Murder in the Cathedral

25 Mar 2020 9:32 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Invited in November 1934 to write a play about St. Thomas À Becket for the Canterbury festival in June, Eliot works swiftly on his drama during the months of Hale’s absence. In his goodbye letter on 7 December, he tells her that he hopes to write something worthy of her. On 14 December, scorning the art-loving Anglo-American expatriates of Florence, he asserts that he is interested not in Art but in people--although they are pigs and rats--and in writing plays about them. He isn’t sure about the Canterbury deal, which may fall through and won’t bring him any money, but he finds the subject good. A month later, he has written five pages of his play and is depressed by his pedestrian dialogue; he thinks his choruses are better. In two days, Becket will arrive (in his play) and Eliot will have to find something for him to say. 

On 24 January Eliot announces that he must finish his play by 1 April in order to get a £125 advance from Faber, and he begins trying titles out on Hale; he will propose three different titles before hitting on the final one.  The first is "The Archbishop Murder Case" (mentioned in several published letters of later date, e.g. 7.523). By 30 January, Eliot says he has brought the Saint to Canterbury and has no trouble making him talk, but none of his characters do anything; only talk and generalize about Church and State. He hopes the second part, in which the Archbishop is murdered, will be easier, but even the murder may turn out only to be talk. He wishes Hale could tell him how to get people to move about more on the stage. The next day he tells her that he is not taking any more engagements until after the Archbishop is murdered.

Reporting on 7 February that Group Theatre director Rupert Doone likes his lyrical and choral passages but finds the recitative parts dull, Eliot plans to make his play more formal. He explains on 12 February that he is choosing an alliterative middle-English verse, like that of “Everyman," to show his strengths and conceal his weaknesses.  Currently, the Archbishop is being tempted by Spiritual Pride, but he will prevail. Eliot wants Hale to be in London for the performance of his play. On 14 February he tries out another detective-fiction title on her in the form of a question about who killed the archbishop, but four days later confesses he is completely without ideas for what to call his play. He wants a title that suggests a murder mystery, not a conventional church drama, and appeals to all kinds of theatre-goers and readers. He is cautiously optimistic about the success of his play but admits he finds the experience humbling, because the most beautiful poetry cannot save a dull drama. On 27 February he proposes "Fear in the Way" (drawing on Ecclesiastes 12.5; see Letters 7.526). But she doesn’t like this, nor does anybody else, apparently, and in March he wants to avoid titles that imply either a detective novel or an Elizabethan tragedy. He begins the revision process.

In a long letter of April 2, Eliot intertwines thoughts about his spiritual state, his family, and the play he has been writing. He seems to be responding to Hale’s frustration with her relatives and desire to reach a more tranquil state. His own family, he says, set higher standards for themselves than other people; it was assumed that the Eliots were more favored by God and had to behave accordingly. They believed the rich were wicked to have made so much money and not to have given it away. His Grandfather Eliot dominated their world from his grave and continues to force him to serve on committees and meddle in public affairs. But it is the shade of his mother who wants him to make retreats and keep vigils. He finds it difficult to relinquish the illusory goal of an emotional and spiritual equilibrium that will make life easy, but there is no reaching this goal; one simply must go on trying. This reflection makes him think about the paradox that if one became aware of being a Saint, one would no longer be one. 

The play is finished, he tells her, and it will be called Murder in the Cathedral

March 29: Thanks to the arrival of vol. 7 of Eliot's letters at my doorstep, I was able to amend this post to include more information about the working titles of his play.


  • 25 Mar 2020 10:32 AM | David Chinitz (Administrator)
    Fascinating stuff! Thanks, Frances.
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  • 25 Mar 2020 12:52 PM | CR Mittal
    A glimpse into the very soul of Eliot.
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