’night, Mother

Caramel apples.

  • Play title: ’night, Mother
  • Author: Marsha Norman
  • Published: 1983
  • Page count: 89

Summary.

Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, ’night, Mother, was published in 1983. The work consists of a single scene between a middle-aged daughter named Jessie and her mother named Thelma. Norman sets her drama in an isolated house way out in the American countryside. Jessie is a highly introverted individual and even though she married and has an adult son, she has now returned to live with her mother after the breakup of her marriage. Thelma is a chatty, upbeat woman who takes life as it comes. The two women live in what seems like placid domesticity until one evening when Jessie reveals her grave unhappiness. The play looks at two lives that are so intertwined that there seems no space for secrets or surprises and yet they exist. The playwright depicts an uncomfortable and emotive conversation between the two women. The theme of the play is the loss of hope.

Ways to access the text: reading. 

’Night, Mother is available to read via the Open Library. Members of Scribd can also access a text of the play.

There are full length recordings of theatrical performances of the play available on YouTube. There is also a movie version from 1986 entitled ’night, Mother. However, I have not viewed any of these so I cannot comment on them.

Why read ’night, Mother

Talking about suicide.

In ’night, Mother, Jessie has had a long held intention to commit suicide and she finally reveals this to her mother. Even though this is announced quite early in the play, it still seems like a spoiler to share it with potential readers. However, the entire play revolves around the topic of suicide as Jessie delves into the hurt arising from her childhood, broken marriage, wayward son, epilepsy, and very restricted and lonely life. One’s focus is not only that Jessie suffers from suicidal ideation but also her surprising move to share the details with her mother. Suicide is often conveniently wrapped in a narrative that no one expected it from the individual concerned but Marsha Normal shatters that narrative. Jessie states clearly – “I’m going to kill myself, Mama” (13) and the rest of the play explores the reason, if any, for such a revelation especially if that suicide will go ahead at some point in the future. It would be difficult to classify the play as a depiction of a young woman’s cry for help, nor is the play a straightforward justification for suicide. ‘Night, Mother explores the gut wrenching discomfort of a daughter telling her mother that she wants to die.

Small lives.

Norman depicts two women from different generations but who have equally small lives. Jessie, for example, almost never leaves the house, has no friends, never takes holidays, and only found a husband due to her mother’s influence. Thelma likes doing needlework and watching television. What value do such lives hold? This question is not for an outsider to answer but for the individuals themselves. Is eating candy and watching television, like Thelma, a way of life? Apparently yes, but Jessie is different. The play shows how some people with small, restricted lives may become far more vulnerable to despair. The limited geographical space of the home, the restrictiveness of one’s daily routine, the expectations of one’s family – all of these pressures may negatively shape a life into something stifled.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

‘Unravelling the hopeless life of Jessie Cates.’

Introduction.

In ’night, Mother, Marsha Norman describes how the life of middle-aged Jessie Cates has become hopeless. Norman’s play is not based on a specific, real-life incidence of suicide but the playwright does open a valuable and complex discussion about the topic. What is often thought to be imponderable, namely why someone would end their own life, is the central discussion. The playwright’s work is a rebuttal to the often heard refrain of – ‘no one understands why they did it’. As readers or audience members, we witness the discussion between Jessie and her mother Thelma and during their interaction all doubt as to why suicide is the answer for Jessie is finally removed. The play is discomfiting because it confronts a topic that most people feel more comfortable ignoring or pleading ignorance to. People commit suicide for specific reasons and these reasons are not exclusively psychiatric illnesses. Life is full of impediments and challenges which are not always surmountable. Norman validates Jessie’s choice which upsets some readers and critics alike due to the emotive nature of any discussion about suicide. Interpretations of ’night, Mother, range from steadfast support for Norman’s depiction of a woman liberated from an unbearable existence to virulent opposition to the playwright’s apparent message that suicide is justifiable. I find that I fall midway between these poles of opinion, agreeing that Jessie makes the right choice but also seeking a fuller explanation for why, an explanation that pushes ’night, Mother to reveal where blame lies. Suicides happen for specific reasons and since Norman expertly opens this discussion, it is valuable to interrogate her play to find out who, or what, is to blame. After all, blame is often what is feared the most in the wake of a suicide.

Norman not only provides readers with an engaging depiction of Jessie in the play but she also gave invaluable insights into her work in interviews. For example, in 1987 Norman spoke to Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig for their book, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Norman said the following about ’night, Mother:

My sense of ‘night, Mother is that it is, by my own definitions of these words, a play of nearly total triumph. Jessie is able to get what she feels she needs. That is not a despairing act. It may look despairing from the outside, but it has cost her everything she has. If Jessie says it’s worth it, then it is” (Betsko and Koenig 339).

Norman’s stance did not find favour with some critics. For example, Sarah Reuning writes that “Marsha Norman describes her drama ‘night, Mother (1983) as ‘a play of nearly total triumph’– controversial words for a work in which the main character, a divorced epileptic, commits suicide” (55). Reuning’s perspective is clear when she writes, “I insist we understand depression in its medical context, for in so doing, we discover that Jessie’s suicide must be a relinquishing, rather than a regaining, of control” (55). It is a valid point that Jessie’s apparent depression is central to her decision but one may still disagree with Reuning’s view that suicide does not offer control to Jessie. Reuning writes – “I argue that despite Norman’s efforts to portray Jessie as a logical individual, Jessie’s thinking and behavior demonstrate a mental disability” (55). The crux of the disagreement here is if Jessie is competent to make her own decisions with Norman giving an affirmative answer and Reuning countering with a negative response. Norman’s stance directs one to look at what Jessie is being released from, whereas Reuning lays focus on the act of suicide as an incorrect choice. Taking Norman’s side, I would like to look at Jessie’s life as depicted in the play and pinpoint one turn, one decision, one problem, that above all others, leads to Jessie’s final decision to kill herself. The aim here is to eschew the shrouding of suicide in mystery routinely achieved by the refrain of ‘nobody knows why’ and grasp instead the nettle and say look, here it is, this is a solid, visible reason.

Jessie’s epilepsy.

The key question in ’night Mother is why Jessie commits suicide. When Jessie is preparing her mother for the future, she says, “somebody’s bound to ask you why I did it and you just say you don’t know” (Norman 71). It is common for the family and friends of suicide victims to state that they didn’t see any warning signs and that the deaths of their loved ones remain unfathomable. Marsha Norman challenges this norm by opening a discussion in the play. Jessie tells her mother that the reasons for her planned suicide are because, “I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used” (28). When Thelma suggests that the real reason for Jessie’s planned suicide is epilepsy then Jessie refutes this, saying, “It’s not the fits, Mama … you said it yourself, the medication takes care of the fits” (68). However, epilepsy is precisely the topic that readers of Norman’s play should focus upon. In ’night, Mother, the reason for Jessie’s suicide is not solely epilepsy but it is certainly the most compelling one. Much research has been done in recent years on epilepsy and one may readily consult academic essays on the topic such as “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?” and “Suicidal Ideation and Thoughts of Death in Epilepsy Patients.” Modern research on epilepsy allows one to nuance the old interpretations of Norman’s play. Even though Jessie’s marriage has failed, her son engages in criminality, and she is quite isolated, it is her illness that seems most relevant to her decision about ending her life.

Recent studies show that an epileptic like Jessie Cates is in a high risk category. According to Andrijić et al., “Suicide is an important cause of death in patients with epilepsy” (52) which is backed up by the statistic that “Suicide is present as a cause of death in 11% of patients with epilepsy which is significantly more than the rate of suicide in the general population of the USA” (52). In a study of 50 epilepsy patients, Andrijić et al. found that “depression is present in 52% of patients with epilepsy” (55). In “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?”, Alison Pack informs us that “People with epilepsy have a 5-fold increased risk of suicide” (236). Such studies allow a reader of ’night, Mother to hold an objective distance from Jessie’s emotive reasoning for her planned suicide and her denial that it has anything to do with her illness. Quite contrary to Jessie’s proclamation, one may indeed follow Thelma Cates’ intuition that her daughter’s illness is what has precipitated the suicidal ideation.

One may chart the repercussions of epilepsy in Jessie’s life from the evidence in Norman’s play. Points of interest are medication, stigmatization, duration of illness, heredity, and employability. The aim is not to dismiss the other contributing factors to Jessie’s suicide, for example her broken marriage, but to investigate the most influential reason for her decision to end her life.

Medication.

When we first meet Jessie then her epilepsy is already well under control. Her mother reassures her that “You haven’t had a seizure for a solid year” (Norman 66) and Jessie responds, “Yeah, the phenobarb’s about right now” (66). Jessie refers here to a well-known medication called “Phenobarbital (phenobarbitone) [that] was first used as an antiepileptic drug 100 years ago, in 1912” (Yasiry and Shorvon 26). There are side-effects to using this medication, for example, even as early as “the 1920s, phenobarbital was recognized to cause sedation, but remarkably, it was better known, universally, for ‘clearing the mentality’” (Yasiry and Shorvon 29). Jessie attests to this latter benefit when she says, “The best part is, my memory’s back” (Norman 67). Another benefit for Jessie is that she has a lot more freedom due to the medication – “I’m even feeling like worrying or getting mad and I’m not afraid it will start a fit if I do, I just go ahead” (66). This remark is significant because one understands the level of emotional restriction Jessie grappled with before her diagnosis and subsequent treatment with medication. Therefore, while the medication has transformed Jessie’s current life, there is also a lot of unspoken history. A young woman who has spent most of her life avoiding strong emotions and challenging situations has an inbuilt propensity to deal with the world as one in constant fear. The medication facilitates Jessie’s painful and emotive conversation with her mother on the night depicted in the play, but unfortunately it is not a beginning but rather an ending. Jessie’s emotional openness is not what it should be, which is the commencement of a healing process. The newly found freedom has come too late.  

