A Tribute to the Ideal of Selfhood

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848

In an elegant Preface to the script of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt explains the historical background to Sir Thomas More's story of martyrdom at the hands of King Henry VIII. Bolt also explains his reasons for choosing a sixteenth-century theologian and statesman as a "hero of selfhood" in spite of having little interest himself in questions of Christian piety. For Bolt, "virtue" and "selfhood" have lost meaning in the modern era, where the self is "an equivocal commodity." What fascinated Bolt about More was that he, unlike many of his contemporaries, considered the king's oath a serious contract, one that asked him to "offer himself as a guarantee." More refused to take the oath because he disagreed with its premise (that the King could overrule God's Law) and because he took his own virtue and soul seriously. For More, to take an oath falsely would literally perjure his soul. Bolt translates this position into modern parlance to suggest that More refused also to perjure his "self"—that he valued his faith in his own capacity for virtue. It is this capacity for virtue, where virtue is adherence to the self, that Bolt sees as a scarce commodity in the modern world. Bolt's story of More is about a man's fight for selfhood; it is also the story of how the modern loss of selfhood came to be.

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Bolt, who belonged to the Communist Party for more than five years before becoming disillusioned with it, abhorred the growing consumerism in the 1950s in Great Britain and elsewhere. He agreed with Karl Marx that a society that placed too much emphasis on getting and spending, money would take on more importance than personal virtue. As Bolt asserts, "We would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves." Critics have agreed with his assessment of the modern age and of Thomas More as a suitable hero. "In a collective society the individual tends to become an equivocal commodity, and when we think of ourselves in this way we lose all sense of our own identity. More's refusal to take the oath is Bolt's way of asserting that even under the greatest of pressures man can exist unequivocally; that it is possible to live in the modern world without 'selling out,'" wrote Robert Corrigan in The New Theatre of Europe. The modern period has been described as a period of moral bankruptcy; in such a world, the self is compromised at every turn. Thus Bolt turned to history for subject matter because "modern man has become so trivial and uninteresting that he has lost his power to involve us, while modern mass society has inhibited even the superior spirits from expressing themselves through significant action," according to Robert Brustein in the New Republic.

More believed in the ultimate supremacy of God. For More this was a fact and not simply a matter of allegiance. For More, God was supreme and nothing the King of England said or did could change this fact. More was also a loyal subject, and he supported the King's governance of the State and of the English Church. More helped Henry write a defense against Martin Luther and he turned down William Roper as suitor to his daughter until Roper mended his heretical views. But when it came to the King's "Great Matter," as Henry's desire to annul his marriage to Catherine came to be known, More could not condone an act that the Pope expressly refused to sanction. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is God's presence on earth and the Pope's decisions carry the weight of a decision by God. This was an especially significant factor in the early sixteenth century, when the Church and State were intertwined in a way that is no longer conceivable. Popes routinely dispensed with inconvenient biblical laws to help monarchs make politically expedient marriages, and priests were routinely involved in matters of war. Cardinal Wolsey himself organized military campaigns as well as conducted peace talks with France. The relationship of the English king to the Pope enforced the king's authority in England and internationally. Unfortunately though for Henry VIII Pope Clement VII could not please the English king because of another impingement of State upon Church: at the time hundreds of Spanish troops surrounded the Vatican and Clement VII dared not offend the Spanish king. The Pope refused Henry's request. Henry could not abide this, so he broke with Rome and declared the Act of Supremacy.

More considered the move an outright defiance of God's law. Finally breaking his vow of silence after an unfair trial, More declares, "The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy." In other words, neither the Parliament nor the King had the authority to decree the Act of Supremacy in the first place. In fact, English law itself protected the Church from such violations of its jurisdiction, and More added, "furthermore, the immunity of the Church is promised in Magna Carta and the King's own coronation oath." More was on firm ground both ecclesiastically and legally, but could not prevent either the King's violation of Church and State law, nor the irreversible chasm between Church and State that his Act would initiate. The creation of a separate, secular government would ultimately lead to the modern condition that Bolt found so lacking in virtue and selfhood that he resurrected a 400-year-old hero to salvage it.

