Thursday, February 4, 2010

Jean Anouilh’s Becket

I've always preferred literary art with a philosophical dimension. Case in point: the play Becket by Jean Anouilh. I was introduced to the play via the film starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, which I saw with a friend 35 years ago or more.

We were so impressed with this drama that some years later, my friend initiated a local theater production of it. It never panned out, but I can still remember the rehearsals. Though not an actor, I participated in reading rehearsals, playing an archbishop locked in a power struggle with the King. Tossing out veiled threats was, I admit, intoxicating, even in fantasy. Nothing says sadistic lust for power like the Catholic Church.

But I recall as well something far more important—my reason for the fascination with the play—the curious self-awareness of the Becket character and the ambiguity of his role-playing, culminating in a martyrdom predicated on assuming "the honor of God". Having worked behind the scenes in the theater (long ago and far away) and kibitzing incessantly for years, I got to observe actors, directors, and playwrights. It's instructive to see who really has awareness of the meaning of plays and who doesn't. I've found actors in plays are just as clueless as actors in real life. But some roles can't be adequately played without profound inquiry into meaning. This play presents such a challenge.

I've distilled out of the play some key quotes revealing this most intriguing character:
Jean Anouilh's Becket: Choice Quotes
There's not a line wasted in this play, so it's hard to extract the essentials. I vividly recall almost all these extracts from decades past. I'll just add a comment about the King, since I've not focused primarily on him in these extracts. The King constantly marvels at the intelligence and elusiveness of his close friend Becket, who understands the social order the King commands better than the King does himself. This king—as is characteristic of all rulers—is obtuse to certain underlying properties of the social system he commands. Becket, however, as a member of a conquered people who collaborates with his conquerors, exhibits an excruciating self-awareness and a deeper awareness of how all components of the social order fit together, thus enabling him to help the king rule with greater efficiency. The King is merely pragmatic, though thoroughly so, and like all pragmatists he can see through pretense but not through pragmatism. Hence it is child's play for the King to deflate the hypocritical pretenses of the Catholic Church, while Becket remains an enigma to him. The interplay between these two characters is key to the brilliance of the play.

If you want some entertainment that makes you think instead of settling for the usual pabulum, you'd do well to rent this film.

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