The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
A Man for All Seasons opens in the home of Sir Thomas More, a respected counselor to the king, at a time when England is rife with rumors that Henry VIII is about to divorce his wife because she has not borne him a son. The nobles and churchmen are being asked to support Henry’s petition to the pope to have the marriage annulled; the king would then be free to marry one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. In the opening scene, More and one of his proteges, Richard Rich, converse about Rich’s prospects for advancement; Sir Thomas advises the young man to become a teacher. More’s friend, the Duke of Norfolk, arrives to converse with More about the divorce; Norfolk reveals that Thomas Cromwell has been appointed secretary to the aging Cardinal Wolsey, who is serving as the king’s chancellor.
More is summoned by the cardinal, with whom he discusses a dispatch requesting the pope’s approval of Henry’s annulment. More opposes sending the missive, whereupon Wolsey reminds Sir Thomas of the turmoil caused by the Yorkist wars when no male heir was on hand to assume the throne upon the death of Henry VI. More remains adamant that his conscience cannot allow him to support the request. On his way home from the meeting, More meets Cromwell and then Chapuys, ambassador from Spain; the first urges More to support the king, the second applauds Sir Thomas for opposing the action.
Back at his own house, More engages in an...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Bolt relies heavily on the materials from historical records that he uses to form the basis for the play. He develops his plot conventionally. Nevertheless, he achieves his dramatic aims in great measure through his bold use of modern techniques of staging and presentation of character. Following the lead of pioneering dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht, he abandons rigid adherence to the demands of realism and consciously introduces devices that remind the audience that they are watching a play. At the same time, however, he uses these techniques to draw the audience closer to the action and to give the historical events with which he deals a sense of universal significance.
Foremost among these devices is his use of the Common Man character as a kind of bridge between the audience and the historical figures. Not mentioned in any historical account of More’s life, the Common Man plays several roles in the course of the play—steward to More, boatman on the Thames, jailer in the Tower of London, jury foreman at More’s trial, and finally executioner—changing his costume before the audience and providing a running commentary on the action. He fills in historical gaps between major scenes, often reciting details about both the past and future of key figures such as More, Wolsey, Cromwell, and King Henry. Through him Bolt attempts to involve the audience by getting playgoers to recognize aspects of themselves both in this spokesman and in the figures...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. Capital city of England that was torn by religious controversy during the reign of King Henry VIII. After defying the Roman Catholic pope, the king established the Church of England, with himself as head, and in so doing severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Although Sir Thomas More had long served Henry loyally as lord chancellor, he remained a staunch Catholic and refused to accept the English king as head of his church.
*Tower of London
*Tower of London. Famous prison by the River Thames in central London, with roots going back to the reign of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. More was imprisoned there for refusing to take an oath to acknowledge the supremacy of Henry VIII over all other foreign kings, including the pope. In 1535 he was executed in the tower, whose cells are the location of the play’s scenes depicting his final days.
Stage set. Like the Globe Theater where William Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, and like other Renaissance theaters, the stage set for A Man for All Seasons is divided into three primary acting areas. Playwright Robert Bolt visualized the set as “two galleries of flattened Tudor arches, one above the other, able to be entered from off-stage” and “a projection which can suggest an alcove or closet, with a tapestry curtain to be drawn across it.” A stairway connects the upper and...
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The Ascension of the Tudor Monarchs
King Henry VIII was only the second Tudor king to rule in England, and he had good reason to worry about his ability to keep the throne in his family. Cardinal Wolsey alludes to the potential menace of two powerful families who alternated, captured, lost, and recaptured the kingdom for the thirty years prior to his father's reign when he says to Sir Thomas More, "Do you favor a change of dynasty? D'you think two Tudors is sufficient?" The two houses were House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; their quarrels over the throne came to be called "The War of the Roses." Henry Tudor, or Henry VII had fought with the Lancaster side, so he diplomatically arranged to marry a York, thus sealing a temporary truce between the families and beginning the Tudor dynasty. It was up to Henry VIII to continue the line.
Church Reform, Humanism, and Social Reform
The Church Reform issues ("forgiveness by the florin," temperance, duty to God) debated by Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law William Roper in A Man for All Seasons were not new concepts to the sixteenth century but were ideas that had been infiltrating the intellectual centers of Europe and steadily eroding the long-held Roman Catholic dominion since the fourteenth century. There were at least two fronts of attack...
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Robert Bolt consciously inserted symbolism about the sea and water as "a figure for the superhuman context." In the play, references to currents and tides refer to shifts in the forces around More. Thus More's need to be steered by boat to see Wolsey or Cromwell or to return home indicates that he is at the mercy of others, whereas Henry VIII's boasting about steering a ship himself, albeit badly, indicates his arrogant usurpation of authority. In another manifestation of the sea image, More speaks to Roper of the "currents and eddies of right and wrong'' as a sea he cannot navigate so simply as Roper does. More is "set against the current of [his] times."
The symbolism of clothing is another pervasive symbol in the play. From the very first scene, clothing represents identity that is simple to don or doff. For example, Roper demonstrates a religious about-face when at the beginning of Act 2 he appears dressed in black and wearing a large cross as a show of allegiance to the Church. In an earlier scene More refused him Margaret's hand in marriage because of his heretical views—now More says of him that he changes the anchor of his principles far too readily. The Common Man, too, nimbly changes clothing to change personas, although, unlike Roper, he remains anchored to the principle of selfish opportunism with his essential self intact. In one scene, sporting spectacles and carrying a book, he is the pedantic commentator;...
