A Man For All Seasons: Essay Q&A

Did Bolt portray the life of Sir Thomas More accurately?

In his Preface, Bolt says he was not interested in More as a religious martyr but in More as a hero of individual conscience. He portrays More as the ideal humanist who thinks for himself. He explains that he wants to draw the lessons that interest a modern audience. The integrity of Sir Thomas More can be admired from many angles. For instance, More is read today by socialists for his ideas of common ownership in his book, Utopia, and by Catholics as a canonized saint for defending the Catholic Church. More’s contemporary, Robert Whittington, coined the phrase “A Man for all Seasons” in 1522 to describe More’s multi-faceted but reliable character: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning . . . a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
Bolt does not emphasize the More who was a conservative trying to preserve the Catholic Church against the inroads of Protestantism, but the man who stood for English law against tyranny. More had debated with Martin Luther in pamphlets and hated the breakdown of social order he felt Lutheranism and other Protestant sects represented. He stood for the old medieval unity of the Catholic Church on the one hand, at the same time he embraced rational reform through the humanist ideal of examining all ideas through reason. In one sense, Henry could be seen as the modern ruler who gave birth to English Protestantism and nationalism, while More was the conservative holding on to the old order. Bolt chooses, however, to see Henry as the old-fashioned tyrant and More as the modern rationalist. What he likes about More is that he is not led by others and creates a model of individual liberty. Bolt does not distort the facts of More’s life but highlights his own interpretation of the man through a series of confrontational vignettes. He refutes the idea that More is only a religious martyr, for his heroism appeals to all freedom-loving people.

What political philosophies are embedded in the play?

In the first scene it comes out that Richard Rich is reading the philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) whose most famous work, The Prince (1532), was both admired and reviled in More’s time. Machiavelli lived in Florence, Italy, in a time of war and political turmoil. He observed what he felt were certain pragmatic qualities of rulers who could create stability, the bottom line for him in good statesmanship. In order to create and maintain a stable state, a ruler should have the public image of being fair to his people, but may resort to fear, cruelty, and manipulation to achieve his ends. He must have a strong army and not be afraid to use force to gain respect and control. Force and prudence must be combined in successful rule. The main criterion for political action for him was expediency, or what is practical at the moment to achieve one’s ends, rather than idealism, or what is right. Machiavelli was felt to be immoral by many thinkers at the time because religion and ethics did not play a part in his advice to rulers. Today, however, he is honored as the first pragmatic political scientist, and his treatises on how republics work (Discourses on Livy, 1513-1517) are more characteristic of the value of his total work. Cromwell in the play is also a student of Machiavelli and takes seriously the darker advice about using any means to achieve his ends. He takes delight in torturing and intimidating and using fear to subdue others, as when he puts Rich’s hand in the candle flame. All the allusions to “every man has his price” and ruling by what is expedient instead of living by principles constitutes the Machiavellian side of political philosophy in the play.
The other side of the argument is represented by More in the play and by the work of the historical Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1516). Utopia presents an ideal society where the citizens are virtuous through reason, not force. There is no private ownership and everyone is taken care of, so there is little or no crime. The people are all educated and have time to use their intellects and reason, thus raising them above a mere animal life of survival. They eschew war and embrace religious tolerance. In his book, More criticizes the way European nations were ruled with brutality, but to avoid censure, he sets up the book as a debate between the ideal and the real. He does not officially advocate one or the other but presents a rational alternative to violence for the reader to consider. The rational ideal, embodied in religion and the law of the land, is the side that More in the play embraces and demonstrates in his rebellion against the violent methods of Henry’s administration. More is not portrayed as a religious fanatic, but as a reasonable man who simply cannot say yes to someone else having sovereignty over his conscience or ruling him through fear.

What kind of a ruler was Henry VIII?

Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) was the second monarch of the Tudor line, succeeding his father, Henry VII. The Wars of the Roses (1455 and 1485), a feudal civil war that pitted one dynasty against another (the Lancastrians and Yorkists), was resolved by the victory of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), a Lancastrian. The fear that such wars would break out again without Henry having a legitimate male heir is mentioned by Wolsey in the play and was a real fear, the kind of instability that Machiavelli referred to in The Prince. Certainly Henry felt no qualms about using any methods to achieve his end of securing his dynasty. Although he is known for his excesses (six wives, executing rivals and those who disagreed, persecution of Protestants, sacking and dissolving the monasteries, excessive spending of the wealth inherited from his father, dissolute behavior), he began to fashion the modern state of England by setting up a national church free of Rome (the Church of England), founding the Royal Navy, and by politically joining England and Wales. Henry was a Renaissance Man, a man educated in the new ideas of humanist rationalism, exemplified in his friend, Sir Thomas More. Henry’s court sparkled with scholars and artists and glamour.  He was an accomplished musician, author, and poet. He was known for his dedication to religion, and his early treatise in Latin, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, won him a title from the Pope, Defender of the Faith. He excelled at sports and hunting. These abilities are brought out in the play, largely by Henry himself at the scene in Chelsea, where he boasts to Margaret. More had been the friend of Henry, admired for his wisdom and wit and honesty. As Lord Chancellor, More co-operated at first with Henry’s effort to get a divorce, but the more Henry attacked the Pope, the faster More backed away. The Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament in 1534 declared that the King was “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England,” and it became treason to go against it. The play records More’s attempts to stay clear of controversy, but his refusal to take the oath to support the Act of Succession in 1534 and vindicate the King with his writings, condemned him to the Tower. It is said there were 72,000 executions in Henry’s reign, including two of his wives.

What is existentialism and how did it influence Bolt’s view of his hero?

In his Preface Robert Bolt mentions that he chose to write about Thomas More as “a hero of selfhood” (p. xiv). He mentions that “Albert Camus is a writer I admire in this connection” (p. xiv). Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French author and philosopher of existentialism and absurdism. In his writings (The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus) he developed the idea of a universe benignly indifferent to human concerns. Life has no inherent meaning except the meaning the individual constructs for him or herself. Life is not rational or fair: it appears absurd or arbitrary. This can produce anxiety, and this is why most people (like the unimaginative Norfolk) cling to convention and do not question their world. They prefer not to think. Camus’s vision of a world without meaning or a supervising God means humans are free to act as they will. Their chosen actions (such as More’s embracing death rather than do something he doesn’t believe in) may not produce an effect in the universe, but it is important to follow one’s own conscience and act “authentically,” or in good faith. It is a philosophy that does not make reference to God or to divine intervention. Humans create and define themselves on their own terms.
Bolt discusses More’s death in the Preface, questioning why he couldn’t perjure himself to save his life. There is the religious answer, that he believed he would damn his own soul, that he wanted to stand up for God. For Bolt, however,  who is not a religious person, More is an example to us who live in a time where individuality has almost been eradicated. “There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we ‘cannot bring ourselves’ to do,” he argues (p. xiv). In the play, Richard Rich says, “Every man has his price” (Act One, p. 4), meaning everyone can be tempted because few have convictions they are willing to stand up for. By standing up for what he believes in, even to the point of dying for it, More creates his own self, his boundaries, his integrity. More explains to Norfolk that he is not dying for an idea; what matters to him is that “I believe it” (Act Two, p. 91). This makes More an existential hero of a sort. He doesn’t claim to be a spokesman for God, but he, Thomas More, must act authentically, and thus create himself as an individual.

How did the staging techniques of Bertolt Brecht influence Bolt’s construction of this play?

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German poet, playwright, and director. He was a Marxist who used the theater as a forum for political ideas and experimented with avant-garde staging and language to produce certain effects. He invented an epic theatre in which the audience would not identify with characters but rather reflect on and criticize the drama of history. Not wanting the audience to leave the theater complacent, he avoided an emotional catharsis or vicarious resolution. The purpose was to arouse the audience at injustice. He used techniques that remind the spectator that they are watching a play, in order to get them to see that we are the ones who create our reality. Bolt uses some of these techniques.
In A Man For All Seasons, for instance, The Common Man is the device that brings us out of the illusion the theater creates. He is both the link between scenes and a character in the scenes. He suddenly steps forth and breaks the mood by changing from one character to another in front of the audience, or directly addresses it to make comments. He thus includes the audience in the making of the play and in the making of history. The famous people believe they are the only makers of history, but the Common Man reports they will soon be executed and out of the picture, breaking our suspense. In one stroke a Wolsey becomes a footnote and an item of gossip between the Common Man and the audience.
Bolt spends some time in the Preface discussing Brecht’s technique of “alienation” to shock his audience into awareness.  One of Brecht’s most important principles was defamiliarization, where something usually familiar on stage is made strange.  Brecht utilized actors directly speaking to the audience, or harsh lighting, or songs, or repeating the stage directions out loud. Bolt says in the Preface that he disagrees with Brecht that these techniques shock the audience into awareness by alienating them. He uses the Common Man for an opposite purpose, “to draw the audience in” (p. xix). His proof that it works is that the audience laughs in “a rueful note of recognition” (p. xx). In other words, it doesn’t feel critical of the injustice of others; it sees how we are involved in that injustice. The audience recognizes itself to be more like the Common Man than like Thomas More.