Henry VIII's declaration of sovereignty over the Church in England was the first of many breaks between church and state that would take place over the next two centuries, thus shifting state governance from an abstract, transcendental mode of authority (derived from God) to a hierarchical, temporal authority (administered by humans). Thenceforth, the state would gradually break free of the connection to God, coincidentally eroding the reinforcing authority of God's endorsement of the monarch. It was a slippery slope that ultimately contributed to the paucity of moral virtue of the secular world: the absence of God in government translated to the possible absence of God at all. The lack of a transcendental authority, according to Bolt, also contributed to the modern loss of self, for, as Bolt hypothesizes in his Preface, "It may be that a clear sense of the self can only crystallize round something transcendental." Certainly More's self is crystallized around a transcendental idea—the supremacy of God over man. The State was also crystallized around this transcendental idea, and Thomas More, foresaw that to remove this idea would prove as fatal for the world as it would for himself. In a final invective to Cromwell, More laments, "It is a long road you have opened. First men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.''

Bolt clearly desired his audience to find connections in his historical play that would resonate with life in the modern world. He was quoted in the English Journal saying: "The action of this play ends in 1535, but the play was written in 1960, and if in production one date must obscure the other, it is 1960 which I wish clearly to occupy the stage. The 'life' of a man like Thomas More proffers a number of caps which in this or any other century we must try on for size," In the play, More himself alludes to his heroism. Deploring those who rationalize taking the easy path, More tells his daughter, "If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we'd live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes."

More was found guilty of High Treason after the perjurous testimony of Richard Rich, an immoral opportunist who sold his own soul for bureaucratic advancement—in other words, an archetypal "modern" man. The first appearance of Rich finds him prophetically asserting to More that "every man has his price." In their argument (which may or may not have occurred between the historical More and Rich) Rich voices a modern preoccupation with self-interest over integrity and hard currency over ethical value. And yet, it is not Rich that Bolt means the audience to blame. Bolt repeatedly draws the viewer's attention to the Common Man, who, if not directly responsible for More's execution, represents the greater danger to the life expectancy of virtue. For it is the Common Man, performing the roles of foreman and headsman, who dutifully and thoughtlessly tenders the guilty verdict and dependably performs the execution. In effect, the Common Man silently condemns the life of morality, as symbolized by Thomas More, or as Corrigan expressed it, the Common Man "judges and executes the heroes of selfhood."

In one of the few encounters More has with him, the Common Man expresses his wish simply to "keep out of trouble." More turns away, disgusted by the man's refusal to take a moral stance, saying "Oh, Sweet Jesus! These plain, simple men!" The interchange carries the added emphasis of ending abruptly with sudden music and a swift change of scene. The epilogue provides a final podium for the Common Man, who reiterates his philosophy and attempts to impose it on the audience; "don't make trouble," he warns. The effect is meant ironically, to chide the audience not to follow his advice.

But the medium of theater places implicit emphasis on the first, literal meaning of the Common Man's words: theater does not "make trouble." Nor does passively watching this morality play compel the audience to take a stance like that taken by More. Far from it. The price he paid for virtue was his life. The audience, on the other hand, has just bought virtue for the price of a theater ticket. Theater-goers may walk away, feeling a special affinity for a man like Thomas More, passively and tragically failing to recognize themselves in the Common Man, who passively and tragically facilitated More's demise. For the modern period, too absorbed with the loss of self to commit to virtue, commends itself simply for recognizing virtue when it sees it, and that seems to be enough. With no simple means to practice virtue first-hand, modern humankind prefers to practice it via the arts; it is part of the general dilution of moral values. In a consumer culture, morality, virtue, and ethical goodness are not transcendental ideas around which to crystallize a self, but thoughts that sponsor feelings of "vague humanitarianism," moments of mental virtue that are never translated into action.

