Robert Bolt

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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...

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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 help Cromwell secure More’s conviction.

The Common Man, who assumes various roles within the play, starting as More’s steward Matthew and ending as his executioner, provides another foil to the man of uncommon moral courage. Bolt indicates that he used “common” in the sense of “that which is common to us all”; he intended to have the audience identify to a degree with the character. In each role, the Common Man demonstrates his overriding concern with two basic human instincts, self-interest and self-preservation. Anselm Atkins has argued that, despite essential differences, the Common Man is made to resemble More sufficiently to have the audience recognize themselves in both characters. More represents what we could be, at our best. The Common Man indicates what we all too often are—concerned finally with slipping by comfortably in life, getting what we can without too many moral scruples. Both characters are extremely rational and both seek with great care to keep themselves out of trouble. Like More, the Common Man draws a firm boundary between what he will and will not do, only in his case he draws a line where risks outweigh gains, as when Cromwell offers the jailer a dangerously large sum for information about his prisoner More. The Common Man, unlike More, is concerned with preserving his bodily life at all costs, not with the essential self, his soul.

Bolt’s masterful handling of language, blending a Tudor flavor into modern dialogue and skillfully interpolating More’s own words where appropriate, is a notable feature of the play. The dramatist indicated that he sought to make thematic use of images, with dry land representing society and the sea and water representing “that larger context which we all inhabit, the terrifying cosmos.” These references are so naturally interwoven into the rest of the play that they generally escape notice, yet the pattern is there; such remarks as King Henry’s passing allusion to his river, where he is playing the role of pilot, and Matthew’s reference to More’s fear of drowning have additional resonance when seen in this context.

Vivat! Vivat Regina!

Bolt’s preface to Vivat! Vivat Regina! makes evident his conviction that setting plays in the past is one method of giving characters the particularity they need to emerge as people rather than as archetypes while still enabling them to be “theatrical.” By this the playwright meant that the characters have “a continuously high pitch of speech and action” obviously different from the pace of real life but appropriate to the heightened intensity of drama and made convincing within the dramatic framework. Bolt felt that the audience accepts theatrical speech and action more readily in characters from the past “not because we seriously think they really did continuously speak and act like that but because we don’t know how they spoke and only know the more dramatic of their actions.”

Certainly Bolt selected a highly dramatic subject in the parallel careers of Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, and the tragic rivalry between the two monarchs. Here the tension between the individual and society emerges as a study of the conflict between fulfillment in personal relationships and the exigencies of political power. Both women are strong-willed queens. As they steer their courses through troubled political waters, each recognizing a potential threat in the other, they must make crucial choices between love and political expediency. Elizabeth, who from her youth has had to be extremely self-controlled and politically calculating, can subordinate her needs as a woman to the requirements of her office, though at great psychological cost. She suppresses part of her personality, becoming hardened and neurotic even as she achieves greatness as a monarch. By contrast, Mary refuses to suppress the emotional side of her nature. She willfully chooses love, even though she risks political disaster.

Bolt’s mastery of structure is evident in his handling of complex historical events unfolding over a number of years. He employs a series of parallel scenes, with the action shifting back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth in the same type of fluid staging that characterized A Man for All Seasons. He also uses patently theatrical devices to advance the action and to underscore the interconnections between the two monarchs’ careers. In one such scene, Elizabeth is seated aloft on the throne as the baptism of Mary’s son James, heir of the Tudor line, takes place in the foreground. The most stylized piece of action occurs at the Kirk o’ Field incident, where Mary is shown acting in collusion with Bothwell, the murderer of her second husband, Darnley. She is seen dancing “puppet-like under Bothwell’s compelling stare,” then dancing alone and frightened. After an explosion rocks the stage and scatters the dancers, John Knox steps into the spotlight vacated by Mary and denounces her. When the lights come up, the other dancers are revealed to include Elizabeth and Lord Cecil, Philip of Spain, and the pope, who remonstrate with Mary over her involvement with Bothwell.

In discussing how he gave dramatic shape to the involved story of the two monarchs, Bolt notes that he sought “to present the confused eventfulness of Mary’s life as a series of single theatrical happenings, and to present the torturous complexities of Elizabeth’s policy as an immediate response.” Bolt draws a sharply dramatic contrast between the two monarchs in terms of sexual politics. At the beginning of the play, Elizabeth, though deeply in love with Robert Dudley, reluctantly takes Lord Cecil’s advice not to marry him because of his suspected involvement with his wife’s death. The queen believes him innocent but realizes that such a marriage might cost her the throne. Her decision is partially affected by the knowledge that Mary, Queen of Scots, would welcome such a move. So much has she learned to subordinate her personal feelings to concerns of state that she later agrees to let Cecil propose Robert Dudley, now earl of Leicester, as a “safe” suitor for Mary, Queen of Scots.

