Robert Bolt

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Bolt, Robert 1924–

Bolt is a British playwright and screenplay writer. He is perhaps best known for his play A Man for All Seasons, which also became a successful film. While not considered innovative stylistically, his work is characterized by well-constructed plots and a brilliant use of dialogue. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Martin Price

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[The appearance of Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry] has raised the usual question of whether here is at last a new writer of importance. (pp. 54-5)

There are overtones in Bolt's play which recall Osborne's The Entertainer…. What strikes one in the two plays is the attempt to imply something about contemporary England through a study of the middle generation…. Jim Cherry's empty job is set against the nostalgic recollection of life on the land. [The] lost middle generation is brought to crisis and self-destruction by the demand of its children for candor and clarity. In Bolt's play, where neither parents nor children quite come to understanding of their plight, it is a cruel adolescent girl who destroys illusions…. [There] is a kind of maudlin egocentricity growing into ruthlessly irresponsible use of others. The neurotic middle-aged man becomes … a symbol of that generation that stands between the old convictions which once fertilized life and a new ordering that will clear away their vestiges. It is a generation living on the patterns of the past without either believing in them or rejecting them—the generation, one might say, of the Suez crisis rather than the Battle of Britain. (p. 55)

Martin Price, "The London Season," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1958, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. 1, No. 1, May, 1958, pp. 53-9.∗


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A drama based on the political confusions of sixteenth-century England might readily succumb to turgidity and bombast, but Mr. Bolt [in "A Man for All Seasons"] has avoided extraneous historical detail to give us a sharp and brilliant portrait of a man who might just as easily be of our day as of King Henry's. The stuff More is made of doesn't lack its heroic element, but he is never obtrusively larger than life; indeed, the limit of his daring consists in saying nothing when he is asked to swear allegiance to Henry as head of the Church of England, on the ground that silence may or may not mean an affirmation—a quibble that he hopes will save him and his family from the consequences of disloyalty to the throne. He is wise, witty, gentle, affectionate, and often perplexed, and in his efforts to abide by the letter of the law—something he understands and cherishes—as he drowns in a sea of intrigue, he is a pathetic but never an ignoble figure. (p. 117)

John McCarten, "The Reluctant Martyr," in The New Yorker (© 1961 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXVII, No. 42, December 2, 1961, pp. 117-18.∗

Robert Brustein

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After some years of neglect, the chronicle history play has been enjoying a rebirth among the more literary English and French dramatists. Up till now, the results have been rather indifferent, but in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons we finally have an effective example of the genre. A faithful account of the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, this work is too diffuse to be completely successful, yet, compared with more vulgar dramatic biographies like Anouilh's Becket and Osborne's Luther, it shows remarkable intelligence, historicity, theatrical ingenuity, and good taste. I confess that the work took me by surprise, for nothing in Bolt's last entry, an inept piece of contemporary realism called Flowering Cherry, prepared me for the kind of form and substance he handles with such authority here. Yet, I can think of at least two reasons why he and his contemporaries are now turning to history for their subject matter. As Bolt unwittingly demonstrated in Flowering Cherry, 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. (p. 28)

A second reason for the growing popularity of the history play has to do with the influence of Brecht who brought new eyes to the past and new techniques for putting it on the stage. It is Brecht's spirit, tempered by the spirit of Elizabethan drama and of More himself (whose writings, transcripts, and sayings appear as dialogue in the play), that hovers over Bolt's new work…. For the purpose of setting the stage, bridging transitions, and commenting on the action, Bolt has supplied a Brechtian Chorus, who also plays all the lower class characters—a greedy, ironic, calculating opportunist called … The Common Man. And just as Bolt's Chorus assumes some of the functions of the Story Teller in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, so Bolt's interpretation of More … recalls Brecht's concept of Galileo, another historical figure hounded by authorities. (p. 29)

Without scanting More's wit, Bolt interprets him more as a melancholy intellectual aristocrat, desperately trying to preserve some private corner of conscience, while preserving his life at the same time…. More's death, the wages of integrity, is for the ages; but the moral is for our own time, when the common man … preserves his skin through compromise and accommodation. (pp. 29-30)

Robert Brustein, "Chronicle of a Reluctant Hero," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; (© 1961 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 145, No. 24, December 11, 1961, pp. 28-30.