The theater, and plays such as Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons feed the modern appetite for snacks of virtue, small acts of recognizing virtue that can be consumed in the theater, the movie theater, and conveniently at home, on television. Bolt meant his play to stir the consciences of his audience, but in actuality, his play does no more than solace them.

Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Review of A Man for All Seasons

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2681

In A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt has chopped the later career of Sir Thomas More into a series of short and pithy episodes, each of which is prefaced by a few words of comment and explanation, addressed directly to the audience. Changes of scene are indicated emblematically, by signs lowered from the flies; and the style throughout inclines rather to argument than to emotional appeal. There is no mistaking whose influence has been at work on Mr. Bolt; the play is clearly his attempt to do for More what Brecht did for Galileo.

In both cases, the theme is persecution, and the author's purpose is to demonstrate how authority enforces its claims on the individual conscience. More was a victim of the Reformation; Galileo, a century later, fell foul of the Counter-Reformation; and both men, being contented denizens of our planet, were extremely reluctant to embrace martyrdom. Each found himself the servant of two masters. Galileo had to choose between science and the Pope, More between the Pope and the King; and each of them, after years of hair-splitting and procrastination, ended up by choosing the Pope—Galileo because he feared for his body, More because he feared for his soul. According to Brecht, Galileo was disloyal to the new science, and is therefore to be rebuked; according to Mr. Bolt, More was loyal to the old religion, and is therefore to be applauded.

It is hereabouts that the two playwrights part company. I have no idea whether Mr. Bolt himself is a religious man, but I am perfectly sure that if someone presented him with irrefutable evidence that every tenet of Catholicism was a palpable falsehood, his admiration for More would not be diminished in the smallest degree, nor would he feel tempted to alter a word of the text. The play's strongest scenes, all of which occur in the second half, are those in which More, employing every resource of his canny legal brain, patiently reminds his inquisitors that silence is not to be equated with treason, and that no court can compel him to reveal or defend his private convictions. His position, in short, is that he takes no position; and I have no doubt that we are meant to draw an analogy between More and those witnesses who appear before the Un-American Activities Committee and take the Fifth Amendment.

As a democrat, I detest such coercive investigations into a man's innermost ideas; as a playgoer, however, I feel entitled to know what his ideas are, and how he arrived at them. Here, where Brecht is voluble, Mr. Bolt is mum. If, upon completing Galileo, Brecht had suddenly learned that his protagonist's hypotheses were totally untrue, he would either have torn up the manuscript or revised it from start to finish. From Mr. Bolt's point of view, on the other hand, it matters little whether More's beliefs were right or wrong; all that matters is that he held them, and refused to disclose them under questioning. For Mr. Bolt, in short, truth is subjective; for Brecht it is objective; and therein lies the basic difference between the two plays.

Compare them, and it soon becomes obvious that Mr. Bolt's method is the more constricting. Since there can be no battle of ideologies, he must reduce everything to personal terms; the gigantic upheavals of the Reformation dwindle into a temperamental squabble between a nice lawyer who dislikes divorce and a lusty monarch who wants an heir. Our attention is focused on the legal stratagems whereby More postponed his martyrdom, and distracted from the validity of the ideas that got him into trouble to begin with. The play contains some muscular period writing, especially in the scene where More deliberately insults his old crony, the conformist Duke of Norfolk, in order to absolve him from the responsibility of breaking off their friendship; and it is history's fault, not Mr. Bolt's, that his hero came to grief so much less dramatically than Brecht's. (More's fate was sealed by a perjured witness; whereas it was Galileo himself who laid low Galileo.) At bottom, however, A Man for All Seasons is not so much a play as an essay in hagiography. Mr. Bolt looks at history exclusively through the eyes of his saintly hero. Brecht's vision is broader: he looks at Galileo through the eyes of history.

