Murder in the Cathedral
At St. John's Chapel through Sunday
From seven years in France, Thomas a Becket returned to England in uneasy peace with his king. Four weeks later he was murdered upon the altar of Canterbury Cathedral.
The fabric of history, which T. S. Eliot stretched upon a strangely spiritual frame, is restored to a more human and traditional shape by Richard Corum's brilliant direction of Murder in the Cathedral. Corum's work gains its vigor by rejecting Eliot's theological interpretation of Becket's martyrdom. From a poetically beautiful but theatrically impossible play, he has created an intellectually indecisive drama of enormous power.
...there was no mystery
About this man who played a certain part in history.
To remove all doubt of Becket's motives, the author placed the demands of the world in the mouths of four tempters, whose role was to persuade, not to portray men. The director must force these speakers to understate, and must impose evenness and unity upon them. Instead, Corum has allowed the tempters to act as individuals who have personalities of their own instead of intellectual pawns who play Eliot's spiritual game. Only Richard Silberg remains impersonally persuasive; Philip Alston Stone, Stephen Kennedy, and Andreas Teuber have created personalities for themselves (in Teuber's case, and Eliot's lines do not make such a transformation possible, and he resorts to wringing his hands and throwing his body about).
Becket's acceptance of martyrdom is the purest spiritual achievement in Eliot's play. He transcends even the temptation of becoming a martyr so that he may be worshipped. Corum has destroyed Eliot's clear position. He has decided to return the four tempters to stage as the knights who murder the archbishop, and the tempter who offered Becket immortality through martyrdom asks, after the death, whether Becket did not will himself to be killed. For Eliot this was a rhetorical question, answered in the cool detachment of Becket's final lines, and by the contrast between Becket and the terrified village women.
The temptations of Becket were absolutely personal matters in Eliot's play; the murderers were historical phenomena which he sought to make irrelevant by giving them final speeches that were comically out of phase with the spiritual issue of the drama.
In David Gullette's portrayal of the archbishop, humanity overcomes certainty. He turns to arguing, and frequently seeks to persuade: he does not trust to the power of Eliot's spare poetry. His Becket is strong and individual; Eliot believed that the martyr was a spiritual ideal who had gone beyond humanity.
The temptation to act rather than speak the words almost overcomes the chorus of peasant women, which makes an excessive search for meaning in the first act. Their lot is made harder by the Gregorian chancel choir, whose lucid chants sets outrageously high standards of precision and tone. Even so, in the second act their tone is just that of the play, and the result is impressive.
T.S. Eliot himself would have had difficulty reading much of his play in a way that would preserve the spiritual content. Corum has succeeded, by his reinterpretation, in producing a work whose ascetic tenor otherwise presents insurmountable problems.
The Adams House Drama Society has staged a spectacularly fine production. The atmosphere of St. John's Chapel is exploited to the limit, and the costumes are beautiful. The lighting is distractingly inaccurate, but the use of space and extraordinarily vocal clarity keep attention on the actors rather than flickering lights.
And still I wonder, all dramatic problems aside, whether the Archbishop murdered this evening was really a saint.