Much like his Antigone, this play takes an already-familiar story and reimagines it to tell the story that Anouilh wants to tell. He dreamed of resuscitating the Europe of old. His famous slogan, Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals," conspicuously left out Britain, a country that aided in liberating France from the Germans paraphrased from Wikipedia. The monk refuses to speak to Becket in French, answering his questions in English. Becket understands the monk, but he continues speaking in French.
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Much like his Antigone, this play takes an already-familiar story and reimagines it to tell the story that Anouilh wants to tell. He dreamed of resuscitating the Europe of old. His famous slogan, Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals," conspicuously left out Britain, a country that aided in liberating France from the Germans paraphrased from Wikipedia.
The monk refuses to speak to Becket in French, answering his questions in English. Becket understands the monk, but he continues speaking in French. His is a French king of French and English ancestry, sitting on the English throne, and Becket serves this king. When Becket must leave the country because of his conflict with the king, he runs to France, of course.
In Rome, the Pope and one of his Cardinals discuss the problems between France and England with "bad Italian accents," according to the stage directions , including Becket, and eventually come up with a scheme to resolve the issues by duping both countries.
The Pope makes the claim that both France and England have "a long arm" and that Rome must balance the two. The historical inspiration and background are that Henry II was a Norman, born to a French father and an English mother. His mother helped him contest the throne of England, to which she had a right as the daughter of Henry I. The main tension between Henry and Becket was that Becket was a clergyman, and his duty and desire were to strengthen the power of the Church, while Henry wanted to strengthen the power of the Crown.
When Becket became Archbishop and took the part of Saxon monks, Henry was not pleased. The tension between Normans conquerors and Saxons conquered and the tension between the Church and the Crown are the major conflicts in the play. Becket, above all else, values order. Without order, nothing endures.
When Henry wants to tax the Church for not sending their men out to fight, the bishops originally say no but eventually give in. Becket tells Henry that they only give in because the power of one king is temporary compared with the centuries of power the Church has established.
The king uses the Church, but the Church uses the king better. What Anouilh adds to the political and historical backdrops is the story of two friends, one who loves the other unconditionally and one who loves his duty and his honor above all else.
Le Roi and Becket are foils for each other. But the king can be vapid, clueless even, and Becket is all intelligence. He does whatever the king says, always calling him ironically "mon prince. Once Becket makes his decision, though, he sticks to it. He says, "Tenir la barre du bateau" take the helm of the boat. He thinks that he and Henry can work this out, that Henry can accept the wind beating against his boat and let it knock the boat about sometimes. Ultimately, the two split for good.
Despite his refusal to bend, Henry defends Becket to the end and refuses to hear anyone talk badly about him. This play is very wide in scope. I highly recommend it!
Marie-Magdeleine worked the night shifts in the music-hall orchestras and sometimes accompanied stage presentations, affording Anouilh ample opportunity to absorb the dramatic performances from backstage. He often attended rehearsals and solicited the resident authors to let him read scripts until bedtime. He first tried his hand at playwriting here, at the age of 12, though his earliest works do not survive. Jean-Louis Barrault , later a major French director, was a pupil there at the same time and recalls Anouilh as an intense, rather dandified figure who hardly noticed a boy some two years younger than himself. He liked the work, and spoke more than once with wry approval of the lessons in the classical virtues of brevity and precision of language he learned while drafting advertising copy.