May 26, 2021

The Descent into Hell: Murder in the Cathedral (1936)

ow far back do you think television goes? Certainly back to the 1950s, and you're probably aware of programs that were broadcast in the late 1940s, but farther back than that? As far back as World War II? Even farther back than that, do you think? 

How about 1936?

The BBC had been experimenting with television as early as 1930, and it began regular television service on November 2, 1936. However, a month earlier, the network made a test broadcast which has come to be recognized as BBC television’s "first identifiable drama," and it is this drama that provides us with the jumping-off point for today's discussion: T.S.Eliot's 1934 verse play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral.

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When it comes to the life of St. Thomas Becket, it's probably best to follow the advise proffered at the conclusion of the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and print the legend, not the fact. The truth of the matter is compelling enough: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, formerly Lord Chancellor to King Henry II, died in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral, assassinated by agents of Henry, following a long dispute during which Beckett sought to limit the authority of the State over the Church. The story of Becket's murder never fails to move; his fearlessness in the face of death, and willingness to sacrifice his life, can be seen in this eyewitness account by one of his biographers, Edward Grim, who was himself injured in the attack on Becket:

Detail of the murder of Becket,
taken from a 1225 Psalter
"...the impious knight... suddenly set upon him and [shaved] off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God... Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.' But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow... his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church... The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights... placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, 'We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.'"

A little over two years later, he was canonized as a saint and martyr by Pope Alexander III. In addition to being revered by the faithful, he has, thanks to plays, operas and novels, become one of the best-known of all the saints, his name synonymous with the struggle for religious freedom against government oppression. 

Now, I'm sure there are medieval experts out there, perhaps even some who read this blog (though I can't for the life of me imagine why) who would point out that the details of Becket's life, and his interaction with both Henry and with his fellow churchmen are much more complex than the dramas written about him might suggest. But human beings are, after all, human. (God writes straight with crooked lines.) And anyway we're not writing the biography of St. Thomas; there are enough good ones out there. What we're interested in here is the lesson of St. Thomas Becket's life—the moral of the story, so to speak. That lesson is a heroic one, every bit as heroic as the true details of his death, with as much to tell us today as it did nearly 900 years ago, and it is best-told in Eliot's famous play.

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Murder in the Cathedral was an interesting choice by the BBC, and perhaps an obvious one. It was currently playing at the Duchess Theatre, after having premiered only the year before in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral—on location in the truest sense, only 50 yards away from the very spot on when Becket was murdered. Starring as Becket was Robert Speaight, whose performance in the role would win critical acclaim and launch him on a long and prominent career as an actor and writer. 

The broadcast, which originated at the BBC's small studio at Alexandra Palace in London, consisted of several scenes transplanted from the Duchess, with Speaight as Becket and the play's producer, E. Martin Browne, in the dual role of the Fourth Tempter and Fourth Knight. In his book Adventures in Vision, John Swift references the significance of the broadcast, and how producer George More O'Ferrall realized television's potential to become a new and distinct medium. Murder in the Cathedral, Swift writes, "marked the beginning of the use of symbolic effects. In the stage version Becket sees the temptations in flesh and blood; in television these were presented as ghosts whispering in his ear, by skillful positioning and 'double takes.'" O'Ferrall himself explains how the scene allowed the production "to get away from both theatre and film." 

We saw Thomas Becket in close-up, soliloquising about his temptations, and, as he weakened, the temptation appeared, whispering into his ear. As Thomas strengthened in purpose, the vision vanished. For, by placing the tempter before a separate camera, it was possible to superimpose the tempter on to the picture of Becket and fade it in and out at will. 

O'Ferrall had other innovations in mind as well, including the use of a device called a Penumbrascope, which cast shadows onto backcloth, creating the illusion of architectural features such as archways—perfect for the period being depicted in the play. It was simple, quick, and created a much greater effect than the traditional use of black and white drop curtains.

Murder in the Cathedral
made its television debut in a test broadcast on October 19, about three weeks before the official start of service. Having successful passed the test, the play was broadcast at 3:30 p.m. on December 7 on a program called Theatre Parade, and was repeated again on December 21. 

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During the course of the play, Becket is visited by four Tempters. The First Tempter urges Becket to choose safety and compromise with his old friend Henry, who made him first Lord Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury. The Second Tempter tells him to return to serve the King, with the attendant wealth and power. The Third Tempter encourages Becket to unite with the barons in a coalition to overthrow Henry.

And then there's the Fourth Tempter. 

E. Martin Browne, the producer of the play's original production at Canterbury, himself played the Fourth Tempter, and it was probably the Fourth Tempter that George More O'Ferrall was thinking of in particuar when he described the special effects used in the broadcast. And for good reason: it is the Fourth Tempter who proves to be the most dangerous of them all. To Becket, he offers the ultimate Christian prize: martyrdom. At first it seems to be no temptation at all; after all, Becket can be almost certain that his course of action will inevitably lead to his death. But glory, with its attendant fame, is incompatible with martyrdom; it is an act not of self-sacrifice, but of pride

Vanity of vanities, the Good Book warns us, all is vanity.

