A Man for All Seasons

by Robert Bolt

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The Play

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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 argument with his daughter’s suitor, William Roper, over the corruption in the Catholic church. More recognizes the problems that ensue whenever men pursue God’s work. Viewers get a glimpse of the More family, as Sir Thomas’ wife Alice and his daughter Margaret engage him in conversation about his visit to Wolsey. Alice prophesies that her husband may soon find himself chancellor—a position More says he does not want, but in which he finds himself soon after Wolsey dies.

The intrigue over the annulment continues, as the audience gets a glimpse of the chief antagonists in the issue, Cromwell and Chapuys, who meet at Hampton Court. The two engage in a sharp debate over More’s true position on the impending divorce. It becomes clear that, for the English people to accept the king’s action, More’s approval must be obtained.

The climactic scene of act 1 occurs between More and the king, who visits Thomas at home. The king insists that More support him, but More tactfully avoids committing himself. Alice and Margaret are angry with Thomas, but he insists that he must keep his true position private to protect them from harm. The final short scene of act 1 makes it clear that More is wise to be circumspect. Just before the curtain falls, Cromwell informs Rich of his intent regarding More: He will have him side with the king, or discredit him.

Act 2 opens in the More household, where Sir Thomas and Roper have been reconciled. The audience learns that the bishops may soon agree in convocation to support the king’s petition; More says he will resign if that happens. There follow key meetings between More and Chapuys, then More and Norfolk, as both sides try to get Sir Thomas to make his position on the divorce public. In the scene immediately following, Cromwell takes center stage again: First he informs Norfolk of the necessity of bringing More into line, then he plots with Rich to have More disgraced.

In the More household, first Chapuys then More’s own family plead with him to take a public position on...

(This entire section contains 970 words.)

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the king’s annulment. More displays unusual casuistry in avoiding such a statement, remaining optimistic that as long as he is silent, no harm will come to any of them. Ominously, More is summoned to Cromwell, who quizzes him over his unwillingness to support his king. Eventually, the man who describes himself as “the King’s ears” threatens More before dismissing him.

On his way back home, More runs into Norfolk, who pleads with him to abandon his silence. Knowing that he must distance himself from those he loves so as not to implicate them, More provokes Norfolk to anger. Roper brings More news of a new act requiring all subjects to acknowledge the annulment.

The following scenes of the play are set in the jail. The audience learns from the Common Man that More has been imprisoned; the audience sees him there, adamant in his refusal to sign the Act of Succession. Much of the effort of men such as Cromwell and the new archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, is spent on getting More to explain why he will not sign. More, a lawyer, is more than a match for these men; they leave frustrated, but Thomas remains in prison. A poignant scene follows, in which More’s family comes to visit him. All urge him to give in, but More remains resolute in his refusal. Believing this will be his last meeting with them, Thomas urges his wife, his daughter, and Roper to flee the country.

The climax of act 2 occurs in the courtroom, where More is accused of various trumped-up charges including bribery. The real issue, of course, is More’s refusal to consent to the king’s wishes regarding his queen. When More is finally convicted of refusing to sign the act, he asks to speak out before sentence is passed; finally, he states his position publicly, acknowledging the primacy of God’s laws and pointing out the immorality of the king’s action. Unmoved, the jury recommends execution. In the final scene, More consoles his wife and daughter, who have remained to see him meet his fate, and goes to the scaffold with great resignation.

Dramatic Devices

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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 from the past who share many attitudes and values still held in contemporary society.

Bolt also uses costuming and set changes to emphasize both the artificiality and the universality of his drama. Directions for costuming call for actors to be garbed in plain, bold colors: More in gray, the king in gold, others in similarly plain fashion. The playwright wishes to keep his work from appearing as a simple period piece, choosing instead to have the costumes suggest something about the inner qualities of the characters. The Common Man’s many costume changes reinforce the idea that outer appearance can either reflect or mask the inner self. Bolt’s directions for the set suggest similar spareness in props and in the design for flats and stage area. Scene changes are accomplished before the eyes of the audience, with the Common Man carrying on chairs and tables or rearranging the furniture while explaining to the audience the shift of action from one locale to another.

The language of the play also reinforces the universal qualities Bolt hopes to suggest by this drama. Throughout, the playwright uses the images of water and land to establish a contrast between the self and society. The image of the river becomes a symbol of the current of events that sweeps most men along; repeated references to the river work subtly to show how More stands against this unrelenting pressure. Bolt also introduces other images that prefigure the tragic ending. Most notable, perhaps, is King Henry’s description in act 1 of his hunting trip, in which his falcon chases a heron, which maneuvers craftily away from the mightier bird to return home safely to her children. The incident, drawn from the natural world and described by the king quite jovially, is an ominous foreshadowing of More’s situation as Henry becomes increasingly insistent that his chancellor consent to Henry’s divorce, and Thomas must become more devious in his refusal to commit himself in order to escape the consequences of his failure to support the king.

