Christmastide – which actually begins with the birth of Jesus and ends with his baptism – is also a time for commemorating martyrs. St. Stephen, considered by the Church to be the first martyr, is remembered on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, while Dec. 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in the cathedral there on Dec. 29, 1170 by the henchmen of the king he loved, Henry II. (The feast day is generally the day the saint died, not his or her birthday.)
Becket’s relationship with Henry, as you might imagine, was a complicated affair that has proved catnip to artists, filmmakers and writers like poet T.S. Eliot (“Murder in the Cathedral”). My favorite interpretation is Jean Anouilh’s Tony Award-winning play “Becket,” which became a highly entertaining movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, who died just recently.
Anouilh had reimagined Sophocles’ “Antigone,” with its iconoclastic heroine, as a metaphor for the French Resistance. In “Becket,” he gives us a homosocial, if not homoerotic, account of a strong male bond broken by a lack of self-knowledge. The king, a man of equal parts brilliance and petulance, assumes that when he appoints Becket archbishop, his pal – who, after all, had been his chancellor and right-hand man – will keep the Church in line and maintain the status quo. He doesn’t count on Becket being transformed by his new gig anymore than Becket does, but transformed he is – the play’s subtitle is “The Honor of God” – and that transformation sets the two men on opposites sides of a bloody chess game that is a hallmark of male rivalry, the subject of my forthcoming novel, “Water Music.”
This complex rivalry was superbly underscored in the 1964 movie version that turned on the chemistry of Burton and O’Toole. Playing against type – the beefy Burton, exuding animal magnetism, would’ve seemed better suited to Henry, while the attenuated O’Toole had the air of the ascetic – the two men capture a check-and-mate relationship that could sacrifice companionship but never the love and admiration that was its backbone. This is most poignantly displayed in the “on the beach” scene, in which the two men encounter each other for the last time and which crackles with all the heartache, bitterness and deluded hope that characterizes great love gone wrong:
King: You never loved me, did you, Becket?
Becket: In so far as I was capable of love, yes, my prince, I did.
King: Did you start to love God? He cries out. You mule! Can’t you ever answer a simple question?
Becket: I started to love the honor of God.
And there you have it. After that scene, it’s a short step to Henry musing about whether there’s anyone who will rid him of this thorn in his side, and his thuggish knights putting two and two together. Becket dies but he wins in the end as a penitent Henry is forced to acknowledge that “the honor of God, gentlemen, is a very good thing, and taken all in all one gains by having it on one’s side.”
Check – and mate.