John Simon

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Bolt's Sir Thomas More [in A Man for All Seasons] is an intellectual blessed with common sense and cursed with a conscience. He is witty, charming, and wise, and not especially eager to add to these the supererogatory virtue of heroism. His unshakable belief in Catholicism is coupled with an almost equal faith in the law …, which will protect his conscience provided it has the good sense of not going naked to its enemy. He is as loyal a minister to Henry as superior intelligence will permit, as good a husband and father as a man who lives most warmly with ideas can be, and surely the unworldliest man of the world. The play shows how this upright and religiously orthodox man, who cannot agree to Henry's remarriage and England's consequent divorce from the Church of Rome, is hounded into heroism. When no amount of prudence and legal ingenuity can shelter him from the ever fouler machinations of his enemies, he finally meets the tragic greatness thrust upon him with the spiritual and verbal grandeur of a Socrates. It must be admitted that Mr. Bolt, though relying scrupulously on documentation and even quotation from More's own words, has somewhat idealized his hero—the acrimonious religious polemist who helped bring about the death sentence of a mere translator of the Bible into English is certainly not present—but he has given us a believable, unwhittled-down Sir Thomas, and who could ask for More?

The play does have its limitations. It is, by the very nature of being a "history," forced to look at things a little more panoramically than profoundly. Bolt does his best to compress the variousness and proliferation of history into a few typical, clearly defined figures and situations, but he is still not quite successful in making most of his characters anything but accessories before the fact of the protagonist. Nor is this protagonist all that one might desire. Heroism, indeed martyrdom, out of doctrinal differences in religion may still be moving from our point of view, but it does not carry the urgency of self-sacrifice for some other, socially more compelling, cause. True, we can translate, and are encouraged to do so, More's struggle into certain contests of our time, but it is like translating out of the Chinese into English: the gap between the cultures and languages is too great to permit more than estimable approximation. Added to this is the fact that More had no adversary worthy of his talents: Henry VIII had nothing but his despotism, Cromwell only his low cunning and unscrupulousness, and the others not even that. There is no good chance, therefore, for a clash with real dramatic thunder and blazing intellectual lightning. There are, in fact, the very limitations of the hero's unfleshly, cerebral middle age.

But all this can prevent the play only from being great—not from being very good indeed: intelligent, pungent and absorbing. Even the slight preponderance of the intellect is nicely mitigated by sufficient action and by the presence, or, rather, omnipresence, of a chorus labeled "The Common Man." This fellow, whether he comments on the happenings or actually participates in them in various roles, is always considerably lower than the angels—say, roughly, audience-high. He is everything from Shakespearean clown to Brechtian opportunist, he reeks of bonhomie and bestiality, and earns his bread by the sweat under his collar. (pp. 10-11)

John Simon, "Play Reviews: 'A Man for All Seasons'," in Theatre Arts (© 1962 by John Simon), Vol. XLVI, No. 2, February, 1962, pp. 10-11.

Robert W. Corrigan

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[A Man for All Seasons] is one of the finest achievements of the modern theatre, and one of the great dramas of selfhood of all time. (pp. 27-8)

Bolt sees all too clearly the effects collectivism have had upon the individual. In his preface he describes how in our time we have lost all conception of ourselves as individual men, and as a result we have increasingly come to see ourselves in the third person. As this happens we are less and less able to deal with life's psychic, social, and spiritual collisions. Thomas More does not see himself in this way; he is "a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off," and the action of the play is best described as a series of collisions between More and a group of powerful and able men who would have him deny his selfhood to serve the wishes of his king. (p. 28)

The matter of the oath [which King Henry VIII required of More, stating that the King was right in divorcing his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn] is the crucial issue of the play. 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."… Because of his inviolable sense of himself, Sir Thomas More cannot take an oath that would in effect deny his whole being. (pp. 28-9)

For Bolt,… only those conflicts between real alternatives are meaningful; and, therefore, More's antagonists are not straw men. King Henry is a giant of a man; he has a keen intellect, a sharp wit, a pleasing disposition (except when he is crossed), taste and sensitivity, and a gluttonous thirst for life. Only in the realm of ethics is this mercurial personality deficient. Cromwell, too, is a man of great power…. Norfolk, too, has significance as an antagonist. He lacked moral and intellectual strength, but he was a good friend. And the claims of friendship can sometimes be a more dangerous foe to integrity than open opposition. But if the claims of friendship are difficult to withstand, those of love are almost impossible. In this regard, More's faithful wife and family must also be considered powerful threats to his selfhood…. And, finally, there is More's strongest antagonist: the Common Man, that "plain simple man" who just wants "to keep out of trouble." Quite rightly, More cries out passionately "Oh, Sweet Jesus! These plain, simple men!" For it is the Common Man—sentimental, faithless, and concerned only for his own safety and welfare—who, out of his own sense of inadequacy, ultimately judges and executes the heroes of selfhood. (pp. 29-30)

