“Murder in the Cathedral” at City Lit

City Lit’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” with Steve Sparling/Photo: Steve Graue


A play in prose by a poet, written nearly ninety years ago at the precipice of world fascism, about the most famous death of the Middle Ages, “Murder in the Cathedral” was one of TS Eliot’s earliest plays of the seven he published. It was first performed in 1935 at Canterbury Cathedral in the very space where the onetime Chancellor to King Henry II—made Archbishop of Canterbury to consolidate state and church power—was martyred by four vigilante knights of the King determined to avenge Becket’s choosing church over state .

Because of its verse, it is a play more often read than staged. City Lit, in fact, is advertising its season-closing production of “Murder in the Cathedral”—which is director and outgoing producer and artistic director Terry McCabe’s last—as “the first full production in Chicago since the early fifties.”

City Lit has the immense advantage that it has a church as its home venue, the ideal setting for this play. There was also the clever and effective decision to set the women’s chorus that functions as a Greek chorus, usually in unison as a harmonized vocal quartet, with a world-premiere score by Philip Seward, sparsely accompanied by piano and chimes.

Four women in traditional church garb.Four women in traditional church garb.

City Lit’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” with Kara Chandler, Katarina Bakas, Sally Olson and Isabel Schmitz/Photo: Steve Graue

The 1951 film version, co-written by Eliot, cast an actual priest as Becket, who portrays the Archbishop in Shakespearean fashion, as he wrestles psychologically with the Four Tempters that appear to him. One also thinks of Laurence Olivier in the Broadway version of the Jean Anouilh play or Richard Burton in its 1964 film version. Not this time. James Sparling’s Becket is calm and cool, even in his most challenging moments. A particularly inspiring choice was to treat the Fourth Tempter as within Becket himself so that Sparling has an internal bipolar dialogue that is captivating and chilling.

The Four Knights, of course, break character after the murder and each try to persuade the audience in their own way as to the necessity of what they have done. Early audiences laughing at this caused Elliot to cut back some of these verses but I think it is a sage decision to let this remarkable scene speak for itself, especially given that the threat of fascism then, as now, is all too real.

Through June 16 at City Lit Theater, 1020 West Bryn Mawr. Tickets are available at citylit.org.

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