The ghostly Tempter whispers suavely in Becket's ear, teases him with the glory and honor that will posthumously accrue to his name. It is the pivotal moment of the play, and Becket's ultimate rejection of this siren song—his decision to accept his fate rather than seek it out—illustrates the centrality of his conscience in the choices he makes; he can do no other.

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I mentioned earlier that there was an obvious reason for the Beeb to choose Murder in the Cathedral as its first televised drama. As critic Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote, "the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral." 

Power is a strange thing: the more one has, the more one wants. And those who possess it, whether individuals or governments or other institutions of authority, are reluctant to ever give it up, even a fraction. What's more, they're likely to view as a threat anyone or anything that attempts to deny that power as a threat. To resist, in other words. 

Becket challenges Henry, 14th century
The state has seen the church as a threat for as far back as either of them goes: it was how the Egyptians saw Moses, how Rome regarded Jerusalem, how Herod perceived the Messiah, how the Sanhedrin judged Christ, how Henry II viewed Becket. Few institutions guard their power as jealously as the state does, and anything that even remotely vies for the hearts of the people, a description that certainly fits religion. The state has always found something threatening in Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar," given that the state generally views everything as being within its possession.

Separation of church and state is enshrined as one of the fundamental principles of the American nation, yet the phrase doesn't appear anywhere in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson made the phrase famous when he used it to describe the practical implication of the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." 

But what does this mean? To Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, the wall of separation was intended to safeguard the church from the corruptions of the state, not the other way around. Certainly Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous deist in American history, would agree; it was his belief that religion was "a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity," a necessary inspiration for the average American to do good. The Founders, then, saw the state as being informed by, rather than protected from, religion.

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There is the vanity of the martyr seeking glory, and then there is the vanity of the leader seeking power. 

It's been said people show their true colors during a crisis. It's where the rubber meets the road, where we see what people are truly made of when there's no place to hide. A noted political theorist once admonished his disciples that a crisis presents an opportunity that should never be wasted, and this is surely what happened with the virus lockdown of the past year.

Among the many "emergency" powers that leaders gathered and held to their breasts, one of the most notable was the suppression of church services. In some places, they were banned altogether; other, more enlightened, communities limited them to a laughably small number of attendees. Some places, here and abroad, took the opportunity to eliminate any recourse to sacramental life, driving both ministers and parishioners underground. As the absurdity of this position became increasingly apparent, the justifications used by political leaders to keep such restrictions in place became increasingly contorted. That many religious leaders cooperated in these acts shows only that vanity is not the sole province of the state.

Coincidentally or not, this odd period in history overlapped with the shadow being cast by the new administration as it assumed the seat of power. 

Richard Burton faces the executioner's sword in 
It was, in fact, impossible to ignore an undercurrent of hostility to religion, especially as a usurper of the power claimed by the state. We were presented with a man touted as "devout" by his supporters, seemingly set on wiping out any protection afforded the country's religious institutions. And this gets to the crux of the dispute between Becket and Henry: royal supremacy over the English Church. The specifics of Becket's argument concerned jurisdiction over clergy who committed secular crimes, but as we witness the efforts of the contemporary state to impose secular law on churches and institutions regardless of how the law conflicts with religious belief, it's impossible not to see the parallels between 1170 and 2021. 

King Henry is alleged to have famously asked, rhetorically, if no one would rid him of "this meddlesome priest," and his four knights acted. Today, the knights are big business and big politics, acting in service of the state, and so doctors and nurses are told to perform medical procedures that violate their beliefs; administrators are told to adopt policies that violate their beliefs; the faithful are told that their beliefs constitute hate speech, that those who stand up for those beliefs are to be ostrasized, put at risk of losing their jobs, threatened with bodily harm. Their social media is regulated or censored unless they conform to the "correct" set of beliefs, one approved by the secular authorities. Considering it all, Becket might have wondered just how this leader could be considered "devout." One would think that he could scarcely do more damage to the church if he set out to destroy it himself, to build back better with a more secular form of worship.

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Between Acts 1 and 2 of Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot crafted an interlude from Becket's actual Christmas Day sermon of 1170, four days before the Archbishop's death. In that sermon, Becket reflects on "the strange contradiction that Christmas is a day both of mourning and rejoicing, which Christians also do for martyrs," and tells his flock that "it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr." Coming as it does after Becket's rejection of the Fourth Tempter, it demonstrates his acceptance of his death with the certainty that good will eventually come from it. 

About twenty years later, Eliot’s poem "The Cultivation of Christmas Trees" hearkens to that Christmas Day sermon. Eliot tells the story of a child who will, with age and wisdom, come to understand that "the joy of Christmas is disturbed not only by the premonition of the Passion, but also by the uncertainty of the Second Coming."

          The accumulated memories of annual emotion
          May be concentrated into a great joy
          Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
          When fear came upon every soul:
          Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
          And the first coming of the second coming.

It occurs to me that the 1936 broadcast of Murder in the Cathedral, primitive as it might have been, serves as a perfect metaphor for our times. For just as George More O'Ferrall's superimposed images prefigured today's special effects, St. Thomas Becket's confrontation with King Henry II prefigured today's confrontation between church and state.

And if Eliot is right that the Second Coming overshadows the joy of Christmas, so also does it overshadow everything we do today. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson—you know, the guy who talked about the separation of church and state—who also said, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever." TV  

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