Places Discussed

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*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

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 lower acting areas, and a table and heavy chairs are the only permanent props on stage. As in Shakespeare’s plays, the stage space is used quite flexibly, and specific locations are defined by the actors’ language and props brought on for each scene. The style of the production has strong affinities with the history plays of Bertolt Brecht, whose works were particularly influential in England in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The much-acclaimed film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinnemann (1962), abandoned all of the play’s Brechtian devices and was notable for its elegant costumes, historic locales, and spectacle.

Historical Context

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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 on the Catholic hegemony. On one hand various Church Reform movements sought to eradicate widespread corruption among the priesthood, who numbered one in forty of England's total population and many of whom lacked education and moral superiority. On the other hand was Luther's Protestant movement, which was not so much a "Reformation'' as a wholesale refutation of clerical authority. The Protestants denied Catholic clergy the power to absolve sin, insisting that God alone can offer salvation to humans. Protestants made God their ultimate authority. Because God did not make his authority directly known to man, the laity (not just the clergy) were left to interpret his intentions. This democratic line of thought, an attitude of empowerment for the layperson, resonated with the budding new philosophy of the Humanists (including More and his Dutch friend Erasmus), who sought to improve human life on earth by adhering to the lofty ideals of classical Greek and Roman cultures. With the chipping away of Papal authority came a need for stronger state administration. A vested interest in state sovereignty underlay Henry VIII's urge toward independence from ecclesiastic rule, even if his immediate reason for breaking with the church was more political and more pressing. Henry was a good Catholic, had even defended the Church against the attacks of Martin Luther but his need to cement the Tudor line with a male heir overrode his religious allegiance. He began to see flaws in Catholicism that he might otherwise have ignored. Over time, Church Reform affected everyday life, not just spiritual matters, as they paralleled and reinforced peasant revolts against the hardships of serfdom.

King Henry VIII Because his older brother Arthur was in line for the throne, young Henry Tudor did not expect to be crowned king of England. However, when Henry was eighteen, Arthur died and Henry succeeded his vastly successful father. A marriage was arranged for Henry to Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon, to strengthen England's tie to her native Spain. Catherine had five children by him, but only one, a daughter, lived past infancy. Because having a male heir to whom Henry would turn over the English dynasty was seen by Henry and his most astute advisors as critical to the political stability of England, and because Henry came to believe that his wife's barrenness indicated that the Biblical punishment for marrying a brother's widow had befallen him, Henry sought to annul his marriage and form a new one with Anne Bolyn, daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. He defied Pope Clement VII and married Anne Bolyn in a civil ceremony that Sir Thomas More disdained to attend. When Henry failed to obtain More's approval of the marriage and the Act making him head of the Church of England, he had More executed. The historical More had prophetically written that despite his close friendship with the King, "If my head would win him a castle in France it should not fail to fall.'' Three years and no sons later, Henry had Anne executed for infidelity. Henry would marry four more wives after Anne and execute one of them.

What began as a desire to arrange a divorce and marriage, ended with Henry overthrowing the authority of the Pope in England, dissolving hundreds of monasteries and nunneries (the latter to redirect funds to the Crown, the largest such redistribution since the Norman Conquest), and executing a large number of clergy who refused to accept his supremacy over the Pope's. Throughout his battle with the Church, Henry never ceased to be a devout Catholic and he actively suppressed heretics. In spite of his brutal egoism, Henry VIII succeeded in centralizing administration of England, effectively separating the realms of Church and State, and initiating the Reformation of the Church.

Literary Style

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Symbolism 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; in another he dons a gray cap and condemns an innocent man to death; it's all a question of headwear. Only the last costume gives the Common Man pause—he balks at sitting in judgment of More. But once past this hurdle he shows no compunction about donning the mask of executioner. In preparation for the trial scene, the Common Man displays his many hats, setting them on poles (as More's head will soon be set on a pole for display) in front of a series of coats of arms of different proportions. While the hats suggest the common man's (meaning everyman's) mercurial nature, the coats of arms ironically allude to timeless, lofty ideals that none but More honor, and he does so with his life.

Chorus During the sixteenth century the chorus, which had consisted of several actors in classical Greek times, was reduced to one actor who commented on and interpreted the action of the play before, after, and between scenes. For example, Shakespeare begins Henry V with an apologetic prologue in which a player asks the audience to embellish the stage props with imagination ("Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them"). Modernist Bertold Brecht transformed the chorus to a new purpose; Brecht's "chorus" figures are alienating devices designed to remind the audience of the artifice of theater, thus distancing them from the play's action. Bolt adopts Bertold Brecht's use of the chorus, giving the concept yet another twist. Like a Brechtian chorus, the Common Man delivers a modern, self-reflexive, self-conscious judgment of the play: "It is perverse! To start a play made up of Kings and Cardinals in speaking costumes and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me." But in opposition to Brecht's use of chorus figures, Bolt wanted the Common Man to draw in the audience, to provide someone with whom they might identify. Because he felt that his device failed, Bolt explained in his Preface why he included the Common Man and had him make frequent puns on the word "common"—it was "intended primarily to indicate 'that which is common to us all'" (xvii). Even though audiences chose to see the Common Man as vulgar and foreign and therefore not themselves, Bolt insists that he sometimes heard in their laughter a "rueful note of recognition."