Stigmatization

Illness and stigmatization often go hand in hand. In ‘Night, Mother, Jessie rejects the idea that her illness defines her. She tells her mother “It’s just a sickness, not a curse. Epilepsy doesn’t mean anything. It just is” (71). Is Jessie simply rebelling against the negative connotations of epilepsy or does she believe her words? Norman depicts how an ill daughter is invariably defined by her illness, most especially when things go wrong. For example, when Jessie begins to discuss suicide with her mother, then Thelma instinctively responds, “It must be time for your medicine” (13). The covert message of Thelma’s words is that Jessie is not fully competent. The tags of incompetence and illness serve to rob Jessie’s words of their meaning. Illness is not just a weakening of one’s body and a strain on the mind, but also a slur that may be used against one by others during times of conflict. Furthermore, Thelma confides in Jessie that their neighbour, Agnes, does not like visiting the house because of a superstitious belief regarding Jessie’s cold hands which are “like a corpse” (42). Sarah Reuning writes that “In ‘night, Mother, Jessie’s epileptic body embodies society’s fears concerning death, and the resulting ostracization Jessie faces increases her depression” (60). What is discomfiting for a reader, because it further complicates the story, is that “The epilepsy community is increasingly aware of the high percentages of psychiatric disorders among persons with epilepsy” (Pack 236). This means that Thelma Cates is correct to question her daughter’s competence when she speaks about suicide, yet this mother has also undermined her daughter for many years by stigmatizing a common and treatable illness. The situation is a form of catch-22. Thelma chose not to tell her daughter of her childhood fits because, in Thelma’s words, “make you feel like a freak, is that what I should have done?” (Norman 71). When Jessie finally gets a diagnosis then most of the harm has already been done in regard to Jessie’s self-image. Jessie attempts to disown the stigma, yet others persist in reapplying it to her.

Timeframe – duration of illness

Marsha Norman presents her readers/audience with an interesting timeframe in her play. The timeframe in question relates to Jessie’s epilepsy, when it was first diagnosed and medicated, and also to Jessie’s associated depression. Jessie says she has planned her suicide for some time with the specific marker of, “after Christmas, after I decided to do this” (77). Reuning’s close reading of the play uncovered clues that suggest “that ‘night, Mother takes place in autumn. Thus, Jessie has contemplated suicide continuously for at least eight months” (57).  The timescale of Jessie’s depression has apparently been for much longer because as she says, “If Dawson comes over, it’ll make me feel stupid for not doing it [suicide] ten years ago” (Norman 17). One could argue that this is the comment of a depressed person in a gloomy, retrospective mood but it is nonetheless an unignorable indication of a depression that long predates her diagnosis of epilepsy. Jessie’s epilepsy was only diagnosed after she fell from a horse and her husband suggested she seek medical advice. We cannot date the horse riding accident but we know that Jessie’s medication, after some adjustments, has worked well for a year now. The contrast is a diagnosis in the previous, let’s say 1.5 years, versus a depression of up to 10 years. Thelma had failed to tell her daughter that the epileptic fits actually began when Jessie was five years old. When Thelma admits this then Jessie responds – “Well, you took your time telling me” (69). The timeframe is crucial since Jessie could not live a full life before she started taking her medication. Jessie’s depression can be seen as inextricably linked to the quality of life that was possible for her in the intervening years.

Timeframe – heredity.

One may also look at the timeframe in regard to the biological inheritance within a family. Alison Pack writes that “Suicide attempts and recurrent suicide attempts are associated with epilepsy even before epilepsy manifests, suggesting a common underlying biology” (236). This information suggests a vulnerability in epileptic persons based on biology and therefore totally separate from quality of life issues. The same author goes on to state that “These [research] results suggest that the biological or genetic makeup (or both) of persons who are diagnosed with epilepsy also puts them at risk for suicidality” (Pack 237). Thelma admits to Jessie, “I think your daddy had fits, too” (Norman 62) and modern research supports hereditary/genetic elements to epilepsy. Thelma witnessed the detrimental, long-term effects of un-treated epilepsy in her husband but she still denied her daughter the benefit of an early diagnosis and suitable medication.

Upon analysis of the timeframes outlined in the play, one sees that Jessie was vulnerable on two wholly separate fronts, the biological side, and the quality of life side. Only via a diagnosis of epilepsy could such issues begin to be confronted. The different timeframes that Norman recounts literally frame the crushing and prolonged powerlessness and depression that Jessie suffered before being treated for epilepsy.

Employability.

Employability is a major concern for people with epilepsy. Jessie Cates does not have a job and experience has shown that she cannot hold down a job. The topic of work is raised when Jessie admits her unhappiness to her mother who responds with the idea of getting a job. Jessie recalls a “telephone sales job” (35) that did not work out. Jessie’s experience of working and her potential to re-join the workforce is expressed in quite pessimistic terms. She says:

“I tried to work at the gift shop at the hospital and they said I made people real uncomfortable smiling at them the way I did. … The kind of job I could get would make me feel worse” (Norman 35).

In a study conducted by Andrijić et al., it was “shown that suicidal ideation in epilepsy patients is independently and significantly related to the level of hopelessness (BHS score) and unemployment as an important psychosocial factor” (55). Jessie was previously unable to cope with the outside world because she had always been so isolated and protected at home, due to illness. Jessie’s new status as seizure-free, thanks to her medication, does not impact on her pessimistic world view. A job would mean independence for Jessie both financially and socially but her lifestyle up to now has not prepared her for a job outside the home. Without the prospect of a job, and without hope, Jessie is shown to be in a particularly vulnerable position but one which is not unusual for sufferers of epilepsy.

Hopelessness.

The sum total of the repercussions of Jessie’s epilepsy may be seen as creating a sense of hopelessness. Amy Wenzel and Megan Spokas write that “Hopelessness, or negative expectations for the future, is the cognitive variable most extensively studied by suicidologists” (236). The authors go on to write that “Hopelessness is a more potent variable than depression in accounting for suicidal behavior, and it explains the association between a number of established risk factors and suicidal behavior” (237). Sarah Reuning’s article on ‘night, Mother, presents a very compelling case for diagnosing Jessie as depressed. Unfortunately, such a diagnosis brings its own stigma and impels a reader of Norman’s play to doubt Jessie’s competency to make any informed decision. On the other hand, if one looks at hopelessness and its links to suicide then Jessie’s plight becomes more relatable and her decisions more lucid. There are many theories as to why individuals commit suicide, one is called the “Cry of Pain model” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). This specific model helps explain Jessie’s actions in ’night, Mother. We learn that “According to the CoP model, there is an increased likelihood of suicidal behavior when people experience stressful or negative life events associated with four psychological characteristics” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). These characteristics are as follows:

“The individual experiences a sense of defeat and loss.”

“The individual cannot escape the situation … views himself or herself as trapped.”

“The person has little hope for rescue.”

“The perception of entrapment induces learned helplessness, which promotes beliefs that the person will not be able to change his or her life experiences” (Wenzel and Spokas 247).

In contrast to a more traditional view of a person seeking attention through self-harm, “The ‘cry’ is the suicidal act in which the person engages as a reaction to his or her painful life circumstances and psychological state” (Wenzel and Spokas 247). In Norman’s play, Jessie is reacting to her circumstances and she clearly states that she feels that nothing will change in the future. The following quotes sum up Jessie’s perspective on life.

“I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it’ll get anything but worse” (Norman 28).

“And I can’t do anything either, about my life, to change it, make it better, make me feel better about it. Like it better, make it work. But I can stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there’s nothing on I want to listen to” (Norman 36).

If one had to name a single issue that has always affected Jessie and that acts as a foundation to most of her problems in adult life, then it is epilepsy. To follow the Cry of Pain model, Jessie has a sense of defeat and loss (loss of independence, job loss, husband loss, problem son), she is trapped (living with her mother), she has no hope of rescue (no career, no romantic partner, no social life), and finally, she has learned helplessness because her mother chose to infantilize her rather than tell her the truth. Jessie responds to this situation with suicide as the chosen solution. However, Marsha Norman does not present her audience with the story of an epileptic who commits suicide, she presents us with epilepsy at the centre of Jessie’s life and how the world reacts to Jessie’s illness, how Jessie reacts to her illness, and the tangle upon tangle that results over time.

Apportioning blame.

Suicide is a serious risk factor for those with epilepsy but never a fate. Something else is depicted in Norman’s play, a wrong turn at some stage that we may glimpse. When Norman spoke with Betsko and Koenig about her work, she made a general observation, saying, “I’m also interested in the issue of protection, that, in fact, it’s not possible to protect each other. And the efforts to protect each other are often the most dangerous things that we do” (331). The most dangerous thing that Thelma Cates does is protect her daughter from understanding her own illness and this is crucially where one may find blame in the play. After revealing Jessie’s long history of epileptic seizures, Thelma defends herself saying – “You never hurt yourself. I never let you out of my sight. I caught you every time” (Norman 70). Out of love for her daughter, Thelma dispossessed Jessie of a problem thus also robbing her of the potential tools to deal with that problem. As Jessie tells her mother, “That was mine to know, Mama, not yours” (70). Jessie chastises her mother for not telling her sooner because, as she states, “If I’d known I was an epileptic, Mama, I wouldn’t have ridden any horses” (71). The horse riding incident where Jessie’s problem first became apparent to her husband, Cecil, is an unsolved riddle in the play because it may or may not have precipitated the end of her marriage. Thelma interprets it as the cause by saying to Jessie, “your fits made him sick and you know it” (56). Jessie denies this but admits that many normal things were a huge effort for her – “I tried to get more exercise and I tried to stay awake … but he [Cecil] always knew I was trying so it didn’t work” (59). Jessie does not blame her mother, but as a reader, one may understand an early misstep by a parent that disproportionately shapes Jessie’s life.

Do suicidal persons sometimes apportion blame? Yes, and they may discuss it with a therapist or with a friend or family member before a suicide, or it may be written on a suicide note. When discussing the merits of ’night, Mother, the playwright herself says, “I felt that if you were going to talk about suicide, there was really no way to talk about it without having someone argue back” (Betsko and Koenig 330). In the early 1980’s, this was what made Norman’s play distinctive from other theatrical works that avoided facing the topic head on. The argument between Jessie and Thelma about the merits and demerits of suicide is certainly the debate of the play but is there really no blame signalled in this argument? Norman asserts that no blame is apportioned in her play, that Jessie “wants Mama to live, and to live free of the guilt that Mama might have felt had Jessie just left her a note” (Betsko and Koenig 328). This is reflected in one of Jessie’s statements in the play:

“I only told you so I could explain it, so you wouldn’t blame yourself, so you wouldn’t feel bad. There wasn’t anything you could say to change my mind. I didn’t want you to save me. I just wanted you to know” (Norman 74).

