Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

When A Man for All Seasons made its debut on the London stage at the Globe Theater on My 1, 1960, Robert Bolt had only one moderate theater success under his belt (Flowering Cherry). Therefore, to have earned the popular and critical acclaim he did for his Brechtian historical play was a significant achievement, and it catapulted the thirty-six-year-old into the theatrical limelight, where he was to remain for the next decade. The Illustrated London News called it a "brilliant play," one which let history have its moment on stage. The New Statesman, however, identified a complaint that would be leveled frequently at this play and at the 1966 screenplay—that it privileges history over psychological depth. Nevertheless, A Man For All Seasons, starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More, ran for 320 performances in London before moving on to a year-and-a-half run on Broadway, where it earned the Tony Award for best play and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Foreign Play in 1962.

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In New York critics found much to praise in the performances and in the script. Robert Brustein of the New Republic called it a drama of "remarkable intelligence, historicity, theatrical ingenuity, and good taste." Much of the theater in the early sixties fed the popular appetite for social significance, but Bolt's play stood on its own merit, or rather on the merit of its protagonist. Critics were somewhat split in their acceptance of a historical play that did not seem to care about today's social issues. While some critics applauded the portrayal of More as realistic and as struggling with an understandable dilemma, others took the opposite perspective, chiding Bolt for irrelevance. John McCarten of the New Yorker called the play "a sharp and brilliant portrait of a man who might just as easily be of our day as King Henry's." Howard Taubman called it "an ode to the best and noblest in man," and asserted that More "has a burning immediacy for our day." However, John Simon, writing for Theater Arts, felt that doctrinal differences in religious belief no longer carried much empathic weight, and charged the play guilty of missing an opportunity for deeper relevance. At the same time, Simon forgave the playwright for falling prey to the limitations of any historical play, being "forced to look at things a little more panoramically than profoundly."

Bolt eliminated the Common Man in the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, perhaps because the device for providing scene cues in the was original 1954 radio play version was unnecessary in the medium of film. Whatever Bolt's artistic reasoning, his screenplay was a huge success. Directed by Fred Zinneman and once again starring Paul Scofield, the film won six academy awards (Best Picture, Best Actor for Scofield, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design) and received nominations for two others. Charleton Heston's 1988 remake of the film had little effect on the eminence of Zinneman's production.

Over time, criticism has distilled to a view that Bolt's stage play is one of the best plays to address the issue of selfhood. Literary critics have focused, predictably enough, on Sir Thomas More and on the presence of the Brechtian device of the Common Man. There are some who see the Common Man as a polar opposite to and foil for More, a man who conspicuously lacks More's integrity. There are others, however, who observe that the Common Man also shares a significant characteristic with More—that of holding fast to one's principles. In More's case the principles are religious and personal integrity, while the in the case of the Common Man the principles are self-preservation and expediency. Anselm Atkins explained the concept linking the two men in Modern Drama: "the Common Man is Everyman—and also—More. We each have a self and a theoretical ability to be true to it.'' To Arthur Thomas Tees, writing in the University Review, More and the Common Man must be weighed against each other in the context of tragedy, wherein "the tragedy is not in the central figure but in the rejection of that figure by others around him." To Tees, "More is a non-tragic hero; the Common Man is a tragic non-hero." Bolt has been categorized as both a "traditionalist" (Walker) and as a "Brechtian" (Fuegi) in terms of his theatrical style. There are elements of both schools in A Man for All Seasons, although Brecht's essential interest in moving the audience to commitment to social change is lacking. In Sir Thomas More's terms, the play is ultimately a "humanist" work, one that values human acts of beauty and integrity on earth.

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