Bolt has no illusions about the sufficiency of human law, but he sees it as the only defense man can create to fight against the forces of evil…. Ultimately, because men and their laws are corruptible, More cannot escape that fatal web that has ensnared him; but he dies knowing that his soul is his own, and "a man's soul is his self."…

In a time when social and economic forces tend to destroy individual integrity and the courage to accept the Destiny of our own identity, many people have lost faith in the power and the possibility of heroism. Robert Bolt has not! (p. 30)

Robert W. Corrigan, "Five Dramas of Selfhood," in The New Theatre of Europe, edited by Robert W. Corrigan (copyright © 1962, by Dell Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Dell Publishing Co., Inc.), Dell, 1962, pp. 9-31.∗

J. C. Trewin

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Robert Bolt [is] concerned fiercely with the problems of the individual and his social conscience…. [Flowering Cherry] proved to be the portrait of a failure, a study of futility, frustration, and self-deception (today a continuing theme).

Jim Cherry is an insurance agent. He is also an abject failure in life, a dreamer who uses his rhapsodies and reveries as a kingdom of escape…. Throughout [the play we observe] the affinity with Death of a Salesman. [At the denouement] there is a symbolic vision—it might be called Death of an Insurance Agent—when, as he sinks to the floor of his kitchen, blossoming trees rise suddenly all round him and we turn from harsh reality to the method of Miller and Kazan. Until this it has been an uncommon play, uncommon because the man, his wife who goes as far in loyalty as any woman could, and the son and daughter so critical of their parents, have clearly formed one household through the dismal years. Many stage families are assembled roughly and implausibly. We can believe in Bolt's, and it means a good deal to such a play as Flowering Cherry.

For a while the dramatist's achievement here was suspect…. [The] play appeared to be dangerously lucid, a straight, sharp narrative. Surprisingly, Bolt proceeded to a chronicle of Sir Thomas More, called A Man for All Seasons…. (pp. 119-21)

Robert Bolt tells the story with ingenuity and a controlled passion. (pp. 121-22)

[The figure of the Common Man binds] together the plot and [gets] it to work swiftly…. I like Bolt's technical devices in this play. My regret is that he complicates things so much in the published Preface where he seeks to clarify. (p. 123)

Robert Bolt has written one of the few contemporary portrait-plays likely to last; we can see this in performance, and we do not want too many aids and footnotes later.

Bolt's next play (earlier in order of writing) was his fiercest, The Tiger and the Horse, taking its title from some words of Blake, 'The Tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction'…. [This play]—even if, as Bolt admits, its people are unnaturally articulate—[presents] an urgent conflict in which the man who has held himself apart can no longer (in the stock modern phrase) remain uncommitted. Again, if you like, a form of self-destruction. (p. 124)

Most of Robert Bolt's people are real, though in ill-judged performance the subordinate characters of A Man for All Seasons can stiffen. Watching and thinking with the half-dozen in The Tiger and the Horse, we never lose valuable minutes asking what the clue is: we are at once involved. Without this no play can truly succeed. If we stand outside, staring incredulously, the dramatist has failed. It can be said of … [Robert Bolt that he calls] us immediately to the stage. Bolt has a developing eloquence. (p. 125)

[His] work (with an added personal force and authority) has the textbook requirements, character, conflict, ideas, narrative, and so forth—though when we are actually sitting at a play, how many of us docket these things and slip them into pigeon-holes? It is enough that a play compels, that it lingers, that it has been experienced, not listened to frigidly. There have always been 'waves'. Bolt … should endure through the next few. (p. 126)

J. C. Trewin, "Two Morality Playwrights: Robert Bolt and John Whiting," in Experimental Drama, edited by William A. Armstrong (copyright © 1963 by G. Bell and Sons, Ltd), Bell and Sons, 1963, pp. 103-27.∗

Anselm Atkins

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A striking example of the coincidence of opposites has been created by Robert Bolt in his play, A Man For All Seasons. The crude stagehand dressed in satanic black and called the "Common Man" is an exact shadow of Thomas More, the saint-protagonist. More and the Common Man, who at first sight seem so irreconcilable, are two sides of an equation….

