TS Eliot is well known to many; The Waste Land and The Four Quartets are well loved and well studied, and even those not given to poetry have at least a passing familiarity with an homage to his work in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (Fun fact: Cats is derived from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). Eliot also wrote plays; Sweeney Agonistes was written in 1926, The Rock in 1934, and Murder in the Cathedral in 1935.
The Collection holds a number of Eliot’s works (sadly, or not depending on your point of view, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is not among them.) Hunting through the collection, I made a point of tracking down volumes which were listed as being produced during the publication year. This was back in the fall, when the heat had just broken and the thought of prowling around the library in search of volumes held a certain appeal, so long as one could escape to go apple picking right after.
I distinctly remember finding Murder in the Cathedral in the Newman room; it was right after I had been able to relax, knowing that an original Charles Dickens was not sitting on the shelf for all and sundry (how happy I was for the catalog to be wrong on that score!) The Eliot works were newer, less than 100 years old, so there was no concern that the book would be hanging on by the threads that made up the paper. Sure enough, there on the shelf stood a slim black volume, stamped Murder in the Cathedral. It was a wholly unassuming volume, as so many are from that time. There was not detail work or embossing on the cover, nothing to make you think this book was anything other than a text book. And yet…
For those unfamiliar with the work, the titular murder is that of Thomas Becket in 1170; the Cathedral in question is Canterbury Cathedral in England. Even without being turned into a play, the incident is dramatic. Henry II, the King of England and founder of the Plantagenet dynasty clashed with his archbishop early and often once Thomas stopped being the King’s friend and started being the archbishop he was appointed to be. Famously (and inaccurately) Henry is said to have shouted “Will someone not rid me of this troublesome priest?” Some say turbulent, some say meddlesome. Edward Grim, a contemporary and witness of the assassination, is generally trusted when he records Henry’s utterance as “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Several knights took the statement to heart, rode out, and murdered Becket within the Cathedral itself.
The play was first performed in Canterbury; not just in the town, but in the Chapter House of the Cathedral itself. It has been performed many times, as well as being made into a film and turned into an opera. Portions of the original play were scrapped in the editing process; they later became the basis for Burnt Norton, the first of The Four Quartets. Copies of Murder in the Cathedral, as well as The Four Quartets, can be found in the Newman Room.