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date: 19 August 2019


The Oxford Dictionary of Plays

Michael Patterson

Becket (Becket, ou l'Honneur de Dieu) Alternative title: The Hono(u)r of God Author: Jean Anouilh Date/place of 1st performance: 1959, Paris Date of 1st publication: 1959 Date of 1st translation to English: 1961 Genre: Trag. in 4 acts; French prose Setting/time of action: England and France, mid-12th c. Cast: 17m, 3f, extras 

In Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket was martyred, Henry II is being scourged by four monks as a penance for the murder. In a flashback we see Henry appointing Becket as chancellor. They go hunting together, and Henry hands over a poor Saxon girl to Becket, calling in the debt by taking Becket's mistress, who stabs herself in his bed. Becket, concerned about his honour, ponders why he as a Saxon is serving a Norman king. In France, Henry decides to appoint Thomas archbishop, even though Thomas states that he will now owe his allegiance to God and that it will be the end of their friendship. Becket resigns the chancellorship and dedicates himself to the Church. Taking refuge in the French court after being tried on trumped-up charges, Becket fears that the Pope will betray him. The French King arranges for Henry and Becket to meet. Becket declares that he now serves only ‘the honour of God’, and Henry leaves sadly. When Becket returns to England, Henry demands that his barons rid him of this priest. The barons strike Becket down and are then transformed into the monks scourging Henry. Becket and Henry are acclaimed by the crowds, as Henry hypocritically sends out his barons to hunt down Becket's killers.

Although some of the material is similar to that of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, there are considerable differences. While Eliot focuses on the last days of Becket, Anouilh's play covers several decades; Eliot's Thomas is a holy figure dedicated to martyrdom; Anouilh's Thomas is seen growing from a sexy, worldly youth to become a committed priest. Above all, Anouilh explores the almost homoerotic relationship between Henry and Becket, and Henry's sense of loss when he loses Becket to God.