Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
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 did not succeed in getting a West End showing, The Critic and the Heart was produced at the Oxford Playhouse in 1957 and was well received. This play represents Bolt at his most traditional. Bolt himself criticized the play for being too orthodox and completely naturalistic in form. He tells how, being inexperienced in the theater, he modeled the play on W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle (pr., pb. 1921), doing a detailed structural analysis and following it closely in his own play, even down to the placement of climaxes and the lengths of acts. As Ronald Hayman emphasizes, however, the content and dialogue are distinctly Bolt’s own; the playwright also demonstrates his capacity for closely interweaving characters and plot. Bolt later rewrote the play as Brother and Sister, which was produced at Brighton in 1967; another revised version appeared at Bristol in 1968.
With his next play, Flowering Cherry, Bolt caught the attention of director Frith Banbury, known for his promotion of promising young playwrights. Banbury arranged Bolt’s first West End production in 1957 with a stellar cast, including Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson in the leads. The highly successful London run was followed by a New York production in 1959; critics received it far less enthusiastically. Bolt’s next work, The Tiger and the Horse, about the effects a petition to ban the hydrogen bomb have on a middle-class university family, is another basically naturalistic domestic drama of the same type as Flowering Cherry. Like its predecessor, it was directed by Banbury, beginning a successful London run in August, 1960.
A Man for All Seasons began its run at the Globe Theater in July, 1960, with Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More; The Tiger and the Horse, though written first, opened a month later. Therefore, Bolt had the distinction of having two very different types of plays enjoying success at the West End theaters simultaneously. The 1960’s also found Bolt branching out into screenwriting and winning distinction in that field as well. In 1961, he also went to jail briefly, along with other members of Bertrand Russell’s Committee of One Hundred, for antinuclear protests that involved token breaches of the law. Bolt had been working on the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia at the time, and progress on the film stopped while he was away from the scene. Finally, producer Sam Spiegel angrily pressured him into binding himself over and coming out of prison because people’s jobs and thousands of dollars were at stake. Bolt spoke of this as a surrender, an action he regretted, despite the good reasons for doing it.
Bolt’s next drama for the legitimate stage was Gentle Jack, a highly experimental drama in which he sought to move even further away from naturalism. John R. Kaiser aptly described the play as “an adult fairy tale or an allegorical fantasy” dealing with the appearance of the god Pan in the modern world. Produced in 1963, with Dame Edith Evans and Kenneth Williams in the leading roles, Gentle Jack is perhaps the least successful of Bolt’s major theatrical works, running for only seventy-five performances. Neither the critics nor the public received it favorably. Many found it puzzling and obscure, a marked departure from Bolt’s usual clarity and even from the types of drama that had made him one of the leading popular playwrights of his time.
For his next stage venture, Bolt turned to another fairy tale, but this time a highly successful one for children, The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, first performed in December, 1965, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwich Theatre in London. It has been noted that Bolt’s penchant for larger-than-life figures served him well in creating his fairy tale characters, including the stout, elderly hero, Sir Oblong Fitz-Oblong, a knight with a strong sense of duty, and the villainous Baron Bolligrew. The knight is a humorous version of the uncommon man of principle who must fight against the evil and deception in the society around him. Ronald Hayman notes that, “like some children, he tries too hard to be good.” Bolt also makes use of a Storyteller who, like the Common Man, provides a narrative link between episodes and occasionally takes part in the action, such as by making the moon rise when Sir Oblong asks for it.
Bolt returned to historical subjects for the adult dramas that he wrote after Gentle Jack. Vivat! Vivat Regina!—his treatment of the rival queens Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor—had its premiere at the Chichester Festival in 1970. It then moved to the Piccadilly Theatre in London, where it proved a major hit of the season. The play also had a successful New York engagement in 1972. A play dealing with the Russian Revolution and Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s central role in it, State of Revolution, was first produced in 1977 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and later at the National Theatre.
Bolt suffered a debilitating stroke in 1981, leaving him partially paralyzed but capable of walking with a cane. He felt an affinity to the experiences of Press Secretary James Brady, whose gunshot wound from an attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan left him similarly paralyzed. Bolt’s treatment of Brady’s life in Without Warning is said to incorporate much of Bolt’s own reactions to his illness. Interviewers in 1991 noted Bolt’s speech difficulties but remarked on his total clarity of thought and expression. He died in 1995.