Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robert Bolt’s play about the sixteenth century lawyer, scholar, and politician Thomas More gained wide appeal among theatergoers, who appreciated the playwright’s blend of history, politics, and moral philosophy. A Man for All Seasons’s focus on the conflict between public duty and private conscience guaranteed its success in London and paved the way for its influential run on stage and in an award-winning movie adaptation.

Summary of Event

Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (pb. 1960) was a play long in the making. The World War II veteran had first told the story of Sir Thomas More’s More, Sir Thomas[More, Thomas] struggle with King Henry VIII Henry VIII[Henry 08] in the form of a brief radio Radio;drama drama broadcast in 1954. He had then adapted it as a half-hour television production in 1957. Only in 1960 was Bolt’s drama produced as the full-length stage play whose reception proved its initial critics wrong about both its relevance and its staying power with audiences. Man for All Seasons, A (Bolt) []Theater;historical drama [kw]Man for All Seasons Premieres, A (July 1, 1960) Man for All Seasons, A (Bolt) Theater;historical drama [g]Europe;July 1, 1960: A Man for All Seasons Premieres[06590] [g]United Kingdom;July 1, 1960: A Man for All Seasons Premieres[06590] [c]Theater;July 1, 1960: A Man for All Seasons Premieres[06590] Bolt, Robert Scofield, Paul McKern, Leo[Mackern, Leo]

Bolt’s initial forays into the world of drama had caused him to be loosely associated with the “Angry Young Men,” a group of postwar playwrights whose stark dramas railed against modern social mores. Like them, Bolt was interested in the dehumanizing qualities of modern, industrialized society. After the radio production of A Man for All Seasons, Bolt produced The Last of the Wine Last of the Wine, The (Bolt) (pr. radio 1955, stage 1956). His first play conceived initially for the stage, The Critic and the Heart, Critic and the Heart, The (Bolt) was staged at Oxford in April, 1957, and his next drama, Flowering Cherry, Flowering Cherry (Bolt) brought him modest fame during its successful run in London in 1957-1958.

Bolt’s political activism influenced all his plays, but especially A Man for All Seasons. He had been a member of the British Communist Party Communist Party, British during the 1940’s but had separated himself from the organization, because he grew increasingly disenchanted with the Marxist view that individuals had no control over the process of history. Nevertheless, Bolt had remained active politically; in the 1950’s he became part of the Committee of 100, Committee of 100[Committee of One Hundred] a group that promoted worldwide nuclear disarmament.

After writing several plays set in his own time, Bolt decided to turn to history to illustrate what he considered one of the most vexing, timeless problems facing humankind: the difficulty of establishing a sense of self and maintaining one’s integrity in a world where conformism and political expediency were increasingly prevalent. He found in history a perfect figure to illustrate his case: Sir Thomas More, a distinguished lawyer who at one time was lord chancellor of England but who was disgraced and eventually executed by Henry VIII for his refusal to bow to the wishes of the monarch. Bolt’s play dramatized More’s struggles to avoid having to break with the king, who at the time was flouting the pope and the Roman Catholic Church in order to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Virtually every character in A Man for All Seasons is based on a historical figure, though Bolt took some liberties with some of them to create greater interest in the conflict. His villains, Richard Rich and Thomas Cromwell, owe as much to William Shakespeare’s most notorious villains—Iago and Richard III—as they do to the sixteenth century accounts from which Bolt drew his story. These figures, as well as some of More’s friends, pressure him to support the king’s right to rule both church and state. When More is able to avoid taking a stand by resorting to legal and philosophical legerdemain, his enemies manage to convict him on trumped-up charges of bribery, for which he is executed.

While focusing on the events of this sixteenth century test of wills, Bolt managed to invest his play with a sense that More’s struggle was not simply a cautionary tale about church versus state—a topic that would have been of significantly less interest to twentieth century audiences than it was to More and his contemporaries. Instead, Bolt saw in More’s refusal to play political games for personal gain and his steadfast refusal to compromise his most cherished principles the image of a figure of universal, timeless significance: a person who would suffer even death rather than betray his integrity.