On the other hand, even a cursory glance at the text of the mother-daughter narrative exhibits several red-flag issues. The most apparent is that Thelma betrayed her daughter’s trust by never revealing her history of epilepsy until the night Jessie plans to commit suicide. The blame game is usually interpreted as unhealthy and unhelpful especially in the case of a suicide since the damage is irreversible but Norman leads us into the middle of an emotive argument so maybe apportioning blame is constructive and ultimately meaningful.

Suicide narrative.

Norman depicts a suicide narrative within the frame of a theatrical play. Jeremy Holmes, a contributor to the book, Phenomenology of Suicide, writes that “Finding ways to develop a ‘suicide narrative’ enables death-preoccupied sufferers to talk about, rather than enact, suicidal impulses” (114). He goes on to state that, “The suicide narrative is an attempt to impose meaning on the inchoate life experience integral to suicidality, to ‘make sense’ of incomprehensible and overwhelming negative affect” (114). Jessie engages in such a narrative with her mother, Thelma. In spite of Thelma’s efforts, nothing she says or does serves to dissuade Jessie from her plan but the mere fact that Jessie engages in a suicide narrative indicates an inconclusiveness to her own internal debate. Since we know that Jessie’s plan is unalterable, the playwright turns the suicide narrative on its head because the normal, desired result of saving the person is not a possibility here! So why does Jessie discuss the plan with her mother? The suicide narrative that Jessie engages in does not have a future but only seeks confirmation on issues from the past – it is a reinforcement of an idea that something already went wrong, long ago, and cannot be fixed now. The missing piece of Jessie’s plan is a show of control because this is the one thing that she has been unable to exhibit during her life.

Jessie’s exercise of control is, unfortunately, also an allocation of blame. For Jessie to take command of her life, she must wrestle it from her over-protective mother’s grip. The suicide narrative is an argument where Jessie wins and must know that she can win for the plan to be worthwhile. Thelma inevitably interprets this as a condemnation of everything she has done and been for her daughter, saying, “you gave me this chance to make it better, convince you to stay alive, and I couldn’t do it. How can I live with myself after this, Jessie?” (Norman 73). Jessie acknowledges this point, advising her mother on what to say to people – “You had no idea. All right? I really think it’s better that way. If they know we talked about it, they really won’t understand how you let me go” (82). Jessie’s awareness of her mother’s dilemma makes these words all the crueller because it becomes a new secret for Thelma to carry, like the long held secret of Jessie’s epilepsy. After Jessie has taken her own life, Thelma’s final words in the play are, “Jessie, Jessie, child … Forgive me. (Pause) I thought you were mine” (89). In this statement is love, regret, and the acknowledged loss of control. For once, Jessie has been in total charge of the situation and her choice not to leave a suicide note but to speak with her mother confirms this.

Conclusion.

Norman’s play, ’night, Mother, continues to be a valued and valuable piece of modern literature. The playwright confronts her readers with a discussion about suicide that accurately reflects the hopelessness and powerlessness that people feel in such situations. The motif of – nobody understands why they did it – often heard in the aftermath of suicides is brought under intense scrutiny by Norman. The story of the play induces discomfort in an audience because there are always clues when something has gone wrong in a person’s life. If the play depicts Jessie finally in triumph, then it also depicts a tragedy for Thelma Cates. This mother is not cruel, or unloving, or neglectful, and yet she doesn’t understand her daughter, saying finally in desperation – “Jessie! Stop this! I didn’t know! I was here with you all the time. How could I know you were so alone” (Norman 88). What was a small but tolerable, even happy life for Thelma was unbearable for Jessie.

At the opening of this essay, I set out to locate the turn where it went wrong for Jessie Cates. The answer lies in a single, potent act made by an overprotective, controlling mother. Jessie never truly shaped her own life, as has been explained, but instead she ever so slowly lost more and more control over what happened – “I am what became of your child … It’s somebody I lost, all right, it’s my own self. Who I never was” (Norman 76). The reason that Jessie initially lost control was because her mother shielded her from a diagnosis of epilepsy. Jessie’s illness went on to shape every little aspect of her life, causing irreparable damage by the time she reached middle age. The only way that Jessie perceived she could regain control was by committing suicide because as she tells her mother, “I’m not giving up! This is the other thing I’m trying” (75). The guaranteed solution is sad and also a triumph (as the playwright labels it) because one must respect a decision made after so many years of experience.

Works Cited.

Andrijić, Nataša Loga, et al. “Suicidal Ideation and Thoughts of Death in Epilepsy Patients.” Psychiatria Danubina, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2014, pp. 52-55.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Holmes, Jeremy. “Suicide and Deliberate Self-Harm: When Attachments Fail.” Phenomenology of Suicide, edited by Maurizio Pompili, Springer, 2018, pp. 113-130.

Norman, Marsha. ‘Night, Mother. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Pack, Alison M. “Epilepsy and Suicidality: What’s the Relationship?” Epilepsy Currents, Vol. 16, Issue 4, 2016, pp. 236-238.

Reuning, Sarah. “Depression – the Undiagnosed Disability in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother.” Peering Behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater, edited by Thomas Fahy and Kimball King, Routledge, 2002, pp. 55-67.

Wenzel, Amy, and Megan Spokas. “Cognitive and Information Processing Approaches to Understanding Suicidal Behaviors.” The Oxford Handbook of Suicide and Self-Injury, edited by Matthew K. Nock, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 235-254.

Yasiry, Zeid, and Simon D. Shorvon. “How phenobarbital revolutionized epilepsy therapy: The story of phenobarbital therapy in epilepsy in the last 100 years.” Epilepsia, Vol. 53, (Suppl. 8), 2012, pp. 26–39.

Bent

Chart of concentration camp ID badges.

  • Play title: Bent 
  • Author: Martin Sherman
  • Published: 1978
  • Page count: 98

Summary.

Martin Sherman’s play Bent is set in 1930’s Germany. The protagonist is a gay man named Maximilian Berber whose story begins in a bacchanalian Berlin and ends in the concentration camp of Dachau. Even though the play is fictional, it references true historical events. The two main historical events that underpin the play are, firstly, the murder of Ernst Roehm who was chief of the SA but also openly homosexual, and secondly, the Nazi party’s subsequent extension of paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (anti-homosexual law). These events transformed a largely uncensored gay scene in Berlin into a decidedly cold climate for gay men. Sherman dramatizes the Nazi persecution of homosexual men within the timeframe of the play which is 1934 to ’36. We follow Maximilian’s (Max’s) relationships with two men, Rudy and then Horst. One controversial aspect of Sherman’s work is the implication that gay men suffered more than Jews in Dachau. Sherman’s play was one of the first to focus on the Nazi Party’s or more specifically Heinrich Himmler’s preoccupation with ridding Germany of its gay male population.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

An online copy of Sherman’s play, Bent, is available via the Open Library. Also, if you are already a member of Scribd then you will be able to access the text.

I do not normally reference the film adaptations of plays but Sherman did write the screenplay for the film Bent which was released in 1997 and it is a good substitute if you do not wish to read the text.

Why read Bent?

History lesson.

Sherman’s play provides a history lesson embedded within a dramatic work. The Nazi persecution of minority groups did not receive much attention after WWII, but this was especially so for gay men. One important reason for the lack of attention was that homosexual acts remained a crime in both East and West Germany until the late 1960’s. Therefore, gay camp detainees, those who survived, were still regarded as criminals even after liberation. Heinz Heger was one of the first gay men to write an autobiographical account of surviving the concentration camps. His book, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was released in 1972 and is said to have been a key inspiration for Sherman’s play. In 1986, Richard Plant released The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Regarding these two books, Heger provides an invaluable first-hand account while Plant provides academic research into the history of gay men’s plight in Nazi Germany. Sherman combines an albeit fictional first-hand account with historically accurate details to create a play that is provocative and clearly political but also rich in pathos. In this way, Sherman provides readers with an emotionally charged history lesson.

Identity and survival.

Bent focuses on the themes of identity and a man’s means of survival under extreme persecution. These two themes are shown to be in constant conflict in the play. Max, the play’s protagonist wears a yellow star ostensibly signifying that he is imprisoned due to his Jewish identity/faith. Horst wears a pink triangle because as he explains, he “signed a petition … for Magnus Hirschfield” the man who wanted to “make queers legal.” Both men’s prison identities rely on what can be proven by the Nazis, for example, by membership of a community, church, political movement etc. Sherman looks at how a specific identity becomes a burden when it leads directly to persecution or indeed a greater level of persecution. When Horst initially explains the colour coding of prisoners’ badges to Max, he warns that, “pink’s the lowest.” This aspect of the play is controversial yet it is important to understand Sherman’s core argument that pride in one’s identity should ideally transcend other concerns. The setting of a concentration camp serves to pit each man’s identity against his best chances of survival. Sherman’s play was first performed in 1978 when gay liberation was still relatively new. Homosexual acts had only been decriminalized in 1967 in England and were decriminalized in the United States on a state by state process between 1962 and 2003. The playwright’s depiction of gay men in Nazi Germany must be understood within the political context of an evolving gay liberation movement in the 1970’s.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

An absurd situation.

Bent was first performed in 1978 in an era when gay pride was being embraced as a remedy for centuries of repression and shame. The story that Sherman presents is fundamentally one where a gay man needs to survive, somehow, in an absurd situation. One may call it absurd for several reasons but the primary one is that the Nazis were persecuting men, mostly German nationals,  solely because of their sexuality. In this essay, I will focus on Sherman’s play as a tale of survival. In doing so, it will be necessary to delve into the key issues discussed in the play such as the perceived hierarchy of suffering in the concentration camps, the links between gay identity and pride, and most importantly, the concept of the absurd. It will ultimately be shown that Horst, not Max, is the hero of the play. This reading appears to diverge from Sherman’s authorial intent and therefore requires a solid explanation.