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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.

  • 16th century: Religious persecution was so widespread that America was colonized partially by English citizens seeking freedom to worship as they pleased. In England it was common for people to be charged as "heretics" (whether for religious or some other reason) and forced to wear a marker of their shame so that others could shun them; some were executed.

    1950-1960: In developed nations such as England and the United States, religious freedom was officially assured, although some groups suffered from prejudiced treatment. In communist countries, religion was actively suppressed by the state.

    Today: Religious freedom and diversity exist in most developed and third-world countries, even in formerly communist-held countries. Religious differences contribute, however, to the many ethnic conflicts worldwide, such as those in Bosnia, Liberia, and Rwanda.

  • 16th century: The charge of treason was routinely used to rid the ruler of unwanted persons in England as well as in other European countries. Henry VIII had John Fisher beheaded days before he executed Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey died while under charge for High Treason.

    1950-1960: England sustained a clean record of providing its citizens with safety from unfounded charges of treason. However, things were otherwise in the United States. Although the United States promises due process of law and immunity from unfounded accusations, Senator Joe McCarthy made a sham of political tolerance and legislative integrity by leading a relentless persecution of intellectuals and filmmakers with any suspected ties to communism.

    Today: In England and the United States, along with most developed nations, it takes a strong case to condemn a citizen for treason or other crimes against the state.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Further Reading 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 explains his choice of More as a man in conflict over selfhood and sees two choices for modern man: accepting a world without moral standards or returning to Christian morals.

Fuegi, John. "Robert Bolt." In Contemporary British Dramatists, edited by James Vinson. St. James Press (London), 1973. An essay that identifies the two major influences on Bolt's work as Brecht and the cinema.

Gambill, Thomas C. The Drama of Robert Bolt: A Critical Study. Kent State University, 1982. A study of Bolt's plays as a representative of the drama of the"angry young men'' and the influence of Bertolt Brecht.

Hayman, Ronald. Robert Bolt, Heinemann, 1969. A slim volume that includes an interview with Robert Bolt about his life, chapters critiquing six of his plays, and a follow-up interview in which Bolt responds to the play critiques.

McCarten, John. "The Reluctant Martyr." In the New Yorker, Vol. 37, no. 42, December 2, 1961, pp. 117-18. A positive review of the New York production praising Bolt's realistic portrayal of More.

McElrath, Joseph R. "The Metaphoric Structure of A Man for All Seasons." In Modern Drama, Vol. 14, 1972, pp 84-92. A detailed analysis of the metaphor of the sea and land that Bolt mentions in his Preface and that pervades the play.

Peachment, Chris. London Times, October 23, 1986. A retrospective view of Bolt's work that finds much of merit in it.

Simon, John. "Play Reviews: A Man for All Seasons." In Theater Arts, Vol. 46, no. 2, February, 1962, pp. 10-11. A favorable review suggesting that although the play is limited by attempting too much historical scope; it is "intelligent, pungent, and absorbing."

Tees, Arthur Thomas. "The Place of the Common Man: Robert Bolt: A Man for All Seasons." In the University Review, Vol. 36, October, 1969, pp. 67-71. Tees describes the Common Man's function as foil to More. They are polar opposites in that while More is a "non-tragic hero" (having no fatal flaw), the Common Man is a "tragic non-hero."

Trewin, J. C. "Two Morality Playwrights: Robert Bolt and John Whiting." In Experimental Drama, edited by William A. Armstrong. Bell and Sons, 1963, pp. 103-27. An analysis of Bolt's plays as successful studies of social conscience in the individual. Trewin likes the plays but calls Bolt's explanatory preface a distraction.

Tucker, M. J. "The More-Norfolk Connection." In Moreana, Vol. 33, 1972, pp. 5-13. Tucker reveals that Bolt has distorted the role that the historical Duke of Norfolk played in More's demise and describes the relationship history shows they had.

Walker, John. "Top Playwrights." In the Sunday Times Magazine, November 26, 1978. In this special edition devoted to British theater, Walker's essay groups fifty British playwrights under six categories, "wits and dandies," "traditionalists," "individualists," and so on.


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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 useful analysis of his play, A Man for All Seasons.

Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. In his epilogue, Russell places A Man for All Seasons in the context of other British writings of the time.

Tynan, Kenneth. A View of the English Stage, 1944-63. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975. A highly personal, even idiosyncratic view of the play. Since the bulk of the essays in this volume were originally reviews, they provide a clue as to how the play was received during its debut.

Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Dramatists. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. There is helpful discussion about A Man for All Seasons that places the drama within the scope of Bolt’s career.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide