Robert Bolt Essay - Critical Essays


Though Robert Bolt did not match the success of A Man for All Seasons in his subsequent dramas, he effectively employed the open or epic style of that work to explore other historical subjects in Vivat! Vivat Regina! and State of Revolution. He also continued to use the technical devices associated with a consciously theatrical style of dramaturgy for carefully planned effects. Bolt never lost his concern for a realistic examination of human behavior or his ability to interweave close connections between plot and character. He was one of the most skillful craftspeople in contemporary British theater, a popular playwright who took drama seriously and merits serious regard.

The full range of Bolt’s achievements can be illustrated most effectively through a more detailed consideration of four major plays. The Tiger and the Horse demonstrates the “uneasy straddling between naturalism and non-naturalism” that he found in his earlier plays. It also represents one of his attempts to give his contemporaries the larger-than-life significance he finds appropriate in theatrical characters. Marking a significant development in Bolt’s dramaturgical skills, A Man for All Seasons shows how he turned to historical settings to escape the pitfalls of naturalism and to present individuals of significant dramatic dimension. The play remains his most penetrating examination of the individual in conflict with society. In Vivat! Vivat Regina!, he draws on the artificiality of the theater in presenting the conflict between two striking historical figures. Finally, State of Revolution represents a serious attempt to explore some decisive events in contemporary history and the towering figure who gave them shape.

The Tiger and the Horse

The Tiger and the Horse is a well-plotted domestic drama in which a petition to ban the bomb serves as a major catalyst in the action; its effects are skillfully interwoven with the crises of a seduction and growing insanity to provide some intensely pitched action.

The title alludes to an aphorism by the poet William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790): “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” which suggests that the logic of the heart can express a higher wisdom than can the reasoning of the mind. In his review of the play, Richard Findlater aptly summarized the theme embedded in the drama “as the relative values of commitment in private and public life, and the balance of power between heart and head among members of the English thinking class.” Through Bolt’s craftmanship, public issues and private concerns are skillfully intertwined in the development of the plot.

Jack Dean, the Master of a university college who is in line for the vice chancellorship, is the horse of the play. Though a kindly, tolerant, and highly principled man, he has developed as his personal philosophy a detachment that is essentially a refusal to become involved, an emotional neutrality that he unwittingly carries over into personal relationships as well as into his approach to larger issues. Even his having abandoned astronomy to take up philosophy becomes significant in Bolt’s careful delineation of his character. When his daughter Stella is looking through his telescope and taking comfort in the order she finds in nature, Dean launches into one of the “big speeches” found here and in Flowering Cherry: He speaks of the darkness, “ignorant of human necessities,” that fills the spaces between the stars, and he adds that what appears to be a meaningful pattern in the universe is actually merely “Scribble.” Thus, staid, imperturbable Dean reveals the terrifying vision of the existential void that led him to turn away from investigating the world around him and to take refuge in abstract philosophical speculation.

When Louis Flax, a research fellow from a working-class background, circulates a petition urging nuclear disarmament, Dean refuses to sign. One vote, he says, does not really matter, and he claims that he does not understand all the political and diplomatic considerations involved. The same lack of engagement is apparent in his personal life. When Stella tries to warn Dean that her mother is acting strangely and seems mentally unbalanced, he refuses to take her concern seriously. At first, too, he fends off Stella’s confidences about Louis. Only when she tells her father that she is pregnant and has no intention of marrying Louis because he does not really love her does she crack that mask of imperturbability. Dean responds with natural fatherly concern for Stella and indignation against Louis, yet while he offers his daughter his firm support and expresses distress on her behalf, he still insists, “I am not involved.”

Dean’s wife, Gwendoline, is the tiger of the play, a woman capable of passionate intensity, though she has obviously submerged her own feelings in her role as the Master’s wife. A biologist before her marriage, she is profoundly moved by the issue of the bomb, aware of the mutation that radiation can cause in unborn children. She is ready to sign Louis’s petition until Sir Hugo Slade, the present vice chancellor of the university, reminds her that such an action on her part could cost her husband the vice chancellor’s post. She tries to find out what Dean wants her to do, but he refuses to coerce her in any way, even offering her the pen and urging her to sign the petition. She holds back out of concern for his position, even though she continues to brood over the petition—to the point of arousing Stella’s concern.

