Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot

How do you name a play Murder in the Cathedral and still make it boring? Ask T. S. Eliot.

Mr. Eliot and I have had our run-ins in the past. We first met over his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the title of which made me want to vomit. Mr. Eliot did nothing with the contents to make me feel any different. We next saw each other over his poem The Waste Land, which had enough foot notes to make even the dumbest kid in the class realize that all the modernist mumbo jumbo about “bring poetry to the layman” was a total crock. Was the satire supposed to be criticizing the pompous Victorians by being even more pretentious than them? I had to vomit again. Eliot most likely pissed himself by alluding to the ancient Sumerian god of wet cotton and stinky denim, which he then explained in a footnote, of course.

But I believe that everyone deserves a third strike, so I decided to give Eliot one last try. [Editor’s note: The real reason the Mr. McVeigh bought Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot is because it cost only twenty-five cents. Do not let him fool you into thinking his morals or a forgiving attitude outweigh his cheapness. He will buy anything for twenty-five cents. Anything.]

With a title like Murder in the Cathedral, it would be better if Eliot’s book was a Perry Mason novel. Then again, so would a lot of things. Instead, Murder is a boring play about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Fortunately, it is a short, boring play about the assassination of Becket. It’s the difference between watching an infomercial for an hour and watching an infomercial for a day or, say, between reading Prufrock and reading Waste Land.

All of the reviews for Murder agree that it was a “high point in T.S. Eliot’s dramatic achievement,” but sometimes “drama” is a nice way of saying that despite having knights, a king, an archbishop, an assassination, and a true story, there is no reason that anyone should ever read this awful, tedious, shitstorm of a play. Again, good thing it’s short.

Eliot starts the play the characters who make up the Chorus, a gaggle of townspeople who feel “some presage of an act.” Let me guess, Becket’s gonna get it. No shit. This would be excusable if Eliot only did it once. But just like they start part I, Eliot drags them out to start part II (of only two parts) with more tired lines like “we wait and the time is short, but waiting is long.” Whoa. Deep, man.

If you didn’t think those lines were Nobel worthy, how about, “What day is the day that we know that we hope for or fear for? Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from”? A Parkinson’s sufferer doing the robot would be less disjointed than those lines. You have to reread them just to realize how idiotic they are. And no one should have to reread lines like those.

But I can’t say the whole play is bad. The most famous line from the work, “the last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason,” is really great. The only problem is it’s surrounded by really terrible prose. It’s not so much a diamond in the rough, as it is a speck of gold in a dung heap.

I’m sad to say that Eliot’s stilted Murder did not change my feelings for him. He still sounds dry and unimaginative to me. The play was written on the request of a friend for the Canterbury Festival in 1935 and it sounds uninspired and half-assed. I really have no idea how anyone finds his works interesting. Was there no one else writing poetry in the first half of the century? One second thought, don’t answer that.

Next up: The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Check it here.

This article originally appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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