The direction, by Noel Willman, skips swiftly around a permanent setting (by Motley) of impenitently Swedish-modern design. Leo McKern plays the Chorus, a bellicose, time-serving oaf whom the programme labels, somewhat rudely, 'The Common Man'. Beery and button-holing, Mr. McKern gives a reekingly good account of a highly tendentious role.

Where More himself is concerned, Mr. Bolt has indulged in a lot of simplification. He has banished More the scurrilous pamphleteer, More the earthy pleasure-lover, and More the vernacular comic, whom C. S. Lewis has called 'our first great Cockney humorist'. What remains is More the gentle reasoner, and this Paul Scofield plays to the hilt, at once wily and holy, as unastonished by betrayal as he is by fidelity. He does the job beautifully; but where, in this obsequious piece of acting, is the original Scofield who burst upon us, some twelve years ago, like exquisite thunder? Perhaps time has tamed him, or security, or something unassertive in his cast of mind. It is true that he has never given a bad performance; but it was not in negatives like this that we formerly hoped to praise him. We were looking for greatness. The power is still there, though it has long been sleeping; may it soon revive and transfix us (1960).

The above review provoked a comment from Robert Bolt which was published in the next edition of The Observer. It ran:

'Mr. Tynan's certainly fair and probably generous notice of my play raises incidentally a philosophic question of practical importance. I am grateful for the comparison he drew between A Man For All Seasons and Galileo—indeed I impudently challenged it by misquoting Brecht's most celebrated line at the climax of my own play. It is where the plays diverge that Mr. Tynan makes the proposition which I want to query: "For Mr. Bolt, in short, truth is subjective; for Brecht it is objective; and therein lies the basic difference between the two plays."

'I only roughly understand what is meant by "objective truth". It is presumably a truth which remains true regardless of who does or doesn't hold it to be true. It seems a very religious concept. But in the present context Mr. Tynan's point is clear enough: "If, upon completing Galileo, Brecht had suddenly learned that his protagonist's hypotheses were totally untrue, he would either have torn up the manuscript or revised from start to finish." Is this Mr. Tynan's guess, or did Brecht himself say he would? For what it means is that the worth of this play about Galileo is conditional upon the correctness of Galileo's hypotheses. I don't believe this, and I don't believe Mr. Tynan does, really. Thus:

The difference between the hypotheses of modern cosmology and the hypotheses of Galilean cosmology is already quite as sharp as the difference between the Galilean and the Aristotelian. If the Galilean hypotheses were "true" and showed the Aristotelian to be "untrue" then by the same token the Galilean are now shown to be untrue. If the Galilean hypotheses are untrue then, according to Mr. Tynan, Galileo should be torn up or rewritten. In fact, Mr. Tynan and I both think it a great play.

'Or, if this comparative view of the truthfulness of successive hypotheses is insufficiently "objective" for Mr. Tynan, let us anticipate the dawning of that day when every feature of the Galilean cosmology has been discarded in favour of others. (I take it Mr. Tynan does not deny the possibility of such a thing. If he does, he has a kindred spirit, not in Galileo but the Cardinal Inquisitor.) If that day is tomorrow, will Brecht's absorbing, profound and illuminating play at once become boring, superficial and dull? It will continue to be as absorbing, profound and illuminating as it in fact is. But where can these virtues now reside? What is it that is left when the "objective" truth of Galileo's beliefs is removed from the play Galileo? Just Galileo. And that is what Brecht's play is about, as mine is about More.

'There are many differences between the two plays (apart I mean from the obvious one in sheer stature), but the basic difference is this. Both men were passionately and to their core convinced. Both were required by Authority to deny themselves. One complied; the other refused.

'Brecht's play shows the frightful price which may have to be paid for that compliance—the reduction of the man in his own estimation to a status where he has only the right to scratch himself and eat. My play shows the frightful price which may have to be paid for that refusal to comply—the end of life on any terms at all.

