KING. [ . . . . ] However did you come to speak French without a trace of an English accent?
BECKET. My parents were able to keep their lands by agreeing to "collaborate," as they say, with the King your father. They sent me to France as a boy to acquire a good French accent.
KING. To France? Not to Normandy?
BECKET. That was their one patriotic conceit. They loathed the Norman accent.
KING. Only the accent?
BECKET. My father was a very severe man. I would never have taken the liberty of questioning him on his personal convictions while he was alive. And his death shed no light on them, naturally. He managed, by collaborating, to amass a considerable fortune. As he was also a man of rigid principles, I imagine he contrived to do it in accordance with his conscience. That's a little piece of sleight of hand that men of principle are very skillful at in troubled times.
KING. Why do you put labels onto everything to justify your feelings?
BECKET. Because, without labels, the world would have no shape, my prince.
KING. Is it so important for the world to have a shape?
BECKET. It's essential, my prince, otherwise we can't know what we're doing.
GWENDOLEN. Are they still eating? [revelers]
BECKET. Yes. They have an unimaginable capacity for absorbing food.
GWENDOLEN. How can my Lord spend his days and a large part of his nights with such creatures?
BECKET. If he spent his time with learned clerics debating the sex of angels, your Lord would be even more bored, my kitten. They are as far from the true knowledge of things as mindless brutes.
GNVENDOLEN. I don't always understand everything my Lord condescends to say to me . . . What I do know is that it is always very late when he comes to see me.
BECKET. The only thing I love is coming to you. Beauty is one of the few things which don't shake one's faith in God.
GWENDOLEN. I am my Lord's war captive and I belong to him body and soul. God has willed it so, since He gave the Normans victory over my people. If the Welsh had won the war I would have married a man of my own race, at my father's castle. God did not will it so.
BECKET. That belief will do as well as any, my kitten. But, as I belong to a conquered race myself, I have a feeling that God's system is a little muddled. Go on playing.
GWENDOLEN. I'm lying. You are my Lord, God or no God. And if the Welsh had been victorious, you could just as easily have stolen me from my father's castle. I should have come with you. [. . . . ] Did I say something wrong? What is the matter with my Lord?
BECKET. Nothing. I don't like being loved. I told you that.
KING. [ . . . . ] Get her to sing that lament they composed for your mother, Becket. It's my favorite song.
BECKET. I don't like anyone to sing that lament, my Lord.
KING. Why not? Are you ashamed of being a Saracen girl's son? That's half your charm, you fool! There must be some reason why you're more civilized than all the rest of us put together! I adore that song. [. . .] That's an order, little Saxon.
[. . . . ]
KING. It brings tears to my eyes, you know, that story. I look a brute but I'm soft as swansdown really. One can't change one's nature. I can't imagine why you don't like people to sing that song. It's wonderful to be a love child. When I look at my august parents' faces, I shudder to think what must have gone on. It's marvelous to think of your mother helping your father to escape and then coming to join him in London with you inside her. Sing us the end, girl. I adore the end.
[. . . . ]
KING. Did he really love her all his life? Isn't it altered a bit in the song?
BECKET. No, my prince.
KING. Funny, it's the happy ending that makes me feel sad. Tell me, do you believe in love, Thomas?
BECKET. For my father's love for my mother, Sire, yes.
KING. [ . . . .] You can't tell a lie. I know you. Not because you're afraid of lies—I think you must be the only man I know who isn't afraid of anything—not even Heaven—but because it's distasteful to you. You consider it inelegant. What looks like morality in you is nothing more than esthetics. Is that true or isn't it?
BECKET. It's true, my Lord.
KING. Does it amuse you—working for the good of my people?~ Do you mean to say you love all those folk? To begin with they're too numerous. One can't love them, one doesn't know them. Anyway, you're lying, you don't love anything or anybody.
BECKET. There's one thing I do love, my prince, and that I'm sure of. Doing what I have to do and doing it well.
KING. Always the es—es . . . What's your word again? I've forgotten it.
KING. Esthetics! Always the esthetic side, eh?
BECKET. Yes, my prince.
FOLLIOT. His Grace seems to have the reins of the Church of England well in hand. Those who are in close contact with him even say that he behaves like a holy man.
KING. It's a bit sudden, but nothing he does ever surprises me. God knows what the brute is capable of, for good or for evil. Bishop, let us be frank with each other. Is the Church very interested in holy men?