Instead, Mary makes a politically advantageous second marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which strengthens her claim to the English throne, yet even this marriage reflects Mary’s determination to have a husband she can love. When Darnley proves weak and faithless, participating in the plot to kill the queen’s favorite, David Rizzio, Mary falls deeply in love with Lord Bothwell. Unlike Elizabeth, she is portrayed as all too ready to risk her throne for love. Not only does she bring Darnley to Kirk o’ Field under threat of otherwise losing Bothwell’s love; she also refuses to repudiate Bothwell later, acting against Elizabeth’s own admonition. Mary stubbornly maintains that he was tried and found innocent, despite the questionable nature of the verdict. She further reveals that she has married him. Even after she has surrendered herself to the Scottish nobility on condition that they let Bothwell go, she refuses to conciliate the lords by repudiating the marriage as a forced one and thus reclaiming her throne. Passionately, she declares, “I would follow him to the edge of the earth—in my shift!” When Bothwell is driven into exile and Mary is living as a royal prisoner in England, she still clings to the hope that he will keep his promise and return. Mary’s pained acknowledgment that Bothwell will not return—she learns that he has taken service with the king of Denmark and has another woman in his house—leads her to renounce love to “study policy.” This “policy,” however, involves her in a conspiracy against Elizabeth and leads to her execution.

Because the two queens never met historically, Bolt does not invent any scene involving a direct confrontation between them as other dramatists, including Friedrich Schiller, have done. A key scene in the latter’s Maria Stuart (pr. 1800; Mary Stuart, 1801) is a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary at Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary wins a moral victory over Elizabeth that ensures her death. In Vivat! Vivat Regina! the monarchs exchange words onstage twice in scenes that are obviously representational of exchanges that took place in letters. In addition, Bolt gains considerable dramatic impact by emphasizing the psychological effects of the rivalry. Elizabeth’s reaction to the news of Mary’s escape (following the murder of Rizzio) reveals her envy of Mary’s more intense involvement in life. She particularly envies the passionate response the Queen of Scots can evoke in men such as Lord Bothwell, who “raises men, half-naked men . . . and drives her enemies from Edinburgh—and for what? Why, for herself.” The English queen’s envy is heightened by the awareness that the child Mary is carrying will be heir to the English throne, since Elizabeth is “barren stock.” When Elizabeth is thought merciful for giving Mary refuge in England, even after hearing an impassioned letter from Mary to Bothwell that furnishes proof of Mary’s involvement in the plot to kill Darnley, Lord Cecil astutely observes, “I do not think that this is altogether mercy. I think our Queen sees Mary in the mirror.” On the other hand, Mary signs the letter giving her approval of the conspiracy against Elizabeth after she has learned that her son, James, has never received any of the letters and gifts she has sent and that Elizabeth “has played the mother’s part.” Her fury against the English queen impels Mary to an action that she knows might entrap her and lead to her death.

Bolt’s psychobiographical approach presents both Mary and Elizabeth in human terms while fashioning an extremely effective structure for dramatizing the intertwined careers of the two monarchs. Hayman finds that the emphasis on personal relationships, which he sees as characteristic of Bolt’s dramas, prevents Bolt from mining the complexity of his subject sufficiently. Similarly, Irving Wardle has called the play “an immensely skillful piece of cosmetic surgery: adding the common touch and the free-flowing action of epic theatre, while leaving the assumptions of heroic costume drama untouched.” Other critics, however, such as Samuel Hirsch, have found Vivat! Vivat Regina! “exciting theater” that “illuminates history by putting it in the perspective of human personality.”

State of Revolution

When Bolt turned to twentieth century history and the Russian Revolution for the subject of his next play, State of Revolution, he focused on another uncommon man—this time a leader at odds not only with the capitalist society he sought to replace but also with his fellow revolutionaries. What fascinated the playwright was Vladimir Lenin’s uncompromising dedication to the Marxist view of history and the Socialist Revolution as he saw it developing. Adopting the Marxist ethic that anything that promoted the establishment of the Socialist State was justified, Lenin often sanctioned extreme and brutal measures as necessary means to this great end. In an interview with Sally Emerson, Bolt stressed the paradox this man presented: “Viewed in one light, he was an indefensible monster, in another he was a great and good man. He did and said quite impermissible things but he was also selfless with no love of cruelty for its own sake.”

