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.


Rejoice and Mourn

The women of Canterbury in Hoellering’s film adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral

The two acts of Murder in the Cathedral are separated by a prose “Interlude” in which Eliot reconstructs Thomas Becket’s last sermon, given on Christmas Day of 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral, only a few days before the archbishop’s assassination. Nowhere else does Eliot’s drama come as close to liturgy.

Glossing Luke 2.14 (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”), Becket’s sermon develops a curious line of argument. First, he emphasises that the Christmas mass celebrates Christ’s birth but, like any mass, it also mourns his Passion. This puzzling simultaneity is a paradox and a mystery: “so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason”.

The preacher then urges his listeners to consider why the angels should have heralded “peace” – significantly, this is the first word spoken by Becket in Act I, on entering the cathedral. During the interwar period (the play was first produced in 1935), when the population was still suffering the consequences of a world war and fearing the outbreak of another, Becket’s words inevitably had a contemporary resonance: “ceaselessly the world has been stricken by War and the fear of War”.

The peace that “the heavenly host” anounced is the peace that Christ left with his disciples, who “went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom”. Thus is one of the sermon’s central themes introduced. Rejoicing does not preclude mourning, and peace also means martyrdom. Sinfully brought about but fulfilling God’s design, martyrdom can be mourned and celebrated. The sermon alludes to two martyrs: St Stephen, whose feast is on the second day of Christmas, and St Alphege, Becket’s Anglo-Saxon predecesor. The archbishop finishes foreshadowing his own death: “it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr”.

About twenty years after Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954), the last of his Ariel Poems, seemed to echo Becket’s sermon with a different emphasis. The perspective is that of a child who will understand, with age, 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.

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