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Compare and Contrast
16th century: Officially, all English citizens belonged to the Catholic Church and many attended its services. However, because the Roman Catholic service was entirely in Latin, few congregants fully understood it. Furthermore, the Church was losing authoritative ground due to inroads of Martin Luther's Protestantism and separate Church Reform movements to combat corruption of the clergy. Within a century, the Catholics would no longer hold a monopoly on European religion.
1950-1965: The Catholic Church still served about one-third of English citizens and a majority of the populations of many European countries, even though the Church was losing popularity because of its hard stand on issues such as abortion, birth control, and clerical celibacy. In the ground-breaking Convocations of 1962 and 1965 the Church took measures to "update" its image and make the religion more appealing.
Today: Although the Roman Catholic Church remains the largest organized religion in the world, only about one-fifth of England's citizens call themselves Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church has suffered fractionalizing due to its continued strict stance on abortion, birth control, clerical celibacy, euthanasia, and women in the priesthood. In undeveloped areas such as parts of Africa missionary efforts have resulted in phenomenal growth in Catholicism.
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Topics for Further Study
- Some of the characters in the play alluded to a potential Yorkist uprising; which characters would have been affected by such an uprising and in what way? What bearing did the claims of the York family to the throne have on More's predicament?
- Rank in importance the following reasons for More's refusal to take King Henry's oath and explain how they contributed to his decision: religious conviction, personal integrity, concern for public morality. Add any other reasons you consider important.
- When Robert Bolt adapted his play for film, he eliminated the Common Man. What significance did the Common Man have in the play, and why do you suppose Bolt chose not to include him in the film version? If you have seen the film, explain what devices Bolt and the director used to replace the effect of the Common Man.
- What role did Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy play in the eventual Reformation of the Catholic Church and its official relationship to the State over the following centuries?
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- Robert Bolt's first version of A Man for All Seasons was a radio play produced for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in 1954. Three years later, BBC-TV televised the play.
- Robert Bolt adapted his play for the screen in 1966 and the Columbia film, starring Paul Scofield as More, Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII and Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, won 6 Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Actor for Scofield, who had played the part on stage in London.
- In 1988 Charleton Heston directed and starred in a cable TV version of the play with Vanessa Redgrave and John Gielgud. This version has not enjoyed the popularity of the Zinnemann film.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Thomas More's 1516 Utopia predates his fatal conflict with Henry VIII. The fictional account analyzes the ills of England before expounding upon "Utopia" ("nowhere"), a land run according to the ideals of Humanism.
- George Bernard Shaw's 1923 Saint Joan, concerns the martyrdom of Joan of Arc whose sainthood made her a misfit in her society.
- Jean Anouilh's 1969 French drama, Becket, Or the Honor of God, like T. S. Eliot's 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, tells the story of another British Christian martyr, Thomas a Becket.
- In Enemy of the People, an early (1882) play by Henrik Ibsen a town rejects and persecutes a doctor who warns the people that the town's lucrative baths are polluted.
- Plato's Apology (written between 371 and 267 BC) records Socrates's defense in his trial against the state for impiety and corrupting youth through his teachings.
- In Sophocles's Antigone (circa 400 BC), a young woman defies the king's prohibition against performing burial rites for her brother and suffers imprisonment for this act of loyalty....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Corrigan, Robert, ed. "Five Dramas of Selfhood." In The New Theatre of Europe. Dell, 1962, pp. 9-31.
Taubman, Howard. Review of A Man for All Seasons in the New York Times, Vol. 23, November, 1961.
Alvarez, A. "The Price of Period." In British New Statesman, Vol. 60, July 9, 1960, p. 46. An early review of the original London stage play that calls the play a "historical romance," too "cozy" for real dramatic tragedy.
Atkins, Anselm. "Robert Bolt: Self, Shadow, and the Theater of Recognition." In Modern Drama, Vol. 10, September 1967, pp. 182-88. Atkins equates More with the Common Man, "a striking example of the coincidence of opposites," in that both of them live by the principle to preserve the self.
Brustein, Robert. "Chronicle of a Reluctant Hero." In the New Republic, Vol. 145, no. 24, December 11, 1961, pp. 280-30. A positive review of the New York play that sees Bolt's play as an effective model for the rebirth of the chronicle history.
Carper, Gerald Carper. "Dramas of the Threatened Self in Video Classics of American Film", September, 1989. A summary of Bolt's major works that demonstrates their common themes about "of the threatened self."
Duprey, Richard A. "Interview with Robert Bolt." In the Dalhousie Review, Vol. 48, Spring, 1968, pp. 13-23. Bolt...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Brown, John Russell. A Short Guide to Modern British Drama. London: Heinemann, 1983. A valuable overview of the works of Robert Bolt, including A Man for All Seasons.
Corrigan, Robert, ed. The New Theatre of Europe: An Anthology. New York: Dell, 1962. A collection of five European plays including Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons along with Bolt’s preface to the play and an insightful introduction by the editor.
Garstenauer, Maria. A Selective Study of English History Plays in the Period Between 1960 and 1977. Salzburg, Austria: University of Salzburg Press, 1985. A concentrated and extremely thorough study that examines the play from a variety of views. Helpful for placing the drama into the context of its times.
Harben, Niloufer. Twentieth-Century English History Plays: From Shaw to Bond. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1988. The volume contains a useful chapter, “Three Plays of the 1960’s: Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons; Peter Shaffer, The Royal Hunt of the Sun; John Osborne, Luther.”
Nightingale, Benedict. A Reader’s Guide to Fifty Modern British Plays. London: Heinemann, 1982. A brief statement on the life and writings of Robert Bolt followed by a...
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