It is best to begin by tackling the most controversial aspect of the play, namely that homosexuals were treated more brutally than Jews in Dachau. This topic serves to open up the play to a fruitful analysis. When Sherman did an interview with The Advocate in 1980 and was asked about this issue of a hierarchy of maltreatment, he replied that “some people are reluctant to share the suffering, particularly with a group that they have problems with, that they think denigrates the experience.” The playwright himself is both Jewish and gay and thus has an insight into both communities. Even though Sherman’s statement is quite provocative and political, it also has serious merit. It is significant that Sherman used the phrase “share the suffering” which indicates that gay men’s suffering was indeed ignored, and the second important point it that this was a post-war discussion. For context, one may refer to Dr. Klaus Muller who wrote the introduction for Heinz Heger’s 1972 book, The Men with the Pink Triangle. Muller wrote the following about gay men’s lives in the years after the war:

“We know of several cases where, after the war, concentration camp survivors were charged for violations of Paragraph 175 and committed suicide either before the trial or afterwards in prison. Still more escaped into marriage or into complete isolation. While other Holocaust survivors were recognized as survivors by the outside world, the men who wore the pink triangle never received that recognition. They were ignored in the memorials and in the museums. Still seen as criminals and perverts, they never had an opportunity to regain their dignity in post-war society. They survived but they were denied their place in the community of survivors” (Heger 13-14).

Sherman’s play was released more than thirty years after WWII ended and therefore, like Muller, he had a clear perspective of how gay men’s lives remained in many cases almost unliveable, hidden, and ostracized. Sherman’s provocative point about camp maltreatment seems logical because if the gay population were still not considered Nazi victims in the post-war years but instead as criminals then how can one imagine that they held anything other than the lowest rank in the concentration camps? Though I will discuss the hierarchy of abuse in more detail in this essay, Sherman is clearly using a provocative point to draw attention to a minority group that had been deliberately ignored. It is with this in mind that one may begin to look at the theme of survival as explored by Sherman. We may view the plight of the gay men in the camps but with the added advantage of a modern reader’s broader historical view.

In Bent, it is shown how prisoners endure concentration camp life, mainly through mental strength but also through strategic actions. Even after cruel treatment including poor food rations, verbal abuse, and backbreaking labour, Horst is shown to be unbroken and rebellious when faced with death. He is murdered by the Nazis. Max, on the other hand, finally commits suicide which from a traditional viewpoint is the sign of ultimate defeat. However, this is complicated by Max’s heroic proclamation of personal identity by wearing the pink triangle. The play may be looked at solely from the angles of sexuality or historical fact as many academics have done, but these topics may also form part of a larger discussion of man’s endurance and survival. It is with the themes of endurance and survival in mind that one may refer to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays. This text offers many important insight into the significant differences between someone like Horst versus someone like Max. As Camus writes, “it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore, it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face” (1). Suicide is about giving up; therefore, one may interrogate Sherman’s core message in a play where his protagonist destroys himself at the conclusion.

In The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, Camus looks at the relationship between suicide and the absurd. The justification for choosing Camus’ text is that our understanding of Max’s suicide is central to understanding the play. It is somewhat too easy to affirm that Max proudly embraces his identity as a gay man and, in a final act of defiance, disempowers the Nazis by taking his own life. What Max does is indeed heroic and the final scene is one of the most affecting in the play. Yet, Sherman’s play relies on the existence of gay survivor testimonies, on men who endured and survived. It was men like Heinz Heger that made narratives such as Sherman’s possible in the first place. One may legitimately ask why one camp prisoner decides that suicide is his only option while another man, treated much worse and over a longer imprisonment, may actually endure the situation undefeated. This question indeed presumes that there is more to Sherman’s narrative, and the more is ultimately explained under the heading of the absurd.

In chronological order, one may first look at the upheaval that occurred in German gay men’s lives due to the Nazi accession to power. Max and Rudy’s story begins in an accommodating world where Wolf can say, “you people are strange, keeping places like this in town. I don’t meet people like you too much. But you interest me, your kind.” Then quite suddenly the world of the gay couple and all their kind in Germany is turned upside down and swiftly obliterated. The abruptness of the change can be seen in several ways, for example, the gay nightclub closes, Max’s one night stand is murdered before his eyes, and not only must the couple flee Berlin but as Greta advises Rudy, “you can’t go anyplace.” The words of Greta’s nightclub song suddenly become quite pertinent, “streets of Berlin / will you cry out / if I vanish / into thin air” because that transformation into thin air is a chilling reminder of the crematoria of the concentration camps. The play depicts a total divorce between two worlds, liberality versus oppression, divided by a single day. It is the lightning fast transformation of the world from one thing to another that prompts one to describe it as absurd. Camus sums up this feeling of one’s environment becoming unfamiliar in an instant:

“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (6).

However, this feeling of the absurd is not seen by Camus as leading inevitably to suicide. Camus’ philosophical stance is that “even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate” (1). This is not meant from the perspective of sin but simply that God and religion offer hope that otherwise would not be present. Thus, even from the perspective of hopelessness, suicide is still not the answer. Camus writes about how, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” (5). As such, he begins an argument on how man may indeed live with the absurdities of life. This is the precise distinction that one needs to make between men like Horst and Max, men who can or cannot confront the absurdity of a situation. While Camus would argue that life itself is absurd from the viewpoint of existential philosophy, not everyone will becomes conscious of this stark viewpoint and therefore the extreme conditions of the concentration camp act as a catalyst – forcing men into a consciousness of the absurd. Sherman indeed lays emphasis on how each man confronts his new life in the concentration camp and therefore there is an appreciation of the quite subjective responses of individuals to the factual realities of their environment. An explanation for this is, as Camus states, “there can be no absurd outside the human mind” (22). For instance, Horst explains the term “moslem” to Max as “a dead person who walks” and these are the men who stop eating, stop talking, and wait for death in total apathy. As this describes one of the unfortunates in Horst’s separate barracks of pink triangle prisoners, the example serves as a foil for Horst’s own exceptional endurance. It is exactly in this light that one may reassess Horst’s statement that pink triangle prisoners were treated the worst of all. This is Horst’s subjective experience of Dachau and even though controversial and historically unproven, it is nonetheless a true account in its own right. Horst faces the ugliness of the situation and endures it which is a critical point when looking at the overall camp situation and the men’s individual stories.

Sherman pays particular attention to the onerous tasks of concentration camp detainees. It is crucially through prisoners’ reactions to their predicament, including the exhausting labour, that we judge their potential survival. In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Camus summarizes that, “the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” (75). This ancient myth is central to Camus’ contemplation of the absurd and suicide. One may begin to compare Max and Horst with Sisyphus because they indeed share the laborious task of moving rocks. More importantly, Camus’ contemplation of the task leads one to the psychology of endurance. In Bent, when Horst has just begun moving rocks, Max counsels him, “it’s supposed to drive us crazy” because “it makes no sense. It serves no purpose.” Unlike Sisyphus, Max has the opportunity of gaining a helper for the arduous task. In Max’s view, companionship is the antidote to the otherwise unhinging situation. As Max says, “this is the best work in the camp, if you keep your head, if you have someone to talk to.” These two ‘ifs’ are significant qualifiers to the statement indicating that Max essentially lives on hope.

Camus writes that, “the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality” (21). In somewhat more accessible terms, he writes, “the absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation” (21). The prisoners’ tasks, so central to Sherman’s narrative, are a good example of the absurd with which to begin. Pointless tasks were not uncommon in concentration camps and Heinz Heger recounts performing such work. He writes that, “in the morning we had to cart the snow outside our block from the left side of the road to the right side. In the afternoon we had to cart the same snow back from the right side to the left” (35). Heger notes the irony of the Nazi slogan written over the camp gate, “Freedom through work” (36). The slogan was originally understood to mean prisoner re-education i.e., rehabilitation but as Heger correctly understands, the work is just psychological torture which exaggerates the feeling of imprisonment, negating any sense of hope. Horst likewise makes an intuitive observation of his task on his first day, saying, “we move the rocks from there to there, and then back from there to there.” He does not use the phrase ‘here to there,’ but uses a word that communicates the constant gap between where something now rests but needs to be – there. It suggests the endless physical movement required to close a gap that cannot be closed. Additionally, the gap in the logic of the situation, the ludicrous nature of the tasks sets the human mind to whirling. As Camus writes, there is a ‘confrontation,’ and in this case it is between exhausting labour and no eventual outcome, or product, or result. Richard Plant offers significant insights into the pointless tasks assigned to prisoners by SS officers and how such tasks fundamentally contrasted with essential work.

“However wearying these tasks [essential work] proved to be, they were resented less than those designed primarily to punish the detainees—senseless exertions, such as building a wall in the morning and tearing it down in the afternoon. These cruel practices not only gave pleasure to the overseers—it gave them an opportunity to mock their charges—but they emphasized the limitless power held by the SS” (185).

Plant focuses on the exercise of power by the SS guards to cruelly mock their charges. Interestingly, Max does not focus on the guards but simply understands that his task is devoid of meaning except to mentally crush the one who is assigned the task. He understands it as a mind game but one he holds to key to, one that he can neutralize by having a companion. Max believes he has beaten the system yet his grasp of the truth is only partial because he does not appreciate the bigger picture.

The absurdity of the individual’s rock moving task is encased within even greater absurdities. Beside the explanation of Nazi cruelty, there was also a surprisingly practical explanation for pointless work tasks. Richard Plant explains that the Nazi official, Theodor Eicke, created an operational manual for concentration camps. Plant writes that, “Eicke legalized various procedures through which the inmates were humiliated and broken, a process vitally necessary if a small – albeit well-armed – group of SS troopers was to reign over much larger numbers of prisoners” (169). Once again, in Camus’ terms, we have a confrontation of two elements that lead to the absurd, namely thousands of prisoners compared with a quite limited number of SS guards. A prison population of that size could probably, if correctly mobilized, defeat the guards. Max understands his task is meant to drive him mad but in fact, it is to break his spirit as per Eicke’s overall strategy. Each time one scrutinizes the tasks then something new and more mind boggling arises. For example, the broader picture of prisoner tasks includes the irony that prisoner labour was of huge importance. Plant explains as follows:

“Only slave labor in the Nazi camps kept the German economy afloat. But this expanding labor force exacerbated the never-ending tug-of-war between what one might call the “pragmatists” and the “fundamentalists.” One group, made up of planners and industrialists such as Albert Speer, needed captive workers to produce planes, tanks, guns, chemicals, and so forth, and tried to prevent the other group, the fundamentalists, from exterminating these workers” (173).

The SS’s desire to exterminate prisoners whose work was crucial to the success of the Nazi war machine is certainly baffling. Plant explains that, “to the public, Himmler touted the camps as ‘beneficial reeducation centers’ but by 1942 nobody believed this any longer” (173). Himmler was clearly one of the “fundamentalists” and the camps were clearly just a means of exterminating those considered enemies of the state. Max performs his own little individual task but in an illogical environment. Sherman depicts a true maze of contradictions and one which put huge mental strain on those trapped within it, even if they only grasped the first layer of absurdity, namely their own individual tasks.

