Viewed by V. S. M. FRASER It was no accident that the first London performance of Murder in the Cathedral at the Mercury Theatre, should be given on All Saints' day, for the feast itself was knit tap with the theme. W. P. Ker once said of Samson Agonistes that it was of the kind of dramatic poetry which is akin to music, rendering the feeling directly, so that every hearer received and understood it in his Own way. Samson was not an Isolated hero, but all the heroism of the world embodied in one man, while the chorus of herdsmen was not—as so often happens in modern imitations of Greek tragedy—an interlude of moralising in lyrical verse, but the musical interpretation of the accuse t ion.
Mr. Eliot's play is in the great tradition. Like Samson Agortistes and like Paradise Regained, it is a succession of scenes of debate between the powers of Heaven and of Hell. Thomas Becket is not an archbishop only, but the embodiment of all Christian saints and martyrs, tempted in the inmost citadel of the soul but triumphant. The chorus of the women of Canterbury is more than the symbol of the common people of England, "living and partly living." Beyond the life of every day it becomes the enduring soul of humanity, the returning cycle of the seasons, the very spirit of the Benedicite.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil Few great historical figures lend themselves, as does St. Thomas Becket to a dramatic rendering of the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. As u young man he had rustled it with the best at the court of Henry II, as chancellor he had been the brain and arm of his king— temporal power in action, but the last most subtle and insidious temptation of the Devil was that of spiritual power and influence. A martyr's death would ensure him fame and reverence adown the ages, a glory not within the power of kings. Therein lay the most bitter struggle—the desire of the right thing for the wrong reason.
The Meaning of Martyrdom Greatly daring, Mr. Eliot has devoted one scene to a Christmas sermon. ltS theme is the Christmas Mass—the union of the joy of the Nativity with the anguish of the Passion, the feast kept but one day later, of Stephen the first martyr, and the peace of Christ, given—not as the wocIel gives—but working out a divine pattern to which, except in moments of sight, those living in time are blind.
That sermon is the saint's answer to the obtle assailing of his soul. A man may come to the same end by many divers ways, and martyrdom may he the acceptance of the will of God. It is a response, not an act of self-will -the answer of the souls of the blest in the Paradiso: "His will is our peace." Thenceforward he is a rock—a rock such as that on which the Church is built.
The Human Apologia With fine dramatic imagination Mr. Eliot makes of the four tempters the knights' who later slay the archbishop. In turn they make their apologia for the deed, and it is here that the dramatist's wit and sense of human character find scope. An Englishman's love of fair play, the complete disinterestedness of the deed, the supremacy of the State, the rashness of the archbishop—amounting to suicide while of unsound mind—suchare the i chords they pluck. The scene s distinct from the rest—a human patterning on the divine fabric which makes of the play an office of the saints, a liturgy of holiness.
The Rhythms of Life That unfolding is apparent even in the verse. In the earlier scenes it has the alliterative rhythms of medieval England —the unchanging life of the common people from before the Norman conquest to Piers Plowman. Later it is the language of the kingly Psalmist, of the whole life of the Church in her liturgy.
The chorus of women interprets the action. Through fear and horror, through the void of immaterial evil, they come at last to the requiem of a saint—to the peace that the world cannot give.
In one of his essays, Mr. Eliot says that the theatre is the best place to convey the pleasures of poetry—that in it " the poet may find some fulfilment in exciting communal pleasure, an immediate compensation for the pains of turning blood into ink. . . . If beyond keeping the interest of a crowd of people for the necessary length of time, the author can make a play which is real poetry, so much the better." Surely in Murder in the Cathedral Mr. Eliot has attained his end.
A Voice as the Noise of Many Waters and the Voice of a Great Thunder There can be no greater tribute to the producer, Mr. Martin Browne, than the difficulty of remembering the play as a production rather than an actuality of which we were eye-witnesses. Mr Robert Speaight, the protagonist, seemed less to interpret the archbishop than to live, move, and have his being in that world of the spirit to which the liturgy gives utterance.
(Continued in column 3) His presence had all the dignity and heart-strings.
simplicity of a prince of that Church whose founder was a Galilxan peasant, but it was his voice which plucked all An appreciation of the work of individual actors appeared following the performance at Canterbury, but it is hard to know what to praise more in the chorus —the perfect timing. or the grouping and movement. Even the folds of the draperies suggested that loveliest of Greek statues in England, the moui ning woman, while Mr. Eric Newton's dignified and beautiful cathedral background so satisfied the outward eye as to leave the inward unimpeded sight.
A Mug's Game.
" Great wisdom," says another living poet of the dearest saint of France, "seeks to say the obvious," and Mr. Eliot has elsewhere described poetry as " a mug's game." Long then, may he be a mug, for what is it to be a mug but to be simple? In the time of the breaking of nations, when the wise and prudent are confounded, the mugs lift up their hands to God and find in his will their peace.