Bolt, who is not a Christian in "the meaningful sense of the world" …, makes abundantly clear in the Preface that More's most praiseworthy virtue is his tenacious hold on his self. (p. 182)

Bolt has a good reason for saying that the Common Man is "harder to find than a unicorn."… This statement cannot be put aside, for it has two meanings which, taken together, locate the playwright's central idea. One meaning is that the Common Man is no easier to find than More the saint. Here we get an inkling of the More-Common Man identification. A second meaning implies that we do not recognize the Common Man in ourselves because we fail to acknowledge our innate capability—and responsibility—of achieving a self-based "sanctity" like that of Bolt's More. The last lines of the play are the Common Man's "recognize me."

What we are asked to see is that the Common Man is Everyman—and also—More. Logic then invites the inference that every man is More. We each have a self and the theoretical ability to be true to it. The concealed middle term—that the Common Man is More—is the secret of the play. Without knowledge of that key we are unable to avail ourselves of Bolt's conclusion….

More and the Common Man are eminently rational, in an earthy reptillian way. The former says man's task on earth is to serve his master "wittily, in the tangle of his mind."… Now the Common Man in the role of "Publican" (the Common Man takes several parts in the play) is called by Cromwell the "master statesman of us all."… The sequence in question has him playing dumb, repeatedly protesting that he just doesn't understand Cromwell's drift. But this is precisely More's tactic, too. (p. 183)

Another minor but clearcut case of mimicry occurs in the Tower scene. More frantically tries to make Alice "understand" the reasons behind his refusal to take the oath…. He no sooner succeeds than the Common Man, as "Jailor," comes to rigidly enforce the family's scheduled departure from the Tower. He thereupon finds himself in More's own position: he cannot get through to the More family. Even More himself cannot "understand" him. The two are thus identified in their frustrated effort to have someone else understand the inviolability of their conscientious commitments.

The same scene illustrates yet another characteristic, important beyond the level of mere mimicry, of More and the Common Man. Each has the ability to take an unshakable stand on some issue, even though the issues in question differ comically. Usually the Common Man takes bribes, tells lies, tipples, and is as Machiavellian in his petty way as More is worldly wise on the grand scale. The Common Man is as lax morally as More is flexible in ordinary dealings. But there is a certain point beyond which neither will go, and one is as adamant there as the other…. [If] we compare the two on the level of Bolt's theme of virtue as adhesion to the self, we begin to suspect that their similarities are more basic than their differences.

In conversation with Chapuys, the Common Man boasts of serving only one master, and displays a large cross to show what he means. This involves a double deception, for he attaches no religious meaning to the cross, nor is he really being faithful to his master-of-the-moment, Chapuys. But he certainly is true to another master: himself. His statement is, then, ironical. It is precisely the ironical content that aligns him with More. For while More makes God his sole Master, he does so by serving his own conscience; that is, by keeping himself inwardly inviolable. (pp. 184-85)

Fate will indeed bend More this way and that, wresting from him all but his last possession. Deep irony lies in the fact that the Common Man's career brings him to bay also, forcing him to choose between the preservation or loss of his self. (p. 185)

That differences exist between More and the Common Man is, of course, clear enough. The self More wants to preserve is his soul: "a man's soul is his self!"… The Common Man's self is his earthly, bodily, pot-bellied life. He does not say explicitly that he has no soul, but his amoral outlook suggests that at best he gives his "immortal soul" little thought. However, this contrast between the two does not really create a difficulty for the identity thesis advanced in this paper. Bolt, after all, never praises More for equating the self with soul (in the Christian sense), nor is it likely that he agrees with More on that doctrine. It is not More the Christian believer whom Bolt lauds, but More the guardian of the self…. The only factor of interest to Bolt and to us is the outlook which More and the Common Man share. And here the play's evidence is incontrovertible: each has something called a "self," and means to keep it.

