|Written by||Jean Anouilh|
King Henry II
King Louis VII
Pope Alexander III
Eleanor of Aquitaine
|Date premiered||8 October 1959|
|Place premiered||Theatre Montparnasse|
|Setting||Twelfth century Europe|
Becket or The Honour of God (French: Becket ou l'honneur de Dieu) is a 1959 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 assassination 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, finishing 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 being Saxon (when he was actually a Norman whose family was from near Caen and was called Becquet, Bequet or Becket in Old Norman), 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 lastly we find the king thrust into penance for the episcopicide.
The first Broadway production premiered on 5 October 1960 at the St. James Theatre. It was produced by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, and starred Laurence Olivier as Thomas Becket and Anthony Quinn as King Henry II. The production was nominated for five Tony Awards and won four, including Best Play. The play later transferred to the Royale Theatre and then to the Hudson Theatre. It's been wrongly believed that during the run Quinn and Olivier switched roles, with Quinn playing Becket to Olivier's King. In fact, Quinn left the production to work on a film, and director Glenville suggested a road tour with Olivier as Henry. Olivier happily acceded, and Arthur Kennedy took on the role of Becket, with Olivier playing Henry, both for the tour and a brief return to Broadway.
However, according to John Cottrell's biography of Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn was dismayed and angry when he read that Olivier was getting better reviews for his performance as Henry than Quinn had gotten, claiming that he would never have left the production if he had known that was going to happen. (After Olivier's death Quinn displayed extreme animosity towards the actor in his second autobiography.) Even so, it was Quinn who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance, while Olivier was overlooked.
The first London production was at the Aldwych Theatre on 11 July 1961, directed by Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Eric Porter played Becket and Christopher Plummer the King, with Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Peter Jeffrey, Diana Rigg, Ian Holm and Roy Dotrice in the cast. The play later transferred to the Globe Theatre. Plummer won the Evening Standard Award for his performance after taking over the part from Peter O'Toole, who broke his contract with the RSC before rehearsals began in order to take the lead in David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia.
The play was revived in a new translation by Frederic Raphael and Stephen Raphael in October 1991 at the Haymarket Theatre with Derek Jacobi as Becket and Robert Lindsay as the King and again in October 2004 with Dougray Scott and Jasper Britton. The original English translation for the 1961 version (by Lucienne Hill) was revived at the Southwark Playhouse in September 2001 with Rupert Degas and Colin Salmon.
In 1964 the play was made into a successful film, starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton with John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Martita Hunt. Additional scenes were written by Edward Anhalt for the film. Anhalt won an Academy Award for his screenplay.
The film introduced a somewhat fictionalized plot element not in the original play. Rather than the main conflict between Becket and the King revolving around the Constitutions of Clarendon - as is depicted in the play and as happened in historical fact - the film's dispute between Becket and Henry II centers on the assassination of an accused priest by the henchmen of Lord Gilbert, a nobleman and friend of King Henry, and Becket's excommunication of Gilbert as a result.
At the beginning of the movie's DVD commentary, Peter O'Toole relates his meeting with Anouilh in Paris a few years before the film was made because he was being considered for the play. Anouilh told him that he had been looking for an idea based on a rift in the leftist Théâtre National Populaire between the actors Gérard Philipe and Daniel Ivernel. He visited Canterbury and decided the Becket story would be a good vehicle. Philipe and Ivernel were cast as Becket and Henry respectively for the Paris première of the play, but Philipe died before rehearsals were completed.
- "Becket, or the Honour of God". E-notes. 2008. Archived from the original on 26 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- Time writers (7 April 1961). "Henry the Second". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- Spoto, Donald (1992). Laurence Olivier: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 360–368. ISBN 0-06-018315-2.
- John Cottrell: Laurence Olivier, Prentice Hall, 1975
- Anthony Quinn: One Man Tango: An Autobiography, HarperCollins, 1995
- BBC Press Office (28 August 2009). "Classic stage plays and adaptations of major works of fiction at the heart of new drama season on Radio 3". Press release. Retrieved on 28 August 2009.