Robert Bolt Bolt, Robert - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert W. Corrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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J. C. Trewin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anselm Atkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mollie Panter-Downes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗


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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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