Robert Bolt began his career in drama as a writer of radio plays for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), starting in 1953 with The Master, a play about the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages. He wrote sixteen scripts for the BBC, including eight for children. The first version of A Man for All Seasons was broadcast as a radio drama in 1954, and his very first production on the legitimate stage, The Last of the Wine, originated as a radio script a year earlier.
Bolt’s most noteworthy achievements outside the legitimate theater, however, were as a screenwriter. He worked with the renowned British director David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia, creating a screenplay based on T. E. Lawrence’s own writings. The film received the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1962, and Bolt’s scenario received a special award from the British Film Academy. His adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, another script written for Lean, won an Oscar for the Best Screenplay of 1965, an honor repeated in 1966 when Bolt adapted his own play, A Man for All Seasons (directed by Fred Zinnemann). The film version also earned for Bolt the British Film Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award in 1966. His next project was an original treatment of Ryan’s Daughter for Lean in 1970. In 1972, he wrote and directed Lady Caroline Lamb, based on the life of the mistress of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous English poet.
In the 1980’s, Bolt concentrated on screenplays, teleplays, and adaptations, notably The Mission (1986; starring Robert De Niro), Nostromo (an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, with Christopher Hampton, which was not completed), and Without Warning (1991), based on the life of James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was disabled by a would-be presidential assassin’s bullet in 1981.
Robert Bolt earned the reputation of being a serious dramatist whose sense of stagecraft made him popular with theater audiences. Critics also recognized his talent for structure and his concern with language from the time of his appearance in the West End theaters of London with Flowering Cherry in 1957. This play, a popular and critical success during its 435 performances at the Haymarket Theatre, won for him the Evening Standard Drama Award for Most Promising Playwright of that year. Although Bolt launched his career in the heyday of the Angry Young Men, when playwrights as diverse as John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Arden, and Arnold Wesker challenged the then reigning conventions of English theater, he was never associated with the avant-garde. In fact, Bolt deliberately rejected many features of the new drama while responding to those influences that he could accommodate to his traditional aesthetic.
Bolt’s own statements about his approach to his art reflected his conviction that conventional dramatic structure, with a clearly articulated plot and an organic unity, not only satisfied the legitimate expectations of the audience but also provided an effective vehicle “for conveying delicate but immediate insights.” He compared highly conventional theater, “where both sides of the footlights understand thoroughly what’s going on,” to a taut drumskin that resounds at the lightest tap. “Take away these conventions and you find yourself with a slack drumskin; you’ve got to jump up and down on it before you get even the slightest tinkle.” Bolt also maintained that the slice-of-life dramatists who allow the audience to supply play endings use the theater “as a therapeutic rather than dramatic medium.”
Bolt’s earliest dramas were traditional well-crafted plays, largely naturalistic in approach, with a fourth-wall style of dramaturgy. Even as early as Flowering Cherry, however, Bolt was striving to break out of the purely naturalistic mode while maintaining a clear, unified structure. A Man for All Seasons realizes these ambitions. This play established Bolt as one of the most popular playwrights in the London theater, running more than nine months in London and enjoying an even longer New York run of more than a year and a half, starting in November, 1961. Despite some demurrers such as the influential critic Kenneth Tynan, the drama won widespread critical acclaim. Robert Corrigan was among those who considered A Man for All Seasons “one of the finest achievements of the modern theatre.” Jerry Tallman of The Village Voice could think of no play that had surpassed it in almost forty years for dramatic tension, structure, meaning, and language. The stage version received two American drama awards in 1962: the Tony Award of the American Theatre Wing for the best play of that year and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best foreign play.
Carpenter, Gerald. “Robert Bolt: Drama of the Threatened Self.” American Film: Magazine of the Film and Television Arts 14 (September, 1989): 60-62. Reviews seven films written by Bolt under several directors (he directed Lady Caroline Lamb himself). Carpenter finds The Mission, with Robert DeNiro and directed by Roland Joffe, the most successful film.
Griffiths, Trevor R. “Robert (Oxton) Bolt.” In British and Irish Dramatists Since World War II, Second Series, edited by John Bull. Vol. 233 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. A brief overview of Bolt’s life and works.
Gritten, David. “Writing for His Life.” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1991, p. CAL4. Written in conjunction with the presentation of the television film Without Warning, this essay notes the similarities between Bolt’s recovery from a stroke and James Brady’s recovery from the shooting.
Hayman, Ronald. Robert Bolt. London: Heinemann, 1969. The first book-length study of Bolt’s work, devoting six chapters to single plays and adding two interviews, the first biographical. Bolt stated that the volume was “certainly the most immediate and penetrating comment” on his work.
McInery, John M. “The Mission and Robert Bolt’s Drama of Revolution.” Literature/Film Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1987). Addresses Bolt’s film work.
Rusinko, Susan. British Drama, 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Rusinko places Bolt among the traditionalists, “a craftsman in the tradition of the well-constructed play middle-class audiences have come to expect.” Contains a discussion of the controversy between critic Kenneth Tynan and Bolt regarding the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons.
Turner, Adrian. Robert Bolt: Scenes from Two Lives. London: Hutchinson, 1998. A biography of Bolt that examines his life as a dramatist and screenwriter. Includes a bibliography and an index.
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