Answer: Eliot’s play foregrounds the theme of Christian martyrdom as Becket realizes that by being killed within the premises of the Canterbury cathedral at the hands of the Knights, he is going to become the champion of God, to vindicate the preordained glory of a martyr to his faith.
In this play we have an element of ritual which combines both the Greek and the medieval Christian notion of sin. In the theme of Becket’s martyrdom we have both the sense of sin and fate modified by the Christian idea of sainthood and crucifixion.
After his joining the Anglo-Catholic church, T.S.Eliot was commissioned to write a play to be enacted at the Canterbury festival in 1935. Eliot chose the chronicle material of the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by King Henry the Second’s men in the Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Eliot transformed the historical conflict between the King and the Archbishop, between the secular head of England and her ecclesiastical head, into a Christian martyrdom play, chiefly modeled on the medieval Morality drama, a play in the verse medium that attempts to reinforce the liturgical origins of drama in England.
The purpose of this play is to interpret the significance of martyrdom and the audience being invited to participate in the celebration of an act of martyrdom. Part-11 has something of the quality of liturgical celebration. It is not a plain representation of the historical fact which is lice that of the Holy Communion to the last super.
So the audience is invited to participate in sprite and through the act watching its link with the communion of saints’. The play is a devotional morality. But it is not ordinary morality. It is drama beyond drama written as room within spiritual self-conflict of a saint.
In the first part of his play Eliot highlights the temptations of Becket by the Four Tempters, and this episode is clearly reminiscent of the temptations of Christ himself. In the second part, Becket resigns his will to the Will of God, and calmly surrenders his head before the swords of the Four Knights as sent by King Henry for the Archbishop’s assassination. The intermediate section in prose shows the preparation of the Archbishop as he delivers his sermon on martyrdom.
The murder of Becket is the sacrificial death of a martyr, a re-enactment of the martyrdom of Christ, a validation of Dante’s famous note in Paradiso:”en la sua voluntate e nostra pace(in His Will is our peace)”.
In 1928, T. S. Eliot wrote, “Literature can be no substitute for religion, not merely because we need religion, but because we need literature as well as religion”. The dilemma of the religious in literature is a prevalent problem in all of Eliot’s works. However, to consider a piece of literature as ‘religious’ often involved not considering it as ‘literature’. One of Eliot’s attempts to remove the lines that divided religion and literature is in his play, Murder in the Cathedral. Here Eliot tries to blend religious with literature. In Murder in the Cathedral, he tries to make the two indistinguishable, and partially succeeds.
Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral was written for the Canterbury festival in 1935 and like Greek drama, its theme and form are rooted in religion, ritual purgation and renewal of faith in a modern civilization that was falling apart because spirituality which is the nexus of human existence had been ignored in favor of scientific, technological and intellectual advancement.
In MC T.S Eliot made his most direct effort to give theatrical form to religious experience, or to infuse a substance of religious experience into theatrical form. The form of Murder in the Cathedral has in the mind the goal of mixing the literary dramatic form with the religious and spiritual form. On a superficial level, there are connections to religious events within the action of the play. In act one, Becket’s arrival from exile is met with “frenzied enthusiasm”, similar to Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem. But as Palm Sunday comes before Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, so is Becket’s suffering and death foreshadowed by the women of the chorus.
The religious elements: In this play T.S. Eliot has shown how drama can still be an instrument of community in the two senses corresponding to its original function as an extension of the liturgy and as an interpretation of god’s word in terms of flesh and blood.