Once again employing an episodic structure, Bolt moves from the pre-Revolutionary period in 1910, when the Bolshevik leaders were running a school to train party activists at Maxim Gorky’s villa in Capri, through the revolution and its aftermath, ending with Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s death and Joseph Stalin’s rise to power in 1924. In order to provide a frame for the chronicle, the playwright uses as his narrator a historical figure, Anatole Lunacharsky, an associate of Lenin who became commissioner for education and enlightenment in the Soviet State. Lunacharsky is portrayed as addressing a meeting of Young Communists around 1930, on the anniversary of Lenin’s death. As critic David Zane Mairowitz has emphasized, Lunacharsky, a humane intellectual, reflects the original idealism within the revolutionary movement as well as the questioning and moral scruples that surfaced as its promise was betrayed. Mairowitz and others have also shown the basic problem with this particular framing device: The staged events purport to dramatize Lunacharsky’s speech to his 1930 audience, yet such an account of the origins of Stalinism is inconceivable in that context. By 1930, the Stalinist rewriting of history was already well under way.

Nevertheless, Lunacharsky’s account does present a compelling portrait of Lenin as a complex, driven man who acted with a terrible consistency in pursuing the goal of establishing a Socialist State. The play provides glimpses of the human warmth that Lenin too often suppressed in the name of revolutionary ideal, yet it also shows the cold detachment and ruthless determination he could exercise when personal feelings or human considerations seemed contrary to these greater goals. Despite his feeling of friendship for Lunacharsky, Lenin can brutally question why he is still in the party with his baggage of humanistic notions. Lenin argues that “unconditional human love is nothing but a dirty dream” at a moment in history that requires “unconditional class hatred.” He further indicates that he is willing to sacrifice cultural values, even the “moral amenities,” to achieve the new society that will beget its own virtue—“its own new form of love and unimaginable music.” Yet Lenin’s words also suggest his own brand of revolutionary idealism and his intensity of purpose.

One of the deepest ironies underscored in the drama is the contradiction that Lenin’s career offers to the Marxist view of history he embraced, which postulates that history finds the individuals it needs, contrary to the doctrine that great individuals shape events. At many crucial points, it is Lenin’s “overwhelming, ruthless will” that determines the course of events, prevailing over the opposition of other Bolshevik leaders. Convinced that a Russian Revolution would lead to a worldwide Socialist revolution, he argues for an end to Russian participation in World War I and the immediate pursuit of a civil war. He is also determined to use the discontent of the peasants in promoting a Socialist revolution, even though the realistic Gorky emphasizes the disparity between the goals of the peasants and the aims of the Bolsheviks; the peasants desire individual ownership of the land, not the establishment of a collectivist society. Lenin also argues for the adoption of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany despite its harsh conditions because his first priority is continuing the Revolution on any possible terms. After the Bolsheviks assume power, he continues to play the prime role in charting the development of the Socialist state. Following the Kronstadt uprising, he is the prime force shaping the New Economic Policy that permits a measure of capitalistic enterprise, because he deems this a necessary expedient. He also favors using the Cheka as a counterrevolutionary police force to root out the bourgeois elements in the party.

The greatest irony, however, is the failure of Lenin’s last supreme effort to exert his will and to influence the party’s choice of leader after his death. The Central Committee suppresses Lenin’s “Testament” as the work of a sick man, even though its warning proves fatefully accurate. In this important document, Lenin expresses his preference for Leon Davidovich Trotsky as the next Party leader and warns that Stalin is too brutal. The irony is compounded by the fact that Stalin has been considered the ideal party functionary for years, doing what needs to be done (like Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons). When he hears Lenin’s warning that he will not use his power as party secretary with sufficient caution, Stalin can remind the committee that he carried out all the jobs that Lenin asked him to do. He can also remind them that revolution is brutal—a statement Lenin himself often made. Lenin’s collapse takes place onstage in the background during Stalin’s delivery of his triumphant speech before the Thirteenth Congress—dramatically emphasizing Lenin’s unsuccessful struggle to combat the menace he sees in Stalin. Bolt’s drama portrays the development of Stalinism as a perverted outgrowth of Marxism-Leninism and makes clear the dangers of a philosophy that can dispense with the “moral amenities” in seeking to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

State of Revolution evoked mixed responses from the critics. Although the play confirms Bolt’s talent for providing a clearly developed structure in treating the complex events of the Russian Revolution and its disastrous aftermath, Mairowitz has pointed out a number of oversimplifications in Bolt’s treatment of the material, such as his failure to make clear that a civil war was in progress and his focusing on the Bolshevik leaders with relatively little attention to the lower classes and their part in these historic events. Mairowitz and other critics have observed that the Bolshevik leaders tend to represent attitudes rather than fully articulated characters. Mairowitz adds that they sound like Englishmen in debate rather than impassioned Socialists. Despite such limitations, Bolt managed to construct a compelling portrait of Lenin tragically caught up in the Marxist view of history, a drama culminating in a terrifying vision of the logical consequences of the Marxist ethic as Lenin himself formulated it.


Bolt, Robert