The absurd does not end with the pointless tasks but instead imbues almost every aspect of prisoners’ lives. Regarding sexuality, Bent crucially exposes the contradictions, indeed absurdities, between the perceptions of gay men and the realities. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, considered homosexuals to be sexual degenerates who had an adverse effect on the German birth rate. It was based on such a characterization of homosexuals that he constantly urged the imprisonment, persecution, and extermination of gay men. Furthermore, Himmler characterized gay men as being cowardly and effeminate. However, as Plant points out, “that [Ernst] Roehm had been a first-rate soldier and an efficient military organizer should have puzzled Himmler; it contradicted his thesis of gays as sissies” (109). The main characters in Sherman’s play also contradict stereotypical expectations of homosexuals. For instance, Sherman depicts Rudy as resisting the train guards, noting that he “fights them,” and Horst when faced with certain death, valiantly attacks the Nazi officer and “screams in fury.” These are not the actions of cowardly men. Sherman is not afraid to tackle the thornier issue of homosexual Nazis thereby exposing an uneasy symbiosis between oppressor and oppressed. For example, Max meets Wolf at a club in Berlin and the following morning Rudy reminds Max that “you called him your own little stormtrooper.” Richard Plant addresses the issue of gay SS officers at the concentration camps, writing that, “there were additional factors complicating the lives of gay prisoners. First, a few SS guards were homosexual. Although they risked everything, they made some younger inmates, usually Poles or Russians, their ‘dolly boys’ (Pielpel)”(177). It must be remembered that Himmler scoured the SS for homosexuals and wanted from 1941 the death penalty for any offenders. Sherman dramatizes a compromising situation where Max must perform fellatio on the SS captain in order to secure medicine for Horst. It is an unsettling thought for any gay prisoner that his SS oppressor may be just the same as him, but Horst grudgingly admits that “there are queer Nazis. But what the hell. And queer saints. And queer mediocrities. Just people.” In this way, Sherman confronts the apparent contradiction that oppressor and victim alike may be homosexual even though the very crime being punished is homosexual identity denoted by the pink triangle. In such a context, the Nazi ideal of cleansing German society of gay men is truly risible.

The stigmatization of gay identity is a core issue in Bent. Based on Horst’s advice, Max wishes for a yellow star used to identity Jewish prisoners in an effort to avoid the worst punishments of the concentration camp. Once captured by the Nazis, Max is arguably in an impossible situation but it is worth studying the plot line. One key point is the reason for his and Rudy’s initial arrest and this is presumably on charges of offences covered by paragraph 175 i.e., homosexual acts. As a German man, not involved in politics or general criminality and not religious, there were few other possible reasons for the arrest. Camus writes that the statement,  “‘It’s absurd’ means ‘It’s impossible’ but also ‘It’s contradictory’” (21) and this certainly applies to Max’s predicament. The incomprehensibility of the situation begins on the train when Max must deny his ‘friendship’ with Rudy because as Horst advises, “if you try to help him, they will kill you.” Max is even forced to participate in Rudy’s beating which leads to his death. However, the Nazi officer remains unsatisfied, presumably believing that the two men were indeed a couple, and he devises a new test for Max to prove that he is not homosexual. Max is then forced to perform necrophilia in order to prove that he is not “queer.” The absurd situation becomes apparent once Max has proven to the officer’s satisfaction that he is not homosexual because Max then immediately requests his yellow star. The Nazis laughingly reply, “sure make him a Jew. He’s not bent.” As the only probable reason for Max’s initial arrest was his suspected homosexuality, any proof that dispelled that idea should have meant his freedom. Sherman uses this incident to show how a gay man, who believes that his own true identity is stigmatized and toxic, will foolishly accept to be labelled with a false identity. This is also a clear indication of Max’s shame over his own sexual orientation. Accepting the yellow star is, of course, a guarantee of a death sentence. Therefore, the situation becomes utterly absurd. In the eyes of the SS officers, homosexual or Jewish identity were on an equally disdained level, neither offering any advantage over the other in real terms.

Camus writes that, “a man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it. A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future” (22). In contrast, Max never fully confronts the illogical nature of his situation, never faces the absurdity of his reality. This may be emphatically stated because Sherman depicts a protagonist who utilizes several coping mechanisms to shield himself from various challenging situations. In this manner, Max differs from both Rudy and Horst. It is not that Max never becomes fleetingly conscious of the absurd, but that he just as quickly tries to escape confronting such a bleak reality. One recurring example is his tactic of counting to ten in moments of extreme anxiety. We notice this first when Max is simply hungover in his Berlin apartment and cannot remember either making a deal about a shipment of cocaine, or the identity of the naked stranger. Counting is shown to be Max’s rescue tactic, a means of separating himself from an awful reality, for instance, after Rudy’s murder, then after recounting the ‘test’ on the train, and finally after Horst’s murder. One may briefly contrast this with Horst’s demeanour on the train when Rudy is dragged away by the guards and Max says, “this isn’t happening,” but Horst calmly responds, “it’s happening.” Men like Rudy and Horst are shown to engage fully with their predicaments, for example, Horst is actually being returned to Dachau, but he does not mentally disengage, still shows humanity, still fights at the end.

Max lives on an eternal dream of doing deals that will fix everything, he loses himself in a mirage of the future. The deals start with selling cocaine but later include the deal with Freddie to comply with the family’s expectations in exchange for two tickets to Amsterdam. Once imprisoned, Max makes multiple ‘deals’ with the Nazi officers in exchange for his prison identity, a work partner, and medicine. Interestingly, all the deals whose results should bear fruit in the future are the ones that invariably fail. Only gaining Horst as a work partner and then spending time with him each day is beneficial to Max. In the philosophical view of the absurd, there is no future, but instead as Camus writes, “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man” (42). This is how Rudy lived, working as a dancer in a crummy club, endlessly tidying up a pitiful apartment, digging ditches to buy food when they were on the run. In contrast, Max constantly projects himself into a better future, including the illusion that his arrest is just “protective custody,” that the Nazis may release the camp prisoners for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and finally, the plan that he and Horst will return to Berlin together once released from the camp. Max cannot face his present existence. He lives on hope as already exemplified by the rock moving tasks where a succession of ‘ifs’ secure his future. This eventually proves deadly when he can no longer employ an effective evasive technique, like counting to ten, and must confront his fate.

Max is a somewhat strange character to be the hero of the play. Sherman does however show a noticeable evolution from selfish, party-animal to the vulnerable yet proud man at the end. Indeed, Max is full of contradictions because even though his uncle Freddie accuses him of “throwing it in everyone’s face” meaning his openly gay life, Max denies being in love with Rudy, referring instead to his partner as just his responsibility. It is also noticeable that Max never responds to Rudy’s declarations of love. Against this background, it is evident that Max’s fear of being labelled as gay goes beyond the fact that Horst said gay men suffer more in the camp. Max’s life is contradictory because he lives with a man, engages in an active sex life with other men too, but cannot express love nor fully embrace his identity. Sherman depicts a man who represses his feelings because he has been emotionally wounded. When Horst admits his love for Max then the reply he gets is that “queers aren’t meant to love.” In explanation, Max refers to the gay man at his father’s factory who was paid to go away, leaving Max, denoting the shallowness of gay love. Max feels that his own capacity for love has died, noting that, “I can’t love anybody back” as well as his self-hatred expressed in the idea that he’s a “rotten person.”

Sherman uses Max as a testament to the suffering of gay men in society. The pink triangle reflects not only Max’s internalized self-hatred but also Horst’s warning that pink is the lowest “but only because the other prisoners hate us so much.” In this environment, Max is shown to defend his yellow star to Horst, saying “it’s a smart lie” and “my yellow star got your medicine.” When Max finally embraces his identity as a gay man and wears Horst’s coat, it is because he must face the absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, the contradiction is too great, between the sacrifices needed to attain the yellow star in the first place, and the final but too late admission of his own gay identity. As Camus states, it is the contradiction that leads to a realization of the absurd. It is only now that Max can accept/admit that he truly loved the man from his father’s factory, and Rudy, and Horst. Sherman creates a cautionary tale because all the effort Max has put into surviving, especially the awful incidents on the train, are all undone by the eventual and overwhelming consciousness that it was all meaningless. The stupendous effort to be something else has eventually failed. Camus writes that, “war cannot be negated. One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd” (60) and Max is crushed by the total lack of meaning and purpose in his predicament. He counts to ten just after Horst is shot in an attempt to shield himself from the nausea that comes of the realization, but it fails. As an audience, we are supposed to interpret Max’s suicide as heroic because of Horst’s prior story about the man in his barracks who killed himself. Horst described the suicide as follows, “it’s a kind of defiance, isn’t it? They [Nazis] hate that – it’s an act of free will.” However, as previously quoted from Camus, “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much” (5). Max is only a hero if we don’t consider him a victim of the total hopelessness and absurdity of the situation which he cannot overcome, and only if we see his suicide as a revolt. Yet, in a concentration camp environment with a pit of dead bodies behind him, Max’s death is arguably denied any true nobility. A critical reader would declare that the sacrifice asked of Max in order to proudly declare his sexuality i.e., his suicide, is evidence that Sherman forces the narrative to meet the needs of the 1970’s politics of sexual revolution. Sherman depicts Max as ‘coming out’ but at the maximum cost to the character. With Camus’ aid, one may read Max in a totally different light. So, who is the hero of the tale and why?

It is Horst who most closely resembles Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus. Horst does not speak of an all-powerful God, he does not make any predictions for his future, he seems to live in each moment as it comes. It is difficult to discuss a man’s relationship with the absurd without some easy foothold on such an abstract topic. Edward Albee provides such a foothold with his wry definition of the absurd as, “man’s attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense” (Killinger, 2–3). To this, one may add Camus’ thoughts on how consciousness of the absurd impacts on a man’s daily life, “it was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully” (36). Is this how Horst lives? Camus proposes that hope or suicide are man’s two key escape routes from the absurd. Horst certainly does not appear to embrace either one of these solutions. In explanation, one may say that he has surely lost all reasonable hope of survival having been taken from Dachau once, only to be returned. Additionally, as proven by his final act of revolt, he does not submit to thoughts of resignation or suicide.

