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'Cathedral's' Critical Mass

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 7, 1997; Page E07

Alan Wade's easy command of both the stage and T.S. Eliot's poetry is a good reason to see the Washington Stage Guild's production of "Murder in the Cathedral," which opened Saturday. Wade plays the martyred archbishop Thomas Becket in Eliot's famous, if somewhat static, play. "Murder" is more declamatory than dramatic, as well suited to a reading as to a full theatrical production -- but director Bill Largess, working closely with lighting designer Marianne Meadows, has come up with an effectively stylized presentation and even manages to insert some welcome humor into the second act.

Becket was slain in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, supposedly at the order of Henry II, who later performed a dramatic penance for the deed. Eliot never bothers to explain exactly the quarrel between the two, who had been close friends until Henry made Becket archbishop and Becket found God. The actual point of dissension was the power of the ecclesiastical courts: Henry wanted to bring them under control of the crown, so that clergy who committed crimes would be subject to civil trial and penalties. This is the issue for which the new archbishop sacrificed his life.

The whole argument seems arcane now, which is probably why Eliot didn't bother with it. His concern is martyrdom -- what draws a man to it, and whether the impulse can ever be free of self-glorification. He has Becket face four tempters. No. 1 (Morgan Duncan) tempts him with fleshly delights; Nos. 2 and 3 (John Benoit and Delaney Williams) with the world, temporal power from either the ruling class or the masses; No. 4 (Conrad Feininger) seems to be the Devil himself, and his is the canniest strategy. Rather than offer the ascetic archbishop the pleasures of this world, he appeals to Becket's desire to be rewarded by God while his opponents suffer in Hell. "Saints and martyrs rule from the tomb," Four murmurs. "Think of your enemies in . . . another place."

This segment, which takes up most of the first act, would be of interest only to students of theology if Eliot hadn't made Becket's struggle a shrewd psychological study of the sin of pride. A poetic genius as well as a literary critic of enormous influence, Eliot was hardly too modest to appreciate his own gifts, and "Murder in the Cathedral" is a ruthless self-examination of the folly of egotism. "Is there no way my soul's sickness can not lead to perdition through pride?" Becket moans at one point.

Well, yes, there is, or there wouldn't be much purpose in having written the play. Becket recognizes and renounces his own desire for glory, and is then ready to die. Four knights from Henry (played by the same actors as the four tempters) oblige him. They feel a little uncertain about things afterward and attempt to put a positive spin on the matter, not too easy to do with the corpse lying there on the floor. Largess and the actors find every bit of humor in their weaselly excuses -- probably more than Eliot intended, but that's all to the good. The sequence plays like the last act of "Saint Joan," in which everyone breaks character and talks with modern cynicism.

The more stately parts of the play are, well, stately. Eliot took Greek drama as his model, so there's a chorus of women (Jewell Robinson, Lynn Steinmetz, Laura Giannarelli and Joy Jones) who have to lament the coming tragedy with reams of poetry, as well as a trio of priests (Joseph Cronin, William Hamlin and Stan Kang) who have to misunderstand Becket and try to save him from martyrdom. The actors do their best, but the material just isn't very lively, and we're always glad to get back to the tempters, knights or Beckett. Wade is very good at depicting the strength in seemingly mild men, and he can also project moral intelligence: His Becket is never histrionic, always austere and humble, a man on a quest to drive the last bit of rot from his soul.

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.
Directed by Bill Largess. Costumes, William Pucilowsky; sound, Tony Angelini; fights, John Gurski.
Through Feb. 2 at the Washington Stage Guild, 202-529-2084.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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