Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Robert Oxton Bolt was born in 1924, the younger son of Ralph Bolt and Leah Binnion Bolt. His family lived in the small town of Sale in Lancashire, England, where his father owned a shop carrying mostly furniture, glass, and china. His mother was a schoolteacher. The playwright described his parents as loving, concerned, and not unduly strict, despite their high standards. Though Bolt described his religious position as between agnosticism and atheism, he was reared a Methodist. He stated, “I ought to be religious in the sense that I’m comfortable thinking in religious terms and altogether I seem naturally constituted to be religious.”
Despite his good home background, Bolt distinguished himself as a youngster by constantly getting into trouble and remaining at the bottom of his class in the Manchester Grammar School until his graduation in 1940. Not really prepared to enter any career or qualified to go on to a university, he became an office boy for the Sun Life Assurance Company in Manchester in 1942—a position he thoroughly loathed. Determined to escape from this whole way of life, he leaped at the opportunity to study for a degree in commerce under special wartime arrangements for admission to a university program. Through intensive preparation for his Advanced Level examinations, he gained a place in an honors school at Manchester University rather than the school of commerce. There, he began work for a degree in history in 1943. During this period, he also became a Marxist. From 1942 to 1947, he was a member of the Communist Party, inspired by youthful idealistic visions of the party’s ability to change the world. He has since described himself as a Marxist with so many reservations that he would probably be scorned by a true Marxist.
After a year at Manchester University, Bolt joined the Royal Air Force and later transferred to the army, serving as an officer with the Royal West African Frontier Force in Ghana. At the end of the war, he returned to the university, where he was awarded an honors degree in history in 1949. That same year, he married Celia Ann Roberts, a painter. The couple had three children—Sally, Benedict, and Joanna—before their divorce in 1967. Bolt would later marry the actress Sara Miles, by whom he had one son and from whom he was divorced in 1976. In 1980, he married Ann Zane.
Following his graduation from Manchester, Bolt prepared for a career in education by studying for his teaching diploma, which he received from the University of Exeter in 1950. For the next eight years, he worked as an English teacher, first at a village in Bishopsteignton in Devon and then at Millfield School in Street, Devon. His desire to become a dramatist first developed in 1954 while he was searching for a Nativity play to perform with the children at the village school. Finding none of the plays he had read satisfactory, he decided to compose his own. Bolt recalled vividly “the electric tension” that built up inside him after he had composed some of the dialogue, and he remembered telling his wife, “Listen, I think I’ve found what I want to do.” At this point, he decided to combine teaching with writing and began composing radio scripts.
An adaptation of his 1955 radio script, The Last of the Wine, was staged in London at Theatre in the Round in 1956. The success of Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger that same year made Bolt feel that young playwrights might have a chance of breaking into the West End theaters, and Bolt sent his play The Critic and the Heart to the Royal Court Theatre, where the reader—Osborne himself—rejected it, claiming that it was a promising play but not the particular kind of drama that the theater was seeking. Although Bolt...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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,...
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Robert Bolt led a life very different from his sixteenth-century hero. After what he calls a "gloomy" childhood and a poor academic career, he spent a mind-opening year at the University before being recruited into the British army. A committed Marxist who considered the working class "morally and aesthetically beautiful" and Ascot (his emblem of the elite) "overprivileged, ugly, and pretentious," he joined the Communist Party in 1942, but quit after five years, disillusioned with the Party's inability to live up to his absolutist ideals (Hayman 10). Upon returning from service in World War II, he completed his university studies and earned a teaching diploma. Then followed eight years of school teaching. Bolt's first theatrical work, a children's nativity play, resulted in "an astonishing turning point" in his life. He made a conscious decision to make play writing his avocation and enjoyed his first success with Flowering Cherry in 1957. He wrote a radio play of A Man for All Seasons in 1954, then wrote the stage version in 1960, which was met with critical acclaim in London and New York. From then on he split his time between the stage and film, producing a successful film version of A Man for All Seasons in 1966 after having written two hit screenplays, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and Dr. Zhivago in 1965. His plays and films have earned awards—Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay (A Man for All Seasons) and Best Picture, among others. A common theme that runs through each of his works is the "drama of the threatened self" wherein a protagonist must choose between honoring his own integrity and bending to the demands of his society. The protagonist defends his choice in polished, witty dialogues that display admirable and rare moral fiber, scenes of remarkable dramatic clarity. After a disabling heart attack and stroke his productivity declined and he died in 1995.