Review: City Lit Stages T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in a Church Sanctuary With a World Premiere Score

Murder in the Cathedral is a solemn play, drawn from the works of master poet and Nobel-Prize laureate T.S. Eliot. The 1935 verse play is now on stage at City Lit Theater, directed by artistic director Terry McCabe. This is the first full Chicago production of the play in 70 years. 

The play focuses on the martyrdom and murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the year 1170. The play is beautifully staged, with an original musical score composed by Philip Seward, in the sanctuary of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church. The play focuses on the clashes of principle between Becket and King Henry II; the clashes are played out in words—two and a half hours of talk without much action (except for that one scene). Murder in the Cathedral is thus a play for serious theatergoers and poetry lovers—and it will be a rewarding theater experience for them.  

The assassination of Becket was the most famous murder of the Middle Ages. Eliot was commissioned to write the play to be performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1935. Fortunately, Eliot was able to use period details found in an an eye-witness account written by a monk at Canterbury named Edward Grim (Grim is not a character the play). 

Stephen Fedo, James Sparling, Kara Chandler, Katarina Bakas, Sally Olson, Isabel Schmitz, Joel Thompson, John Blick.
Photo by Steve Graue.

A key detail in the story is that the knights who murdered Becket in late December 1170 did so because they assumed, wrongly, that the king desired Becket to be murdered. In fact, King Henry II had said, on Christmas day 1170, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” and his words were interpreted as a command. The issues between Becket and the King arose over the rights and privileges of the church, including the jurisdiction of secular courts over clergymen. In 1164, Becket fled to the continent, where the King of France provided protection. Becket returns in December 1170, on the day when the play takes place.

The play opens with mournful songs by the Chorus of four women of Canterbury, signaling fear about what will happen if the Archbishop returns. The Chorus members, who perform throughout the play, are Katarina Bakas, Kara Chandler, Sally Olson and Isabel Schmitz. 

Becket (James Sparling) arrives and is greeted by three Priests of Canterbury (Stephen Fedo, John Blick and Joel Thompson) who express fear about his safety. Becket already accepts his possible martyrdom. 

Soon three Tempters arrive, played by Sean Harklerode, Robert Howard and Varris Holmes. They express good will and offer him safety, power, wealth and access to the king. The final Tempter appeals to Becket’s pride and suggests he pursue the glory of martyrdom. 

James Sparling as Becket, giving his Christmas sermon. Photo by Steve Graue.

In response to the final temptation, Becket says: “Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain / Temptation shall not come in this kind again. / The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

In an interlude written to occur between acts one and two, Becket gives his Christmas day sermon. At the end, Becket says, “I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr.”

In act two, four Knights arrive and demand to see the Archbishop. (The knights are played by Harklerode, Howard, Holmes and Zach Kunde, who also plays a Messenger early in the play.) The Priests try to protect him, but Becket demands that the doors be unbarred to the Knights can enter. They do and Becket is murdered.

The Chorus’s final section expresses satisfaction that “new holy ground” has been created by the martyrdom of the Archbishop. 

All of Europe was shocked at the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king was forced to express remorse and do public penance for the murder. Becket was canonized as Saint Thomas of Canterbury two years after his murder. The four knights were excommunicated by the Pope and ordered to fight in the Crusades. 

Kara Chandler, Katarina Bakas, Sally Olson, Isabel Schmitz. Photo by Steve Graue.

McCabe’s direction of the action is rigorous, with a tempo suited to the Eliot verse. Sparling provides a sterling performance as Becket; he is imposing in voice and manner. The three Priests and the four Tempters/Knights are all veteran actors and perform well. The Chorus members have beautiful voices but I did wish that their lines had been spoken rather than sung because it was not always easy to follow their meaning. (I was happy to have my Complete Poems and Plays by T.S. Eliot in my home library for reference.)

The world premiere score by Philip Seward is performed on keyboards by Jacob Adams, with Nicholas Turner and Jordan Christiansen performing on certain days. Anna Bundy plays chimes. Music is directed by Mark Weston. Lighting design is by Mike McShane. Anna Bundy is stage manager. 

Kudos to costume designer Patti Roeder for the colorful garments worn by the Chorus, the Tempters and Knights and for the cut of the priests’ chasubles (the short robes worn over the cassock). In one scene that proceeds like a solemn rite, the priests prepare the Archbishop in his white robes, one piece at a time.

Terry McCabe, who has been artistic director of City Lit Theater since 2005, is set to retire next month. He has directed theater in Chicago since 1981 including stints at  Wisdom Bridge, Body Politic, and Stormfield Theatre, which he founded in 1983. Murder in the Cathedral is the 78th play he has directed or overseen at City Lit and he has maintained its mission of producing stage adaptations of literary material. City Lit also offers ancillary programming like its anti-censorship Books on the Chopping Block, offered annually during Banned Books week. City Lit was founded in 1979; this is its 43rd season. Brian Pastor will assume the role of executive artistic director on July 1.

Murder in the Cathedral will continue though June 16 at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission. Performances are Friday-Sunday with Monday shows on June 3 and 10. Tickets are $34 plus fees, with discounts available. Buy your tickets online or by calling 773-293-3682.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.