'Both plays are about uncommon individuals but both are also about organised society. As the essence of organised society, I have taken, quite overtly I think, the structure of the Law. An act of perjury in a trial for High Treason seems to me not altogether undramatic but in this case it has a wider significance, too. More, as Mr. Tynan emphasises, put his trust in the Law, that is, in organised society; this act of perjury, engineered by the Court, showed how the appointed guardians of society were ready to crack it open and let in anarchy to maintain their own advantages. As for the passive bulk of society, those with no immediate responsibility for what is done, I don't think my portrait of the Common Man is "rude" or "tendentious"; he is not actively malignant; under similar circumstances could either Mr. Tynan or myself be sure of doing better?

'Here is the practical bearing of all this: Any society needs a conservative and a radical element. Without the first it flies apart, without the second it putrefies. The conservative can be taken for granted, for it only needs acceptance and a good working substitute for acceptance is sloth. But the radical rejects the status quo, and unless this is done in the name of a definite vision of what an individual human person is, and is not being allowed to be, rejection degenerates to a posture, no less complacent than the Establishment itself. I think this is our present position. Much ink, perhaps some blood, will flow before we arrive at a genuinely modern, genuinely credible vision of what a human person is. But I think that any artist not in some way engaged upon this task might just as well pack up and go home. The personal is not "merely" personal.'

I replied as follows:

Mr. Bolt's dissenting gloss on my review of A Man for All Seasons is a healthy phenomenon; it is always cheering when a playwright shows that he cares more about the ideas he is expressing than about the number of paying customers he can induce to listen to them. But while I respect Mr. Bolt's motives, I cannot swallow his conclusions; they seem to me to be founded on premises that expose, quite poignantly, the limitations of our Western approach to historical drama.

Mr. Bolt surveys his chosen slice of the Tudor era with the right end of the telescope firmly clapped to his eye: what he sees is Sir Thomas More, in dominant close-up, with everything else out of focus. A hint, now and then, is lightly dropped that More's obduracy was not only a crafty individual challenge to Tudor law but a social and political threat to the whole process of the English Reformation. Once dropped, however, these hints are rapidly swept under the carpet and forgotten. Mr. Bolt is primarily absorbed in the state of More's conscience, not in the state of More's England or More's Europe.

Brecht, on the other hand, though he gives us an intimate study of Galileo's conscience, takes pains to relate it at every turn to Galileo's world and to the universe at large. In short, he uses the wrong end of the telescope as well. He naturally worries about 'what an individual human person is'; but he also worries about the society into which that person was born, and the contributions he made (or failed to make) towards improving it. Brecht's play deals with Galileo and the postponed dawn of the age of reason, Mr. Bolt's play deals with More, tout court.

As to the matter of 'objective truth': what concerns Brecht is Galileo's contention that the earth revolved around the sun, and I am not aware that anybody has yet disproved it. If they had, I have no doubt that Brecht would have written a different play, possibly based on the arrogance of scientists who fail to verify their hypotheses, or on the ways in which hubris can stunt the growth of enlightenment. 'The truth', as he never tired of insisting, 'is concrete'; Galileo is in possession of a useful, concrete, revolutionary truth, which authority compels him to deny.

Does Mr. Bolt seriously think that Brecht would have devoted the same attention to a man who held that the earth was a saucer-shaped object created in the seventh century A.D.? That, too, would have constituted a heresy, and the Church would unquestionably have silenced anyone who sought to spread it. Under pressure, the heretic might well have recanted, and thereby reduced himself, as Mr. Bolt says of Galileo, 'in his own estimation'. But what about the estimation of history? Heartless though it may sound—and the theatre, where suffering is feigned, is the last stronghold of permissible heartlessness—I must confess that I am more interested in a persecuted scientist whose beliefs are demonstrably true than in one whose beliefs are demonstrably false.