Louis Flax, like Dean, is an intellectual who is out of touch with his emotions. The general concern for humanity that underlies his petition against the hydrogen bomb does not extend itself to a genuine love for the woman bearing his child. Even though he dutifully proposes marriage to Stella, he, too, must discover the place love should occupy in his life.

The climax comes when Dean discovers that Gwendoline has gone mad and has slashed the Holbein painting belonging to the college (one that depicts a deformed child) and attached the petition to the damaged portrait. In the confrontation that follows, Dean realizes that he bears the responsibility for his wife’s troubled state. His philosophy of dissociation, his unwitting failure to share anything with her, has led her to believe that he does not really love her and that he tolerated her only out of his “goodness.” Her concern over the issues raised by Louis’s petition finally pushed her over the edge. Though Sir Hugo Slade urges Dean publicly to dissociate himself from his wife’s action, Dean accepts responsibility for what he has done to her. He expresses his love for her and refuses to dismiss her gesture as merely the aberration of an insane woman, even going so far as to add his own signature to the petition.

In many respects, The Tiger and the Horse is a conventional, well-made play, integrating a serious contemporary theme with the stuff of traditional domestic drama. The reservations that Hayman and others have expressed about the play are valid. In particular, the plot is so tightly developed that there is no room to develop the characters as effectively as Bolt might have done. For example, the progression of Gwendoline’s madness is never really dramatized; her eccentricity and troubled behavior are only mentioned in the dialogue. Therefore, her breakdown has a certain melodramatic edge. Similarly, Louis’s changed attitude after his son is born—his discovery that he really does love Stella—is not dramatized; rather, it is tacked on to provide a conventional happy ending.

A Man for All Seasons

With A Man for All Seasons, Bolt shifted to a historical subject, but one that embodies themes relevant to contemporary life. He felt that the distancing effect of a play set in past centuries would provide a way of escaping from some of the constraints of naturalism, such as an overriding concern for the skillful use of realistic plot detail.

The play’s protagonist, Sir Thomas More, exemplifies the man who has realized his full potential. The historical Thomas More was a charming, urbane man, extraordinarily successful in his public and private life—happy in his family and in his friendships, accomplished as a statesman, renowned for his intelligence and wit. Unlike Jack Dean, he was intensely involved in the life of his times, yet he retained enough detachment to keep his sense of values intact. As Bolt stresses in his preface to the play, he found More’s most distinctive quality to be “an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved.” Though More loved life and did not court martyrdom, he was willing to die rather than betray his deepest principles. More could not falsely express approval of King Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, particularly when this meant swearing an oath, pledging his integrity as a guarantor of the truth. Thus, Bolt describes More as “a hero of selfhood.”

Tynan objected that Bolt does not show the audience what More’s underlying convictions were or why he embraced them so uncompromisingly. He notes that the playwright is not concerned with whether these convictions are right or wrong but only that More clung to them and would not disclose them under questioning. More’s speech before the death sentence is passed succinctly states his position that the act of Parliament making King Henry supreme head of the Church is contrary to divine law, but Bolt’s concern is not with exploring the soundness of More’s view; rather, he dramatizes More’s twofold struggle—to preserve his life, if possible, but above all to preserve his soul, or essential self.

Corrigan has described the main action of the play as a series of confrontations between More and those who seek to make him retreat from that last stronghold of the self and accede to the king’s behest. Bolt effectively uses the Brechtian device of a series of semi-independent scenes to develop these confrontations. The scenes show More adroitly facing powerful opponents, as well as interacting with his family, which is deeply involved with his fate. Because of Bolt’s emphasis on More’s domestic life, Hayman has found A Man for All Seasons thin on social texture, a drama focusing on personal relationships rather than showing the individual pitted against society. Yet Bolt has correctly noted that More himself attached great importance to his family life. Moreover, the conflicts Bolt presents are skillfully orchestrated to show More facing questions, opposition, and misunderstandings in the small world of his home at the same time that he is battling them in the world at large.

Perhaps the two most important foils for More are Richard Rich and the Common Man. When Rich first appears, he is arguing with More, maintaining that “every man has his price,” an opinion that his own subsequent career aptly illustrates. Not adequately defined by any strong sense of personal values, as More is, he is readily tempted to sell himself in order to procure advancement. Rich undergoes something of an interior struggle when he finds himself drifting toward betrayal of his king, but he soon sheds any semblance of self-respect to become a useful tool to Thomas Cromwell. Unlike More, who will not compromise himself by a false oath that is a mere formality, Rich boldly perjures himself in a capital case to...

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