Wednesday, April 16, 2014

M is for A Man for all Seasons

Today I would like to shift gears a bit, and talk about my favorite modern play: A Man for all Seasons, by Robert Bolt.  The play originally debuted in London in 1960, then was staged in New York the following year.  Robert Bolt, who in addition to this play is best remembered for the screenplays he wrote for David Lean for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. His work was often concerned with role of the individual in society and how far one might take a stand against authority.  Bolt was an agnostic, but he found the perfect example of such a man I'm the 16th century martyr Thomas More. More was executed for refusing to sign the act of succession, his objection being what it made Henry the head of the  Church instead  of the pope.  But the play makes clear that it is not so much about the conflict between Henry and the Church as it is  about More's right to believe as he does 
without interference from the state.

"What matters to me is not whether it is true or not, but that I believe it to be true--or rather, not the I believe  it but that I  believe" as Thomas says at one point.

In the play we meet More at  the point of his final rise to power, about to become chancellor of England. More was a devout Catholic (he once considered becoming a priest, before deciding he would rather be a "good husband than  a bad priest").   He took up the law instead, becoming a respected judge. His first wife gave him a son and three daughters before dying young, and he remarried to a widow with daughters of her own, all of whom he raised, along with several wards, as his own, in a seemingly happy, open household.  More advocated for the education of women, and his daughter Meg was considered one of the most learned women of her time. The play shows us only Alice, the second wife, Meg, and her future husband Will Roper as part of his family, but it is enough  to show he is devoted to his family and friends, including the Duke of Norfolk, and a young man named Richard Rich, who resents the fact that More will not advance him in society.  Rich will eventually find other patrons, to More's detriment.

As a judge More is a firm believer in the law and justice. At one point Roper says he would destroy the law to get at the devil and More responds: "And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide then Roper, the laws all being flat. This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's law not Gods, and if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, where would you hide then Roper, the laws all being flat.  I give the devil benefit of the law for my own safety's sake.

Early on two one on one scenes set the tone for the play.  The first is between More and Cardinal Wolsey. Long the commander of the king's business, Wolsey has lost favor because he cannot get Henry an annulment (Henry's wife, Katharine was past childbearing age and Henry had no legitimate son.) Henry has decided to break with the Pope and the Church of  Rome, to keep the Church but with himself in charge, thus allowing him to divorce Katherine and marry his new love, Anne Boleyn.  Wolsey wants More to join him, or at least not oppose him.  As a good Catholic More believes that the Pope is the heir of St Peter, whom Jesus put in charge of the Church, and he will not accept a break with Rome.  Nonetheless when Wolsey falls, More accepts the position on Chancellor.  He agrees to not oppose Henry, but he won't advocate for him on the matter either.  Soon Henry comes to visit him, and in one of the great two man scenes in modern theatre Henry tries to both charm and bully More into taking his part. 

Henry VIII is only onstage for this one scene, but Bolt has drawn him so brilliantly he haunts the whole play. He has captured Henry at precisely the moment that begins the slide from golden prince to tyrant and both are present here. He can be charming and pursuasive "If you could see your way to come with me, there is no man I would sooner raise, with my own hand," only to erupt a moment later "I have no queen. Katherine's not my wife, no priest can make her so.  They who say she is my wife are not only liars, but traitors."

When the break with Rome finally happens,  More resigns his office, hoping that removal from the public eye will protect himself and his family. He will not take any public position on what his going on, and therefore he thinks he can't be accused of treason, But as another character suggests, More's silence is nosier than many other persons' speeches.  More is first deprived of his property, then is thrown in jail, then has his family threatened, but More will not sign the act of succession, because although he acknowledges that Parliament can make whomever they want Queen or heir to the throne, only God can decide who runs the church. 

 When his daughter Margaret suggests he take the oath in public, but deny it in private, she answers her 
in one of the best speeches in the play:
"When a man takes an oath he is holding his own self in his own hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers then he needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this but I'd be loath to think your father one of them."

Eventually More is hauled into court, and convicted of treason on the basis of false testimony by his old "friend" Richard Rich.  More's faith in law fails him in the end, because he doesnt realize until its too late that if he doesnt provide evidence it will be created. But his faith in God does not betray him, and on the scaffold he announces that he dies "The King's Good Servant, but God's first." 

I actually read this play when I was about nine or ten,  before I ever saw it performed,  and it reads quite well. I have been lucky enough to see it staged live, and you should too if you ever get a chance. There are also two film versions.  The version Charlton Heston starred in for TNT in 1988 sticks quite closely to the  stage play (which Heston toured in a number of times.)   The cast includes John Gielgud , Vanessa Redgrave  and Roy Kinnear as the Common Man (the plays narrator who steps in and plays a number of minor parts as well.).  The real master piece however, is the 1966 film version, winner of  a number of  Oscars, including Director and Best Film. The cast includes Paul Scofield, who had originated the role of Thomas More on stage and won the Oscar for Best Actor, Wendy Hiller, Susanah York, Orson Welles,  Leo McKern, John Hurt, and perhaps most memorably, Robert Shaw who is unforgettable  as Henry.  Although the film takes some liberties with the script to make the film more cinematic, it is still quite true to the play, retaining virtually all of the brilliant dialogue.

When Robert Bolt was writing this play he was looking at a time when not many people seemed willing to take stands on what they believed.  Now 50 plus years later one may wonder even more: Who in our world takes a stand. Who will stand on their beliefs, no matter what? Questions like these are what this play is all about.

This post is part of teh A-Z challenge,
blogging a book a day all month

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