A further difficulty can be posed, but in the end it only strengthens my thesis. The Common Man is a great clothes changer. Does not his role-wizardry make him a symbol of the man who has no self at all, the man laminated out of endless external layers, an Anyface with no abiding self-core? I think not. Rather, it makes the distinction between the Common Man's outer skin and inner self more vivid. His character is consistent throughout the play; he is no polyschizoid. Whatever his costume, he is the same canny, conniving, self-interested man…. Surely the ardent Carlyleian or Swiftian could find clothes-philosophy operating with More as well: when he appears in cassock, and is stripped of it …; when he assumes the Chancellor's chain of office, and relinquishes it …; when he ends in prisoner's rags in the Tower; when he takes off his hat at the scaffold. Even the circumstances of his living quarters change: rich house, poor house, prison. In all these fluctuations of fortune, More remains as constant as Job. (pp. 186-87)

Bolt has used every artistic device feasible within the limits of a two-act play to model the features of a (supposedly) minor character on those of its central figure. The Preface, by refraining from overt reference to this fact, establishes itself as a quasi-integral part of the artist's work. Had it revealed his intentions completely, it would have descended to the level of literary self-criticism. Indeed, any hint of the More-Common Man identification coming from outside of the play proper would have nullified one of the play's essential features: the demand for audience recognition. For Bolt intends to evoke a triple recognition: of ourselves as the Common Man, of the Common Man as More, and (therefore) of ourselves as More.

The theme of recognition in A Man For All Seasons has further implications if we consider Bolt's acknowledged debt to Bertolt Brecht's theater of alienation…. In this genre the audience is reminded by startling contrivances of its distance from the action. It watches from the outside, deprived of involvement with the players. The use of an actor like the Common Man, who addresses the audience and comments on the action, is a typical alienation device. But Bolt says quite plainly in the Preface … that the Common Man is meant to draw the audience into the play by addressing it "in character." What Bolt is preferring to alienation is recognition. He challenges the audience with the ancient "know thyself." (p. 187)

If a man truly knows himself—and Bolt thinks the "rueful notes of recognition" … were few—he will discover himself in the Common Man. And if he is able to see that the Common Man and More actually exemplify the same attitude, he will see himself in More, and More in himself. If, happily, this occurs, he may have taken another step toward the Receding God. (p. 188)

Anselm Atkins, "Robert Bolt: Self, Shadow, and the Theater of Recognition," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1967, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. 10, No. 2, September, 1967, pp. 182-88.

Mollie Panter-Downes

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[Another] play about Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth may not have struck anyone as an exhilarating prospect, but Mr. Bolt has succeeded in bringing off [in "Vivat! Vivat Regina!"] a double portrait that is extremely distinguished, convincing, and as brilliantly fresh as though he and we were looking at his sitters for the first time…. The curious love-hate relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is well brought out—scornful on Mary's side, half wistful on Elizabeth's. (pp. 160-61)

Mollie Panter-Downes, "Letter from London," in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 39, November 14, 1970, pp. 158, 160-63.∗

Henry Hewes

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[Vivat! Vivat Regina!] sets out to demonstrate Bolt's reasonable contention that Queen Elizabeth I gradually abandoned vivaciousness to become a marvelously skillful head of state, while her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, turned into a richly human woman as she lost her political battle….

The character transformation works better for Elizabeth than for Mary. Although the "Virgin Queen" is predisposed toward coldness by her unhappy childhood with no mother and a father who disowned her, in her early scenes with Robert Dudley we nevertheless feel that she might have bloomed more fully if that romance had not been blighted by his fickleness and her royal obligations….

Mary, on the other hand, appears a carnal woman from the start, and the episodes of the play prove this point repeatedly…. It is a defect of the play that it remains unclear as to whether a less amorous Mary might not have been able to outmaneuver Elizabeth.

But Vivat! has a number of theatrical virtues. First of all, there is Bolt's way of making history seem modern by introducing realistic details not found in some history books….

Then there is Bolt's wit. When Cecil asks Elizabeth if she wants him to say what he thinks or what she wants to hear, she replies capriciously, "Oh, Cecil, can they never be the same?"…

And finally, there is Bolt's dramatic sense. He can, for instance, get great fun out of having Elizabeth dictate instantly a decision that she claims to have arrived at through "long thought and anxious prayer." He knows how to make startling a deliberate understatement at the climax of a scene. He has found an ingenious way to bring home the truth to Elizabeth by the indirect device of having Cecil tell her all the things Mary was not ("worthy, thoughtful, self-denying, diligent, prepared"). And one admires his nerve when he has Mary discard her black cloak and go to her death in a red nightie. (p. 62)

That we tend to be intrigued and amused more than we are moved by Vivat!'s unabashed use of theatricality suggests that Bolt's storytelling scheme here is less effective than the one he used in A Man for All Seasons. But his insight into both stories may be equally profound, and his behind-the-throne glimpses make spiffy theater. (p. 63)

Henry Hewes, "Queensmanship," in Saturday Review (© 1972 Saturday Review Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. LV, No. 7, February 12, 1972, pp. 62-3.∗

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