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The Fourth Tempter

In Murder in the Cathedral (1936), four tempters visit Thomas Becket as he retires to his rooms. The first three tempt the Archbishop and former Chancellor of England with royal favour, carefree joy, political power, and the support of English lords. An unexpected, mysterious Fourth Tempter (“you know me, but have never seen my face”) offers a vision of heavenly glory such as only martyrs and saints enjoy. Becket admits to “have thought of these things,” but also spurns the last tempter. Whereas the first three aspects of temptation were easy to dismiss, the fourth is especially powerful in picturing the archbishop´s secret ambitions.

A film adaptation of Eliot’s play was directed by George Hoellering in 1951. The director persuaded the author to join with him in writing the screenplay, adding an opening trial scene with Henry II at Northampton Castle. Eliot was also asked to record the text of his play, so that actors became familiar with its intrinsic music and rhythm. He agreed to take an active role in Hoellering’s project – curious to learn how cinema worked, and keen to explore the possibilities of poetry in that medium.

In reflecting on verse in film [*], Eliot argued that image and word should have equal standing and be in perfect conjunction. He also laid emphasis on audibility, comparing cinemas with theatres: in a cinema, it was possible for all audience members to listen in much the same way. Sound technology, therefore, opened favourable prospects for the reception of poetry in film. Eliot would have a further opportunity to contribute to this development when Hoellering asked him to lend his voice to the Fourth Tempter.

In this scene of the film, we hear Eliot’s voice, his characteristic reading tone and inflections with background music, which builds up the tension. We see a variety of images, outdoor and indoor, still and moving – clouds covering the sun, the knights riding towards Canterbury, a crucifix, a column capital, a wall relief, decorated tiles. But more importantly, we see Becket. First we see him from a distance, in the seclusion of a small chapel; then the camera follows him. Finally we are close up, rather as a ghostly presence that may be identified with the Fourth Tempter. His speech is, as a means of psychological characterisation and foreshadowing, a climax in both the play and the film.

[*] See, for example, Eliot’s “Dossier on Murder in the Cathedral: Playwright Presents Both an Evaluation and Appreciation of the Film Version,” New York Times (March 23, 1952) in Complete Prose 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, pp. 673-76.

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Would Eliot have enjoyed the recent ‘Cats’ film?

Hot Gossip may have inspired the original Cats costumes

The musical Cats (1981), by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, recast Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a narrative musical comedy targetting an audience of all ages. The 2019 film adaptation, directed by Tom Hopper, aspired to continue the enormous international success of its theatrical antecedent, but it flopped and met caustic criticism. Claire Reihill, administrator of the T. S. Eliot Estate, declared that the poet “might have enjoyed the strangeness” of the trailer’s aesthetic. The press echoed this suggestion, raising expectations, but would Eliot really have liked the film?

Both Eliot’s Practical Cats and Webber and Nunn’s Cats draw on the music hall tradition – its taste for anecdote and incident, remarkable characters and teasing humour. In an early review, “The Beating of a Drum” (1923), Eliot praised Charlie Chaplin – who had begun his career in the music-hall – as a “great actor”. Chaplin’s slapstick gestural acting, which would become a characteristic feature of his pioneering films, was proposed by Eliot as a model for modern drama, where – he felt – the lack of rhythm was a major shortcoming.

One year before “The Beating of a Drum”, Eliot wrote “Marie Lloyd” (1922), an obituary tribute to the immensely popular music hall actress and a vindication of the genre that she came to personify. Eliot admires Lloyd’s unique rapport with her audience and the latter’s active role during performances. With Lloyd’s death, the music hall seemed moribund, but there was another threat to the continuity of its lively communal shows: the increasing popularity of cinema. Eliot resolutely rejects films as a stultifying form of entertainment, profit-based and mass-produced, a cheap alternative to the performing arts.

This dismissal was expressed at a critical juncture in the development of popular culture; we know that Eliot could be ambivalent, and his views evolved over a long career. As David Trotter (*) points out, Eliot’s early poems evidence a fascination with the technical and automatic (associated by the modernists with cinema), and he found Jean Epstein’s theoretical writings on poetry and cinema intellectually stimulating. At the same time, the author of “The Beating of the Drum” and “Marie Lloyd” enjoyed westerns and the comedies by the Marx Brothers.

And yet, Hopper’s Cats seems to exemplify what Eliot despised about cinema in “Marie Lloyd”: a film primarily intended to become a box office hit over the Christmas season, with a cast chosen on the principle of attracting large numbers of viewers and a lavish use of special effects technology. The latter aspect in particular (interestingly, one that is not essentially dramatic) has been the main butt of negative criticism, since the computer-generated cat fur on the actors’ bodies seemed disturbingly grotesque.

Webber has explained that, while discussing his project for the musical Cats with Valerie Eliot, he suggested that the costumes would reproduce the slinky style of the dance music group Hot Gossip. Eliot’s widow replied: “Yes, yes. I think Tom would’ve liked that”. Together with the coreography, John Napier’s costume design was one of the most innovative and memorable aspects of the West End production. As a genuine aspect of performance, I have little doubt that Eliot would have preferred it over CGI cat fur.

(*) David Trotter, “T. S. Eliot and Cinema.” Modernism / Modernity, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006, pp. 237-65.