FOLLIOT. The Church has been wise for so long, your Highness, that she could not have failed to realize that the temptation of saintliness is one of the most insidious and fearsome snares the devil can lay for her priests. The administration of the realm of souls, with the temporal difficulties it carries with it, chiefly demands, as in all administrations, competent administrators. The Roman Catholic Church has its Saints, it invokes their benevolent intercession, it prays to them. But it has no need to create others. That is superfluous. And dangerous.
KING. You seem to be a man one can talk to, Bishop. I misjudged you. Friendship blinded me.
POPE. I don't want to receive him at all. I gather he is a sincere man. I am always disconcerted by people of that sort. They leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
CARDINAL. Sincerity is a form of strategy, just like any other, Holy Father. In certain very difficult negotiations, when matters are not going ahead and the usual tactics cease to work, I have been known to use it myself. The great pitfall, of course, is if your opponent starts being sincere at the same time as you. Then the game becomes horribly confusing.
BECKET. Yet it would be simple enough. Too simple perhaps. Saintliness is a temptation too. Oh, how difficult it is to get an answer from You, Lord! I was slow in praying to You, but I cannot believe that others, worthier than I, who have spent years asking You questions, have been better than myself at deciphering Your real intentions. I am only a beginner and I must make mistake after mistake, as I did in my Latin translations as a boy, when my riotous imagination made the old priest roar with laughter. But I cannot believe that one learns Your language as one learns any human tongue, by hard studying, with a dictionary, a grammar and a set of idioms. I am sure that to the hardened sinner, who drops to his knees for the first time and murmurs Your name, marveling, You tell him all Your secrets, straightaway, and that he understands. I have served You like a dilettante, surprised that I could still find my pleasure in Your service. And for a long time I was on my guard because of it. I could not believe this pleasure would bring me one step nearer You. I could not believe that the road could be a happy one. Their hair shirts, their fasting, their bells in the small hours summoning one to meet you, on the icy paving stones, in the sick misery of the poor ill‑treated human animal—I cannot believe that all these are anything but safeguards for the weak. In power and in luxury, and even in the pleasures of the flesh, I shall not cease to speak to You, I feel this now. You are the God of the rich man and the happy man too, Lord, and therein lies Your profound justice. You do not turn away Your eyes from the man who was given everything from birth. You have not abandoned him, alone in his ensnaring facility. And he may be Your true lost sheep. For Your scheme of things, which we mistakenly call justice, is secret and profound and You plumb the hidden depths of poor men's puny frames as carefully as those of Kings. And beneath those outward differences, which blind us, but which to You are barely noticeable; beneath the diadem or the grime, You discern the same pride, the same vanity, the same petty, complacent preoccupation with oneself. Lord, I am certain now that You meant to tempt me with this hair shirt, object of so much vapid self‑congratulation! this bare cell, this solitude, this absurdly endured winter-cold—and the conveniences of prayer. It would be too easy to buy You like this, at so low a price. I shall leave this convent, where so many precautions hem You round. I shall take up the miter and the golden cope again, and the great silver cross, and I shall go back and fight in the place and with the weapons it has pleased You to give me. It has pleased You to make me Archbishop and to set me, like a solitary pawn, face to face with the King, upon the chessboard. I shall go back to my place, humbly, and let the world accuse me of pride, so that I may do what I believe is my life's work. For the rest, Your will be done.
BECKET. [ . . . . ] It is not for me to win you round. I have only to say no to you.
KING. But you must be logical, Becket!
BECKET. No. That isn't necessary, my Liege. We must only do—absurdly—what we have been given to do—right to the end.
KING. Yet I know you well enough, God knows. Ten years we spent together, little Saxon! At the hunt, at the whorehouse, at war; carousing all night long the two of us; in the same girl's bed, sometimes . . . and at work in the Council Chamber too. Absurdly. That word isn't like you.
BECKET. Perhaps. I am no longer like myself.
KING. Have you been touched by grace?
BECKET. Not by the one you think. I am not worthy of it.
KING. Did you feel the Saxon in you coming out, despite Papa's good collaborator's sentiments?
BECKET. No. Not that either.
KING. What then?
BECKET. I felt for the first time that I was being entrusted with something, that's allthere in that empty cathedral, somewhere in France, that day when you ordered me to take up this burden. I was a man without honor. And suddenly I found itone I never imagined would ever become minethe honor of God. A frail, incomprehensible honor, vulnerable as a boy‑King fleeing from danger.
SOURCE: Anouilh, Jean. Becket; or, The Honor of God. Translated by Lucienne Hill. New York: Coward-McCann, 1960. 128 pp.
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