Yet, one may reasonably ask for further proof of Horst’s consciousness of the absurd and simultaneous total acceptance. Camus writes that, “I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (42). As Horst’s final revolt is not in question, one may cite examples of his freedom and passion. Horst displays his freedom even within the concentration camp in two distinct ways, namely humour and sexuality. Only a resilient man could make such a wonderful quip about the SS guard’s tedious instructions on rock moving – “we had a kid like that in school. Used to lead us in Simon Says.” Later, when Horst and Max reminisce about Berlin, Horst jokes that he indeed once saw Max by the river, “and I said someday, I’ll be in Dachau with that man moving rocks.” The other major example of freedom is when Horst initiates sex with Max, albeit verbal stimulation, which is an important scene in the play. When Horst says, “they’re not going to kill us. We made love,” then it may be understood less as hope for the future, and more as a celebration of the moment, of being triumphant in the moment. Horst’s passion may be viewed in two of his actions, his love of Max and his political zeal apparent in his jibes at Max about not accepting his own gay identity. It is love that is Horst’s daily motivation, he says, “it’s a reason to live.” It is important to note that Max never reciprocates the declaration of love and therefore Horst’s love is unrequited and in a pessimistic view, hopeless. Regarding political zeal, Horst was imprisoned due to his signature on a petition supporting the work of Magnus Hirschfield. As such, he is an open advocate of gay rights. The most pointed jibe by Horst at Max is when the former recounts the kindness of a Rabbi in his barracks of pink triangles and says to Max, “maybe if you knew him you could be proud of your star. You should be proud of something.” As readers, we witness that Horst receives worse treatment than Max but he continues to show freedom of action and thought while imprisoned. Horst is scornful of Max’s lie about his identity which is the clearest indication in the text that Horst’s path, though much tougher, is the correct one.

When Camus writes about Sisyphus, it is of someone who has an endless, tortuous fate. Camus goes on to say, “if this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (76). Max is never a tragic figure until the final moments when his hopes are extinguished and he solves the problem of the absurd through the only alternative option from hope – suicide. However, Horst is indeed like Sisyphus in his endurance and he plays just such a role in Bent. Horst is the one who faces the awful absurdity of his situation but by active revolt and the exercise of passion and freedom, and all without any true hope of a future, he stands out as the hero. It is Horst who unashamedly wears his pink triangle and knows the cost of wearing it too. He is the prisoner who struggles from day to day, relying on love to sustain him when his hands are frostbitten and his body is weak. It is men like Horst, who battled against the absurdity of paragraph 175 and imprisonment in concentration camps. Sherman depicts a heroic person who does indeed reflect Camus’ idea of Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (77).

Works Cited.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage International, 1991.  

Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle. Translated by David Fernbach, Alyson Publications, 1995.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. Holt Paperbacks, 1988.

Sherman, Martin. Bent. Avon Books, 1980.

Murder in the Cathedral

Pacher, Michael. Legend of St. Thomas Becket. 1470/80.

  • Play title: Murder in the Cathedral.   
  • Author: T. S. Eliot.  
  • Published: 1935  
  • Page count: 86 

Summary.  

T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral specifically for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935. The play is written almost entirely in verse and is Eliot’s dramatic rendering of the real-life events that led to the death of Thomas Becket in 1170. The key historical facts are that King Henry II of England appointed Becket as his Lord Chancellor. Becket was later elected Archbishop of Canterbury and unexpectedly resigned his secular role as chancellor to the King’s disappointment. Thereafter, a conflict between church and state led Becket to flee to France. The timeframe of Eliot’s play is from December 2nd to 29th 1170 when Becket had returned to England from exile. Unfortunately, the archbishop again fell into grave disfavour with King Henry II over the coronation of his son, Henry the Young King. The play charts Becket’s career from king’s loyal servant to devout clergyman, focusing especially on the archbishop’s unfaltering faith during dangerous times. The play is structured as Parts I and II with a mid-section interlude which is a church sermon by the archbishop. The main characters are the all-female Chorus, three priests of Canterbury, four tempters who represent worldly and spiritual concerns, and the four knights who enact the most dramatic events of the play. Eliot’s work may be classified under the genre of miracle play due to the theme of martyrdom but there are also elements of Greek drama, most evident in the role of the Chorus.  

Ways to access the text: listening/reading.  

As Eliot’s play is written mostly in verse, it is quite pleasant to listen to an audiobook version. One is available on YouTube under the title of, “T. S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral.” There are eleven chapters in the audiobook, and it has a running time of 1hr and 37mins.  

If you would prefer to read the text, then please go to the Open Library which has several copies available for online reading.  

Why listen to/read Murder in the Cathedral? 

Martyrdom.  

One of the age-old debates about Thomas Becket, also discussed at length in Eliot’s play, is his unusual road to martyrdom. Becket’s most notorious move was when he excommunicated the bishops who crowned King Henry II’s son. In response, the King spoke angry words recorded as, “have I none of my thankless and cowardly courtiers who will relieve me from the insults of one low-born and turbulent priest?” Four of the King’s knights interpreted the words as a direct threat to Becket. The knights went to Canterbury, confronted the archbishop over his alleged treacherous acts and demanded he surrender himself for arrest, but Becket resisted them and was brutally murdered by the knights within the cathedral building. Henry Hart Milman, who penned a biography of Becket, writes of how Hugh of Horsea, one of the Knights’ followers, “set his heel upon his [Becket’s] neck, and crushed out the blood and brains” (119). As Becket died defending the church’s position, he was quickly considered a candidate for canonization. Becket’s route to sainthood was strongly bolstered by the infamy of the murder, by the throngs of pilgrims who soon visited the archbishop’s tomb, and by the attribution of several miracles to Becket after his death. Eliot peruses the historical facts to create an imaginative depiction of the archbishop’s frame of mind prior to his death. It is significant that Becket held steadfast to a particular course of action on his final day when either escape or capitulation to the knights’ demands were both real and credible options.  

Contrasting perspectives.  

The play’s selection of characters who are grouped by profession, class, and allegiance, offer interesting and often contrasting perspectives. The language used by each group is distinctive as it reflects their backgrounds and interests. The Chorus is made up of the women of Canterbury and represents the concerns of ordinary folk predominantly from a rural background whose language reflects an affinity with nature and indeed hardship too. Then the priests give voice to clerical concerns. They offer different views on the archbishop focusing on his flaws as well as his leadership powers against the backdrop of a complex political climate. The three tempters expose the perceived weaknesses of Becket to the good life, to power, to treachery. The Fourth Tempter seems to know the secrets of Becket’s own mind. In part II, the four knights who represent the king’s interests, come with accusations against the archbishop, both old and new, and they alone speak in plain prose. Even though the play focuses on a religious theme, Eliot manages to give voice to a wide selection of character’s views, from pauper to king’s representative. Each figure focuses on Becket but only as far as the archbishop impacts on their own lives. The church when led by such a controversial man as Becket is shown to influence all levels of English life from lowly labourers to barons and Kings. The contrasting perspectives reflect the society of the time.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Martyrdom & the wheel of Fortune.  

T. S. Eliot does not present Thomas Becket’s route to martyrdom in the style of a standard hagiographer. That is to say that the play neither idealizes Becket nor does it leave out the paradoxes of the saint’s story. From a strictly historical perspective, many academics grapple with the question of Becket’s transformation from highly ambitious statesman to holy man and their cynicism is not without valid cause. Eliot accordingly presents the protagonist of Murder in the Cathedral as an archbishop with a long history in politics and therefore the writer does not disregard the uneasy overlap of politician turned clergyman. However, the playwright chooses not to approach the difficult issue of Becket’s holiness from an historian’s perspective alone. Eliot introduces the idea of fate into the play, specifically in the form of the wheel of Fortune. This links to the writings of the philosopher, Boethius, which were popular in medieval times, especially his famous text entitled, The Consolation of Philosophy. In this work, Boethius scrutinizes how one may understand the erratic twists of man’s good and bad fortune versus God’s divine plan. Even though Eliot does not make an explicit reference to Boethius, the philosopher’s text is one of the most famous works on the wheel of Fortune. As such, a reader may use The Consolation of Philosophy to begin to understand the nuances in Eliot’s play especially since the wheel of Fortune is a key motif in Murder in the Cathedral. There is also an important ideological alignment between a Christian philosopher like Boethius and Eliot’s careful portrayal of a saint’s life. While somewhat superfluous information – Boethius wrote his famous text while in prison in Pavia, accused of treason for which he was later bludgeoned to death leading eventually to his recognition as a martyr and saint by the Christian church. Indeed, there is an uncanny resemblance at times between Boethius’ philosophy and Becket’s words in the play. Therefore, it seems quite apt to refer to Boethius’s work, not least because a scholar like Becket may indeed have read the work during his life. The comparison of Boethius’ philosophy with Eliot’s play will serve to answer the central question of whether Becket plans his own martyrdom of if God is in control of the plan? To phrase the question in this way may seem stark but it is in fact one of the central issues with which Eliot’s play grapples. It is, incidentally, a fascinating question for a dramatic work to tackle.     

In order to put Becket’s thoughts and arguments as explored in the play into some perspective, one may first make recourse to Boethius’s main ideas on fate. The Consolation of Philosophy addresses our understanding of the wheel of Fortune and also God’s level of power over, and intervention in, our individual lives. The book presents its arguments in the form of an extended dialogue between Boethius himself as a character and Philosophy personified as a woman. At one point Philosophy assumes the voice of Fortune to explain: 

“Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever-changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require” (Boethius 51).  

