Role of the chorus in Murder in the Cathedral

Role of the chorus in Murder in the Cathedral

Like the early Attic tragedy Murder in the Cathedral is a choric play; it depends very largely on the chorus. The formal chorus of Canterbury women is not divided in the Greek manner. That the characters are meant to be choric is clear because Eliot makes hardly any attempt to differentiate them as characters or individuals. There is only differentiation of moods, views of functions. 

Eliot’s non-dramatic poetry, as in Portrait of a Lady, Gerontion, and A Song for Simeon, is largely passive; it is the poetry of waiting and watching, despair and suffering, a vision of decay, and disintegration. This poetry reappears in the chorus. It is not unlikely that the choice of the poor and helpless women as the chorus has been influenced by the demands of the kind of poetry. One feels sometimes that the chorus is used in certain situations mainly to provide for such poetry. The emotional and intellectual range of the chorus is naturally limited but, as an expository device, the chorus supplies quite adequately political the social context with a stress on the suffering of the people. It also shows the hold Becket had on his people, thus giving an important emotional quality to the play. A large part of his contribution lies in the creation of an atmosphere of premonition and fear, sorrow and suffering, foreboding and resignation. The women-only wait and watch and feel with Becket that the doom comes nearer. Then there is the sense of horror followed by the sense of defilement and of the need for purification. The play begins and ends with choral poetry.

There is an excessive emphasis on the passivity of the chorus, and there is hardly any relaxation. Again as long as the chorus is kept on the planes of emotions, its tone is convincing. Sometimes the chorus rises to an intellectual level: “And behind the face…”

It is great poetry but its assignment to the ‘foolish’ and ‘hysterical’ women of Canterbury may be questioned unless it is supposed that they are suddenly transfigured and become a voice of the metaphysics and psychology of Christian Existentialism.

It is a fact that Eliot planned his chorus to be a group of ‘exited and sometimes hysterical women’. In fact, they are the only women in the play, and this is dramatically important for more than one reason. But there is no convincing reason why the poor women of Canterbury should be made to be interested in a jerboa’ which is a desert rodent.

Canterbury is situated near the sea, and this probably accounts for use of some sea images in the play but to make the women lie on the floor of the sea to experience the “ingurgitation of the sponge is hardly fair!

The chorus in Murder in the Cathedral is a lyrical beauty and the music of its poetry is reinforced by a choir-songs. Williams thinks that the chorus is also a link between rituals and believers’. He says: “Chorus is a choir, the articulate voice of the body of whispers. Elio: writes: “The use of the chorus strengthened the power and concealed the defects of my theatrical technique. The chorus is certainly the strength of Murder in the Cathedral. But the chorus is also its weakness. It is more Seneca than Greek. It appears before or after a dramatic situation, serving very often as a lyrical link between episodes and as it is not integrated into the play, the choral passages are easily detachable. But a more serious defect in the undue length of some choruses painfully halts the movement of drama. 

As the knights leave the stage to come with swords’, there is a great dramatic moment, a moment taut with suspense, excitement, and expectancy, Just then comes the long choral passage on the quickening of the senses. Equally detrimental to the dramatic movement is the length of the passage on defilement and purification at the moment of Becket’s death. The stage direction itself sounds rather absurd: “While the Knights kill him we hear the chorus.” When we examine the blanks in the dramatic movement or action caused by the chorus we find its weakness. Had the chorus been allowed to take part in the action in the Greek manner, it could have been much more effective.

Leave a Comment