A Man for All Seasons, pr. 1954 (radio play), pr. 1960 (staged)
The Last of the Wine, pr. 1955 (radio play), pr. 1956 (staged)
The Critic and the Heart, pr. 1957
Flowering Cherry, pr. 1957
The Tiger and the Horse, pr. 1960
Gentle Jack, pr. 1963
The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, pr. 1965 (children’s play)
Brother and Sister, pr. 1967, 1968 (revision of The Critic and the Heart)
Vivat! Vivat Regina!, pr. 1970
State of Revolution, pr., pb. 1977
Plays: One, pb. 2000
Plays: Two, pb. 2001
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962 (based on T. E. Lawrence’s writings)
Doctor Zhivago, 1965 (adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel)
A Man for All Seasons, 1966
Ryan’s Daughter, 1970
Lady Caroline Lamb, 1972
The Bounty, 1984
The Mission, 1986
Without Warning: The James Brady Story, 1991
The Master, 1953
Fifty Pigs, 1953
Ladies and Gentlemen, 1954
Mr. Sampson’s Sundays, 1955
The Window, 1958
The Drunken Sailor, 1958
The Banana Tree, 1961
“English Theatre Today: The Importance of Shape,” 1958 (in International Theatre Annual)
The Sisterhood: A Play, 1989 (of Molière’s play Les Femmes savantes)
Robert Oxton Bolt was an intelligent craftsman and a traditional playwright whose greatest literary achievements depict strong, well-developed characters facing moral dilemmas within a tumultuous historical setting. His fame rests as much on his highly successful screenplays as on his stage plays. He was born in Sale, Manchester, the son of a shopkeeper. He was educated there, and in 1940 he began a career as an insurance agent. While still in his teens, he joined the Communist Party, an affiliation he later rejected, deciding that it had “nothing to do with democracy or freedom.” In 1943, he began his studies in economics at Manchester University. From 1943 to 1946, he served in the Royal Air Force, stationed in South Africa and the Gold Coast. After World War II, he returned to Manchester University, receiving a degree in history in 1949. After earning a teaching certificate at University College, Exeter, he taught in Devon and Millfield. During his teaching career, he began writing plays for children and also a variety of radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The Critic and the Heart followed the plot and structure of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 play The Circle. Flowering Cherry, a domestic comedy, was Bolt’s first success. His protagonist, a dissatisfied insurance salesman, is, according to Bolt, a “man who substitutes violent words for action.” The play, which is reminiscent of the work of Anton Chekhov, is conventionally naturalistic. The Tiger and the Horse has as its protagonist a university don who is committed to a philosophy of withdrawal. His neglect drives his wife mad, and only when he can involve himself in her care can he engage himself in opposing the hydrogen bomb, a cause that Bolt supported during the 1950’s. Bolt later summarized these plays as “fourth wall drama with puzzling, uncomfortable, and pretentious overtones.”
A Man for All Seasons is Bolt’s most popular and best-known play. Bolt depicts Sir Thomas More as a thoroughly engaging and moral man who is thrust into an untenable situation as the moral arbiter of a power struggle between three amoral political forces–Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell–all of whom claim moral superiority. The actions of the main characters are commented upon by the Common Man, a Brechtian narrator who slips in and out of the action. It is a very theatrical piece, making full use of the flexibility of nonnaturalistic staging.
His next play, Gentle Jack, was not very successful. It is a play of ideas, through which Bolt attempted to work out an analogy between pagan folklore and the immorality of capitalism. In Vivat! Vivat Regina!, Bolt continued his historical adaptations as he dramatized the conflict between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. In State of Revolution, he explored the frictions between Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, to some extent idealizing the aspirations of the Bolsheviks and underscoring the compromises forced upon them.
During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Bolt became an accomplished screenwriter, completing such projects as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter as well as the adaptation of A Man for All Seasons. These works are essentially heroic in conception and epic in scope, taking advantage of the visual possibilities of the sweeping backdrops against which his very human dramas are played out. Some have suggested that Bolt’s success in Hollywood was not too surprising, since he was, in spite of his liberal political views, a traditionalist in his values, conceptions, and directions. However, that viewpoint disregards the intensely personal struggles that figure in his most successful films. He won Academy Awards for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons.
Bolt’s work demonstrates a preoccupation with the question of selfhood and identity. The predicament of his protagonists is how to assert that sense of self in a world where violence and unrest are set against the individual and his or her social conscience. Bolt’s successes were largely in the area of historical drama, where he could incorporate devices of effective staging from any age, using them as a means to an end and never as an end in themselves. Bolt said that his intention in writing plays was “not to give a history lesson, but to create an effective, entertaining, and truthful evening in the theatre.” Some would agree with critic Niloufer Harben, who said that Bolt was “basically a conventional playwright putting over history in a popular way.” Others discover in his works the nobility and importance of making correct choices regardless of the consequences.
After remarkable success during the 1960’s, Bolt failed to connect with the public during the 1970’s. He suffered a stroke in 1978 and was forced to relearn such basic skills as speaking and writing. His return to the screen in 1984, The Bounty, was a disappointment, but in 1986 Bolt achieved one of the pinnacles of his career: The film The Mission weaves a complex tale of sin, repentance, redemption, and betrayal as missionaries in the eighteenth century Brazilian jungle fight the slave trade and are finally destroyed by political infighting within the Catholic Church. The Mission was named Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival, and Bolt received a Golden Globe Award for best screenwriting. His final contribution was an exemplary teleplay, Without Warning: The James Brady Story, which was both a sensitive personal portrait and an impassioned antigun statement. Bolt died in 1995 at the age of seventy.