Boethius makes the compelling argument that we voluntarily participate in Fortune’s game, for example, when we give into the alternate feelings of hope and grief. This is summed up in the line, “once you have bowed your neck beneath her yoke, you ought to bear with equanimity whatever happens on Fortune’s playground” (49). In short, the message is that when we pursue and hope for good fortune then our minds are clouded by earthly success and we abandon the Christina path, namely what is true in life. Fortune presides over the fleeting things of mortal life and anything that is so fragile and temporary cannot be true. In quite religious terms, Boethius states that we should pursue the “supreme good” (97) which means lives directed by virtue and not by desire, and thus lives not founded on material possessions or temporal success. Boethius importantly differentiates between “Nature’s fixed order” (90) like the cycle of the seasons or stars’ trajectories which are totally under God’s control, and on the other hand, man, who has free will. The play teems with references to the ever changing yet balanced cycles of nature in contrast to the path of man, which is governed by motivations, both pure and impure. The central paradox explored by the philosopher is that God has providence over all men’s lives and therefore God has foreknowledge of all that will happen in the future, but this does not actually determine men’s lives as they still retain free will. The explanation given by Boethius for this paradox rests primarily on the difference between God who is an eternal being versus man who is mortal and subject to existence within time. As such, God’s knowledge “embraces all the infinite recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy of its knowing as though they are happening in the present” (131). In accordance with this view, man may exert his free will and alter his own life course, but God always sees what happens as it is happening, as an eternal present. Boethius supplies a complex argument, but this brief overview aids a reader to better understand Eliot’s play and its many references to the wheel of Fortune in conjunction with God’s plan. Eliot explores in great depth the plan of God and Becket’s plan and whether these separate plans are actually identical or at odds. 

If Becket’s actions are not interpreted as leading to martyrdom but instead simply to self-destruction then we have the plainest dichotomy between God’s divine plan and a man’s erroneous path. Eliot explores the idea that Becket’s death may not be the result of his spiritual enlightenment. This hypothesis is important in the play as it gives a valid counterview of an historical event that is viewed only, or too often, as the making of a saint. The old saying, ‘forewarned is forearmed,’ is particularly relevant to Becket’s story. Eliot makes clear that Thomas Becket was fully aware of the real and present danger brought about by his return to England. In evidence of this, Becket recalls that upon arriving in England he met, “those who had sworn to have my head from me,” but escaped only because of the intervention of the Dean of Salisbury. In this light, Becket’s death was arguably imminent, and his enemies needed just the slightest opportunity for it to become a reality. Becket was not alone in this knowledge because the Chorus, First Priest and First Tempter all shared similar forebodings and sentiments. The Chorus warn that “Death has a hundred hands and walks by a thousand ways.” What is in question here is Becket’s lack of due caution, his neglect of the most basic instinct toward self-preservation. As Boethius writes, “the chief concern of mortal men is to keep their hold on life” (55). Therefore, the question that must arise for the reader is if Becket wills his own death? Or, to cautiously rephrase, does he allow his enemies an opportunity when he is sure that his life will be the price? As the Fourth Knight later states, when defending his own actions and those of his fellow knights, “there can be no inference except that he [Becket] had determined upon a death by martyrdom.” The knight argues that based on the facts of the case, an onlooker would “unhesitatingly render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” Admittedly, the words of a cold-blooded murderer lack credibility except that the slander is echoed in other parts of the text. For Becket to have put himself in harm’s way, fully conscious of the most probable outcome, would indeed constitute suicide. Naturally, Becket pronounces his fate as the will of God and his submission to that greater power and preordained plan. Yet, Becket also recognizes the inherent difficulty in being profoundly sure of his path. For instance, when the Fourth Tempter advises Thomas to “seek the way of martyrdom” then he responds, “you offer only dreams of damnation.” This is in line with the Catholic teaching that suicide, regardless of the disguise one seeks to put on it, even trying to name it martyrdom, will not stop it being a mortal sin that guarantees damnation.

The Fourth Knight’s accusation that Becket committed suicide is covertly echoed by the Chorus. Indeed, the Chorus make two separate allusions to suicide, firstly, just after the archbishop has taken refuge in the cathedral and then again immediately after his death. In the first instance, the women prophesy the coming of Death, judgement, and then the “Void” which means “separation from God.” The women’s speech is quite mysterious until they say, “dead upon the tree, my Saviour / let not be in vain Thy labour.” Although “my Saviour” would traditionally refer to Christ, the reference to a tree discounts that association as Christ died on the cross. Earlier, the women had pleaded to Thomas, “save us, save us, save yourself / that we may be saved” and therefore he is the women’s saviour as their religious leader for which he must continue to live. “Dead upon the tree” in a religious context is an allusion to Judas Iscariot who hanged himself after betraying Jesus. Thus, the women fear Becket’s death by suicide which like Judas’ death would signal not only a betrayal of Jesus but also an eternal separation from God in Hell, the “Void.” This interpretation is supported by the women’s words just after Becket’s death when they say, “I wander in a land of barren boughs: / if I break them, they bleed” which is an allusion to ‘the forest of the suicides’ from canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. In this circle of Hell, the souls of suicides are encased in trees and if one breaks off a branch then blood pours out. Furthermore, these tortured souls are never allowed regain their bodies, even at the Last Judgement, and must instead drag their bodies to their individual trees and hang the bodies upon them. This is quite an emotive passage in Dante’s Inferno, but it captures the disdain of God for those who commit suicide. In Eliot’s play, in the aftermath of Becket’s death, the Chorus speak of the need to purify the land after the awful deed, noting specifically the blood, “a curtain of falling blood,” which refers to the bloody murder. However, the blood may also refer to the story of “Akeldama” (potter’s field) which literally means ‘field of blood’ where Judas reputedly committed suicide. The purification needed after Becket’s death is ambiguous and while it certainly refers to some sin, the sin may be murder or suicide. The murder was indeed the bloody deed of the inflamed knights but the references to blood may also be a shrouded reference to Judas. Yet, the earlier allusions by themselves are sufficient to declare that suicide is a solid implication in the text. However, it must be noted that the final interpretation of Becket’s death is made by the church and not the Canterbury women or the knight. The true significance and meaning of his death only begin to solidify in the hours and days afterwards. What the Chorus do is provide the reader with an instinctual response to what has happened, the view of ordinary folk, revealing the possible spectre of death by suicide.

The thoughts and heartfelt beliefs of Archbishop Becket at the point of his death shall remain a mystery. He may have believed that he was submitting to God’s plan or he may have been sadly tainted by blasphemous desires for glory in death. However, this lack of certainty does not preclude a reader from making educated deductions from the evidence of the play about his true motivations. One may begin with the wheel of Fortune and chart which points on the wheel Thomas Becket has already experienced. As Boethius states, man is enticed to take part in Fortune’s game by earthly, temporal lures. It is the Four Tempters who provide us with a history of Becket’s brushes with Fortune. When the Fourth Tempter visits Becket, he says, “hooks have been baited with morsels of the past,” and such morsels are worth recalling as they represent points on the wheel through which Becket has already passed in time. The First Tempter suggests that now the king and archbishop are reconciled that all may return to “mirth and sportfulness” or as the Fourth Tempter later rephrases it, “wantonness.” Boethius warns about “bodily pleasure” because “its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse” (78). Thomas therefore correctly rebuffs the First Tempter explaining that the stages of a man’s life may not be repeated, adding, “only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think / he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” As a man of God, Becket shuns the bodily pleasures he once enjoyed. The Second Tempter tries to lure Thomas back to his former role as Lord Chancellor. This tempter’s bid is couched in the claim that the chancellor’s job may be used “to set down the great, protect the poor” and the only price for Thomas is his “pretence of priestly power.” The real lure is finally revealed to be “the power and the glory” of the position, but Thomas rejects temporal power, saying “those who put their faith in worldly order / not controlled by the order of God, / in confident ignorance but arrest disorder.” Boethius similarly rejects the pursuit of power when it is wielded for the sake of glory, as is suggested by the Second Tempter, but also because, “if you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks” (79). The Third Tempter seeks an alliance of the church with the English barons in rebellion against King Henry II. The Third Tempter’s argument is that Thomas’ renewed friendship with the king is unstable because, “real friendship, once ended, cannot be mended.” This reflects Boethius’ sentiments, “there is no evil more able to do you injury than a friend turned Foe” (76). Thomas rejects the baron’s treachery, preferring to trust in God. However, the first three Tempters reveal to the audience the lures of Fortune that did successfully entice Thomas in the past, namely bodily pleasures in the form of the good life, political power wielded in service of the King and not for the general good, and even treachery, because while Thomas does not agree to the baron’s plan, he has excommunicated the bishops who anointed the king’s successor and this is the ‘treachery’ for which Thomas is eventually executed. Yet, the final ‘treachery’ is done by Becket in service of the church and Pope. There is a solid argument to be made that Becket, by rejecting the lures of Fortune, has now freed himself from the wheel. If the archbishop is indeed following a virtuous path, then his plan will align with God’s. However, Becket’s relationship to church power is complex because it has been used more than once to thwart and oppose King Henry II. As Boethius points out, all power is fickle and moreover, the question is if Becket has merely renounced secular power for a power that he believes is more formidable.

In order to truly judge Thomas Becket’s actions, we should assess his character. For this reason, we must heed the many references in the play to Becket’s pride. In the Catholic church, pride is one of the seven deadly sins and a sin best exemplified by Satan in his rebellion against God. In the Book of Proverbs, one may read that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). The First Priest in particular lists Becket’s faults of pride – pride prompted by his early career prosperity but later sustained by the archbishop’s view of his own superior character traits. The First Tempter labels the archbishop as “too proud” and in regard to Becket’s chosen course of action, the tempter cautions, “leave well alone, / or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.” Later, the Four Knights demean the archbishop referring to him as “a louse” who “crawled upon the King; swollen with blood and swollen with pride.” When Becket appears to proudly revel in church power, the Second Tempter warns him that his “sin soars sunward, covering King’s falcons.” Thus, those around Becket recognize his character flaw of excess pride and warn him of coming disaster, just as written in the bible. Yet, Becket shields himself using his clerical position. However, we may look to the 19th century preacher and author, Ichabod Spencer, for a warning to clerics, he writes, “spiritual pride is the worst kind of pride, if not worst snare of the devil. The heart is particularly deceitful on this one thing.” There is evidence of such pride in Becket, for example when he rejects the Second Tempter’s suggestion to return to the role of Lord Chancellor, saying:

“No! shall I, who keep the keys

Of heaven and hell, supreme alone in England,

Who bind and loose, with power from the Pope,

Descend to desire a punier power?

Delegate to deal the doom of damnation.

To condemn kings, not serve among their servants

Is my open office. No! Go.”

The idea that temporal power may be inferior to church power is not the issue here, but that Becket proclaims to hold such power in his own hands, and indeed to swell with pride by the very assertion as evidenced by the haughty language. From the above example, one would correctly conclude that Becket lacks humility which is the only accepted counterweight to the sin of pride. His actions, whatever they may be, will inescapably be tainted by his sin and therefore we are left with Becket’s own testimony alone to convince us that he has found the true path, God’s path.  

