Poetic Drama :-

W.B. Yeats was of the view that drama should turn away from naturalism or realism and rationalism and get its results through the emotions; that can be achieved only through poetry. Yeats and some other Irish dramatists like J.M. Synge and Sean O’ Casey contributed to the revival of this genre. Some of their plays, though in prose, had a poetic quality about them. Stephen Phillip’s Herod in 1901 could be seen as, the ‘poetic play marking the beginning of the revival of poetic drama in the 20th century. Some other names are also important in this revival movement. They are John Masefield, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Fry. The greatest influence was T.S. Eliot who formulated a dramatic theory regarding poetic drama in a number of critical essays and lectures.

Eliot’s Views :-

Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama At the time of writing Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s view was that the audience should be made aware that what they were watching that the audience should not be made aware of the medium but only be concerned with the drama as a whole.

He further said that the subject for poetic drama should be such that it cannot be adequately dealt with in prose, i.e., a subject that can he treated in prose was not fit for poetic drama. Poetic drama had to deal with intense emotions basic to the human heart. Poetic drama has a richness in it and this was due to the presence of an “under- pattern” – a kind of doubleness in the action as if it took place on two planes at once. Poetic drama also had the ability to achieve a better concentration and unity – because verse by its very nature gave richness, depth and unity to a play. There should further be, said Eliot, a moral attitude on the author’s part which he can share with his audience. Eliot also held the view that the author would have to follow certain conditions and conventions in writing poetic drama. Self-control was necessary, if he had to succeed in communicating to his audience, and communication in drama was a great problem as it had to be immediate and done through strange actors and directors.

Modern poetic drama, in Eliot’s words, “is still very experimental. I do not believe that there is one poet in the theatre today who can feel assured that he had found the right form, the right idiom, the right range of human emotions and experience to manipulate” At a time when the drama was qualitatively written in prose, Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral evolved a pattern of poetic drama which employs verse to communicate the most impassioned in the realistic setting of the modern theatre, Eliot attempts to look beyond the outer world of fleeting changes and material decay, thereby arriving at a world within that is eternal and abiding.

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