Mr. Bolt makes no such distinctions. For him, the mere fact of belief is enough, and Sir Thomas's martyrdom would have been just as tragic if the point at issue had been his refusal to admit that two plus two equalled four. We are expected to sympathise with him simply and solely because he declines to reveal his convictions. It is here that Mr. Bolt and I part company. There may be evidence of temperamental bias in my preference for oppressed heroes with whose opinions I agree; but I don't think I am acting unfairly when I demand that heroes should define their opinions, regardless of whether I agree with them. Brecht tells us precisely what Galileo asserted, and why he asserted it; and the play grows out of the explanation. Mr. Bolt tells us nothing about More's convictions or how he came to embrace them. In the second act Norfolk asks him whether he is willing to abandon all he possesses because of 'a theory'—namely, the idea that the Pope is St. Peter's descendant.

'Why, it's a theory, yes; you can't see it, can't touch it; it's a theory,' More replies. 'But what matters to me is not whether it's true or not but whether I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it but that I believe it…. I trust I make myself obscure?'

That is as close as we get to knowing what More believes, and why. It is not, in an age as pragmatical as ours, nearly close enough. By way of a footnote; I concede that people like Mr. Bolt and myself might easily behave, in comparable circumstances, as corruptly and boorishly as the character played by Leo McKern. What is 'rude' and 'tendentious' is that a character who is the essence of boorish corruption should be labelled 'The Common Man'.

Source: Kenneth Tynan, "Theatre" in his Right and Left: Plays, Films, People, Places, and Events, Atheneum, 1967. A dramatist, screenwriter, and critic, Tynan was a prominent figure in English theater during the 1950s and 1960s.

Drama Based on Life of Thomas More Opens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

In A Man for All Seasons Robert Bolt has written a play that is luminous with intelligence and steely with conviction.

The central figure of this work, which arrived last night at the ANTA Theatre, is Sir Thomas More, the lawyer and scholar, who would not yield to the expediency required by his sovereign, Henry VIII. The theme of the play is the pressure that a community of friends and foes brings to bear on a man who can do no other but listen to the still, small voice of his conscience.

A Man for All Seasons is written with distinction. It combines in equal measure the dancing, ironic wit of detachment and the steady blue flame of commitment. With its commingling of literary grace, intellectual subtlety and human simplicity, it challenges the mind and, in the end, touches the heart. For it is not only about a man for all seasons but also about an aspiration for all time.

Mr. Bolt, a young English playwright, has written a chronicle play, using the fluid structure of the Elizabethan narratives and adding to it a chorus in the tradition of the Greek dramas. This chorus is The Common Man. It is his proposition that "the sixteenth century is the century of the common man, as are all centuries."

This Common Man, who serves at one time or another as servant, boatman, jailer, foreman of a jury and executioner, is an engaging rogue. Played with wonderful sharpness, humor and familiarity by George Rose, he is the shrewd, nimble comic fellow who knows how to adapt to his environment and look after himself. Not a bad fellow at heart, not even heedless, he is merely cautious. Who except the Sir Thomas Mores can cast the first atone at him?

Mr. Bolt sports with The Common Man, using him not only for sharp-witted, disenchanted comment but also for a helping hand with changes of scene. With Sir Thomas the author does not trifle. His steadfastness is rooted in wisdom, and his words are the warm, mellow, penetrating expression of a sad, knowing observer of the world and its ways.

By the standards of neatly plotted drama, there is a basic weakness in the conception of Sir Thomas. For when we meet him, years before his end, his character seems to be fixed in its perception and courage. As he moves down the inevitable road to destruction, the early traits are re-enforced. There is no fatal flaw in him.

But one feels that Mr. Bolt's intention is to use Sir Thomas More's fate as the gauge of man's desperate ever-renewing predicament. Mr. Bolt is not writing a tragedy in the conventional sense but recalling history with pungency, letting us draw whatever contemporary lessons we may. And he is careful to observe that there are many, that the cap may be worn where it fits….

"We are dealing with an age less fastidious than ours," says one of Mr. Bolt's characters. Well, are we? This fine, meaty play will stir you and cause you to ask further questions of your own.

Source: Howard Taubman, "Drama Based on Life of Thomas More Opens" (1961) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 439-41.

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Critical Overview