In Becket’s opening speech in the play, he makes an erudite reference to the workings of the wheel of Fortune. He speaks of how “acting is suffering / and suffering is action” which refers not only to the pattern of fate designed by God but also men’s use of their free will to make themselves submissive to that plan. He states, “for the pattern is the action and the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still be forever still.” The paradox of the wheel both turning and remaining perfectly still apparently refers to two forces, firstly the role of Fortune in the lives of mortal men and, secondly, the role of God who exists outside time, an eternal unchanging presence. Boethius describes God as:

“O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,

Creator of the planets and the sky, who time

From timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover” (83).

As previously explained, Boethius believed that by playing Fortune’s game, man indulges in alternate feelings of hope and grief and thus becomes a victim of Fortune. In contrast, by following God’s virtuous path, the way is straight, and one is free(r) of the tortuous wheel. The paradox of the moving and unmoving wheel metaphor used by Becket may be explained by God at the wheel’s centre point, the fixed point, around which the wheel of Fortune spins. This explains the characteristic stillness of being timeless in connection with the moving/temporal aspect of human life. Boethius uses a similar metaphor, referring to “a set of revolving concentric circles” (112) with the godhead at the centre point and therefore “whatever moves any distance from the primary intelligence [godhead] becomes enmeshed in ever stronger chains of Fate, and everything is the freer from Fate the closer it seeks the centre of things” (112). The core of Becket’s argument is that his actions are virtuous and his suffering submissive to God and this means he consents with his free will to God’s divine plan. This is stated in Becket’s Christmas morning sermon in the cathedral when he says, “a martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God” and that “a martyrdom is never the design of man.” Becket speaks of finding freedom in submission to God. In philosophical terms, Becket’s reasoning matches Boethius’ who writes that “you who are set on the path of increasing virtue … you are engaged in a bitter but spirited struggle against fortune of every kind” (118). However, this is an abstract argument based entirely on Christian faith and clearly contrasts with our impression of Becket who is highly political and may be accused of not just pride but outright hubris. The archbishop’s apparent foreboding or indeed foreknowledge of his martyrdom is also a contentious point because his eventual murder seems little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boethius argues that God’s foreknowledge of events does not mean predestination when one considers man’s free will, but the inverse of that argument is that Becket’s free will, his desire, may indeed predestine his end.

The fact that Becket is aware of the flaws in his own argument, forcing him to defend it to himself and others, is a crucial aspect of Eliot’s play. There are two salient moments when the archbishop critiques his own argument, and these happen during his interactions with the Fourth Tempter and then with the Priests just before his execution. Becket is perturbed by the Fourth Tempter to whom he says, “who are you, tempting with my own desires?” It is noteworthy that this Tempter repeats Becket’s own words back to him, for example, the archbishop’s boast of holding “the keys of heaven and hell” which was Becket’s reproof to the Second Tempter. Then there is the speech on how “acting is suffering” which was part of Becket’s opening speech in the play. Eliot cleverly makes the Fourth Tempter the mouthpiece for Becket’s own personal thoughts. The efficacy of this dramatic technique is that Becket begins to doubt his own logic since it now comes from not only a somewhat ominous figure but also because it is spoken as a temptation. However, if Becket believes the Fourth Tempter to be evil or even an emissary of Satan then the logic would be that Becket’s path to martyrdom is indeed the correct path because only an evil adversary would wish to thwart the creation of a saint! Yet, the scenario is not just a simple case of the tempter using reverse psychology. The elements of the Fourth Tempter’s proposal which would immediately alert a cleric to danger are the focus on the power of saints, for instance, “to bind king and bishop under your [Becket’s] heel.” Then, more blasphemous is the idea of controlling fate itself, “you hold the skein: wind, Thomas, wind / the thread of eternal life and death.” In this way, Thomas would decide his own martyrdom, meaning the time of his own death and the result thereafter. These ‘flawed’ elements of the argument reflect Becket’s own mind and should alert him to the impure desires that may lead him to martyrdom. Thus, Becket becomes acutely aware of the risks of “sinful pride” and says, “can I neither act nor suffer / without perdition?” and the Tempter offers no advice about how the archbishop may avoid damnation but simply restates the logic of fate in a description of the wheel of Fortune. Becket says, “the last temptation is the greatest treason: / to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Despite the flurry of confusion, Becket concludes this particular monologue with the pronouncement that he will submit to God’s will even though others will inescapably view his demise as self-slaughter or fanaticism.

The dramatic moments before Becket’s murder do in fact prove his uncommon bravery and steadfast faith. One may still take the cynic’s view of Becket like William de Traci who says, “you must have noticed what a good show he put up at the end.” However, an archbishop would surely be unable to face his death in such a brave manner if he believed it was a form of suicide given the eternal punishment for such a sin, especially as understood in medieval times. Eliot’s play depicts the events of Becket’s death in a similar vein to historical records which is also a relevant point. As a test of Becket’s sincerity, a reader may focus on two issues, namely Becket’s defence of his course of action and his stated motivation. The archbishop defends his command to unbar the cathedral doors to his fellow priests who oppose him and “argue by results, as this world does, / to settle if an act be good or bad.” Becket echoes Boethius’ philosophy, that “the world does not judge actions on their merit, but on their chance results, and they consider that only those things which are blessed with a happy outcome have been undertaken with sound advice” (41). The merit of Becket’s action is to defend the church by refusing to bow to Kingly oppression, but the result is bloody indeed, and it is that catastrophic result which is the eventual focus of those who would brand him suicidal or fanatical. The archbishop’s stated motivation for allowing fate to run its course is, somewhat ironically, that he has already won. He says, “we have fought the beast and have conquered. We have only to conquer now, by suffering.” Becket recognizes a higher calling, saying, “I give my life to the Law of God above the Law of Man” and this links to Boethius’ claim that “all things are desired for the sake of the good in them” (86) because God represents the supreme good. As such, the archbishop concurs with God’s divine plan for him, offers no resistance, in the secure knowledge that he stands on God’s side. As Boethius writes, God “looks out from the watch-tower of Providence, sees what suits each person, and applies to him whatever He knows is suitable. This, then, is the outstanding wonder of the order of fate; a knowing God acts and ignorant men look on with wonder at his actions” (112). That Becket never falters in his belief, right to the end, is the strongest indication that at least in his own mind, he is right.

As the final piece of the puzzle, one may confidently state that the chance sequence of events surrounding Becket’s death were beyond the power of any mortal man to orchestrate. The First Priest’s immediate reaction to the murder is to interpret it as a tragedy, saying, “the church lies bereft, / alone, desecrated, desolated, and the heathen shall / build on the ruins,” Boethius writes that “tragedy commemorates with its tears and tumult – the overthrow of happy realms by the random strokes of Fortune.” However, the martyrdom of one who will become a saint surely cannot be a random tragedy. A tragedy would occur to a man fastened to the wheel of Fortune. It is the Third Priest who sees God’s plan in the mayhem, “let our thanks ascend To God, who has given us another Saint in Canterbury.” Therefore, if Thomas Becket was chosen by God to be a saint, then the intricate web of seemingly chance happenings on the archbishop’s last day are not chance at all. The day’s events represent a pattern; a combination of God’s providence intertwined with the free will of the Four Knights. In fact, one may interpret the knights as mere pawns in the bigger plan. It is helpful here to refer to how Boethius outlines the idea of predestination for great men:

“Some men at the price of a glorious death have won a fame that generations will venerate; some indomitable in the face of punishment have given others an example that evil cannot defeat virtue. There is no doubt that it is right that these things happen, that they are planned and that they are suited to those to whom they actually happen” (114).

The Third Priest does indeed declare that the church is “triumphant in adversity” and in the context of Becket’s death, this means that the evil acts of the knights cannot defeat the virtuous church. This reflects Becket’s earlier sentiment that the church had won and all that was left was for him to suffer God’s plan. Rather than foolishly attempt to explain God’s plan, one may simply remove the burden of responsibility from Becket’s shoulders regarding his death. This may be done by enumerating the events of the day to definitively show that neither Becket nor indeed the knights alone could have foreseen the final outcome. Firstly, the four knights were not under direct orders from the king, this is an historical fact and echoed by an admission of William de Traci in the play. Thus, they arrived in Canterbury having only interpreted the king’s words in a certain manner. This becomes clear when they make ever-changing requests of Becket and his fellow clerics. These may be listed as follows:

  • (1) That Becket answer the charges against him “in the King’s presence,” which means to accompany the knights to the King’s court.
  • (2) To “depart from this land,” which means a new term of self-exile. 
  • (3) That Becket’s staff should “take, hold, detain, restrain this man” until the knights return meaning house arrest.
  • (4) That Becket commit to “absolve… resign… restore… renew” i.e., the knights’ list of demands that require compliance.   

Eliot depicts a tempestuous, volatile situation. When the armed knights return, it is the priests who physically drag Thomas into the cathedral building and barricade the main doors. Then, even though Becket orders his priests to “unbar the door,” he could not have known that the knights would return “slightly tipsy.” The knights make new requests of him and when he does not cooperate then they promptly and brutally kill him. The haphazard nature of the events is clear and involve not one but two separate altercations, the consumption of alcohol, and refusals by Becket to comply with demands. The location of the attack itself is of supreme historical importance and yet Becket was manhandled into that sacred location and therefore had no choice in the matter. In the end, the forces of the king murder the Catholic Primate of England in his own cathedral thus securing his martyrdom.

Eliot presents his audience with a highly sophisticated overview of Becket’s fate, but it is a fate that Becket could never have hoped to control regardless of self-delusion or pride or mad desire. The play is full of strange forebodings of a momentous and terrible act, as if all in Becket’s circle can feel the coming doom. The spectacular murder that occurs on holy ground is the consummation of a divine plan, at least as understood by those of faith. Through the comparative analysis made to Boethius’ philosophy in this essay, it is clear that Eliot based his play on a solid philosophical foundation. The playwright assiduously examines every aspect of Becket’s road to martyrdom, but it is crucially the references to the wheel of Fortune and God’s providence that give needed shape to what may otherwise look like random events. If one word could sum up a miracle play then it would indeed be – faith.

Works Cited.

Boethius, Anicius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts, Penguin Classics, 1999.

Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. Translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002.

Eliot, T. S. Murder in the Cathedral. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936.

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