Becket

Becket or The Honor of God (French: Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu) is a Tony Award-winning play written in French by Jean Anouilh. It is a depiction of the conflict between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England leading to Becket’s murder in 1170. It contains many historical inaccuracies, which the author acknowledged.

Anouilh’s interpretation of the historical story, though often ironic, is more straightforward than T. S. Eliot’s play on the same subject, Murder in the Cathedral, which was intended primarily as a religious treatment. However, there are one or two similarities in the interpretation.

In the Introduction to the play, Anouilh explained that he based it on a chapter of an old book he had bought because its green binding looked good on his shelves. He and his wife read the 30 pages about Thomas Becket, and she urged him to write a play about Thomas. He did so, knocking out the first part in only 15 days. It was not until he showed the finished play to a friend that he found out the old book he had based it on was historically incorrect in certain important aspects. Having built his play on Becket’s being a Saxon (when he was actually a Norman whose family was from near Rouen and called “Bequet” in French), Anouilh could not recast the play to accord with historical facts, so he decided to let it stand.

Aspects of the content that can safely be considered true are the conflicts between England and France, church and state, and the outline biography of Becket. The play is a re-enactment of the conflicts between King Henry II and Thomas Becket as the latter (Henry’s best friend) ascends to power, becoming the King’s enemy. Becket begins as a clever, but hedonistic, companion; as a result of being created Archbishop of Canterbury, he is transformed into an ascetic who does his best to preserve the rights of the church against the king’s power. Ultimately, Becket is slaughtered by several of the king’s nobles, and the king is then forced to undergo penance for the murder.

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