To make clear the universality of his theme, Bolt created a character he called the Common Man. This figure appears as several characters within the drama, alternatively portraying More’s servant, a boatman, and even the executioner. His principal role, however, is to speak directly to the audience, commenting on the significance of historical events and providing a bridge between audience members and the drama being acted out before them. Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the Common Man engages in sometimes playful, sometimes cynical observations that make it clear that, for most people, the better part of valor is discretion—or the willingness to compromise for convenience. At various points in the play, the Common Man reminds the audience that they are more like him than they are like the admirable hero whose death changes little in the course of history.

A Man for All Seasons opened at the Globe Theater on July 1, 1960. Initial reviews were mixed. Some critics acknowledged that the story held the audience’s attention and that the performances of Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Leo McKern as the Common Man captivated theatergoers and gave life to a play that was, in the critics’ view, more talk than action. Immediate comparisons were made between A Man for All Seasons and the dramas of German playwright Bertolt Brecht Brecht, Bertolt , a dramatist Bolt professed to admire. In fact, a production of Brecht’s Leben des Galilei Galileo (Brecht) (pr. 1943, 1947, 1955, pb. 1955, 1957; The Life of Galileo, 1947; better known as Galileo) had opened in London several months before Bolt’s play, and its historical subject suggested to critics and playgoers that the two had much in common. Both shared characteristics of what Brecht had called “epic drama,” a form of theater in which story took precedence over dramatic conflict and characterization.

To create his epic dramas, Brecht had combined techniques of realism with those of expressionist theater, employing several devices that consciously alienated the audience from the characters in the play. His Marxist Marxism approach stressed the dominance of historical forces over the actions of individual characters. Bolt made use of similar devices in A Man for All Seasons, most notably the visible mechanisms of stagecraft (sets and sometimes costumes were changed in front of the audience) and the figure of the Common Man. In contrast to Brecht, however, Bolt wanted to draw audience members into his play, to make them sympathize with his hero and see something of their modern condition reflected in the historical drama.

Despite the concerns of critics, Bolt’s initial audiences responded positively to his efforts to meld history with contemporary concerns. A Man for All Seasons continued to play to sold-out houses as word spread that the play offered something special. Its initial London run lasted for 320 performances. Clearly, the playwright had given audiences what they were searching for in contemporary theater—food for thought as well as strong dramatic conflict.

Significance

If the merit of a play is measured in the length of its run and its subsequent stagings, A Man for All Seasons must rank among the century’s most successful. The play was performed in New York beginning in November, 1961, with Paul Scofield reprising the title role and Leo McKern playing the villain Cromwell. Even after Scofield left the cast several months later, the play continued to attract a full house. A Man for All Seasons was named Best Foreign Play of 1961 and received five of Broadway’s Tony Awards Tony Awards , including the award for Best Actor for Scofield.

In 1966, Bolt collaborated to produce a movie script based on his drama, and the film version, Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Man for All Seasons[Man for All Seasons] also starring Paul Scofield, won six Oscars, including the Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Picture for Best Picture. Stage revivals were mounted by both professional and amateur groups, and the play became a staple in many college and high-school classrooms. Bolt’s dramatization of the perils of maintaining a sense of self and moral integrity in a world dominated by political forces continued to touch a sympathetic chord with millions who had perhaps never heard of Thomas More before they entered the theater. Man for All Seasons, A (Bolt) Theater;historical drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Gareth, and Barbara Lloyd Evans. Plays in Review, 1956-1980: British Drama and the Critics. New York: Methuen, 1985. Reprints excerpts from three reviews of the play that appeared in 1960 shortly after A Man for All Seasons opened in London; two reviewers are highly critical, while one offers a more balanced assessment of Bolt’s drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayman, Ronald. Contemporary Playwrights: Robert Bolt. London: Heinemann, 1969. Contains an extended interview with Bolt, in which the playwright discusses his career and explains his intentions in his major dramatic works. Also includes a critique of the play focusing on Bolt’s ability to create characters and his professed reliance on German dramatist Bertolt Brecht as a model for his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Discusses Bolt as an exemplar of the epic style in the modern English theater, comparing him with Bertolt Brecht; stresses that A Man for All Seasons is a play about moral choices that all individuals are required to make.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nightingale, Benedict. A Reader’s Guide to Fifty Modern British Plays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982. Briefly summarizes Bolt’s career, examining his political and artistic concerns. Provides an extended critique of the play, focusing on characterization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Richard H. The Contemporary British History Play. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Discusses the play in relation to other historical dramas being produced in Britain after World War II; explains how Bolt uses historical figures to deal with contemporary moral and social issues.

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