Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

Sir Thomas More

The staging of the play was minimal, leaving the setting to the audience’s imagination, and with changes of scene achieved mainly by means of lighting.

The last scene was especially powerful—More ascending the steps of the scaffold, with the lights gradually turning down until the stage is dark, then a drum roll that is suddenly cut off.

Then the shout, “Behold the head of a traitor!”

The Common Man said,  “I’m breathing.  Are you breathing?  It’s nice, isn’t it,” and I realized that I and probably most of the rest of the audience had been holding our breaths.

I remember this vividly, even though it was more than 50 years ago.

Robert Bolt also wrote the script for the movie version of A Man for All Seasons, which was good, but not as powerful as the play.

The movie’s costumes, stage sets and pageantry made it more of a historical reenactment and less of a story for all time.

Paul Scofield was good as Sir Thomas More, but Leo McKern was not menacing enough to be Thomas Cromwell.

Robert Bolt

I understood at the time, and understand even better now, that the real Thomas More was not exactly like the character in the play.

He is presented as a person who valued the right of conscience above all, while the loyalty of the real Sir Thomas was to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, made Cromwell out to be a realist about the limits of the possible and More a dangerous religious fanatic, which I enjoyed, but I think is further from the truth than Bolt’s play.

More did hate, persecute and interrogate heretics, but he denied having anyone tortured or sentencing anyone to death for their religious beliefs.

The thing to remember is that people in former eras divided along different lines than they do today.   People in the 16th century would see no contradiction between More being a humane lover of learning and More being a hater of heresy.

Robert Bolt himself once faced a dilemma similar to More’s.

In 1961, he was arrested, along with other members of Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100, for conspiring to conduct an illegal protest demonstration against British nuclear weapons.   He was offered his liberty if he would sign a statement swearing to keep the peace, which he refused to do.

After a month in jail, however, he was told by the producer and director of the forthcoming movie, Lawrence of Arabia, that the movie would have to be abandoned if Bolt did not finish writing the script, which he could not do in jail.  Bolt accepted that argument and signed a peace bond to get out of jail.


OBITUARY: Robert Bolt by John Calder for The Independent, with a correction.

Sir Thomas More: saint or sinner? by Peter Stanford for The Telegraph.

Sir Thomas More and the Heretics by John Guy for History Today.

More or less by Eamon Duffy for The Tablet.

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2 Responses to “Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’”

  1. philebersole Says:

    I have an e-mail list of people to whom I send notes on books I’ve read. I e-mailed a version of this post as one of those book notes. Here is a reply, which I reprint with permission.

    On Wed, May 17, 2017 at 8:01 PM, Howard Blair wrote:
    The fictional character was quite a guy.  The reality was someone who feared hell, and tortured and burned heretics to death.  By far, I prefer Thomas Cromwell, both in fiction and in fact as far as I know.  I think your judgement of Mantel’s novel below is inaccurate, but I am open to historical persuasion.

    Also, the duty to obey the law is questionable, and disobedience of the law is not as extreme as cutting down the law.  But there are times and places where even cutting down the law is a moral obligation: Germany (Nazi’s), China and especially Tibet (Maoist era), the United States (Indian Wars), Soviet Union (when not?).  I think we agree though that deliberate disobedience of the law is a matter of highest gravity.  (I’m still going to break speed limits; I guess I’m just evil, since I don’t think there is any morally compelling reason not to obey them.)

    I have a friend who is ’62 graduate of West Point and did 3 tours of duty in Vietnam ground combat operations rising from 1st Leut. to Leut Colonel.
    He was about to return to West Point as a Professor of Leadership with the rank of full Colonel when a friend of his was about to be promoted to Brig. General but was screwed over for political reasons my friend knew the backstory about.  He resigned his Commission in protest.  He is a today a psychotherapist and a devoted Buddhist contemplative.  He asked me once what I thought the military should have done, given the duty to obey the orders of the President.  I said, “mutiny”.  He was deeply offended, as perhaps you are.

    And finally: no one should subordinate his conscience to anything, and should not act against his conscience.  If that ultimately leaves us with moral chaos, we just have to live with it.


    • philebersole Says:

      This was my reply to the e-mail above.

      Date: Thu, May 18, 2017 at 10:06 AM
      Subject: Re: Book Note: Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

      Dear Howard:

      I am a great admirer of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which she says that the essence of totalitarianism is the absence of rules—that nobody is safe because nobody knows the rules to obey in order to be safe, and that nothing matters except the arbitrary will of the rulers.

      I think that applies precisely to the examples you set of the American Indians during the Manifest Destiny period and to the victims of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. It also applies to your other example, of the Army refusing to follow its own rules in making promotions. These were not examples of the rule of law, but of its absence.

      I think the idea of equal justice under law is fundamental. There can’t be one law for the white and another for the black, one law for the ruler and another for the ruled, one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and powerless.

      This is a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution. Even prior to the protections in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution forbid bills of attainder (punishments aimed at an individual rather than an act), ex post facto laws (punishments for actions that were legal at the time) and denial of the right of habeas corpus (the right of an accused to know just what law they are accused of breaking and why).

      While I think the principle of equal justice under law is fundamental, I do not claim that it is sufficient. Nor do I deny that, under certain circumstances, there can be a right or duty to disobey unjust laws. I also admit my view is grounded in the tradition of Anglo-American liberty, as embodied in Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the U.S. Constitution.


      As for Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, I lack the historical knowledge to make a firm judgment about their characters. They both served King Henry VIII of England, who was Stalin-like in his exercise of arbitrary power. But there were lines that More wouldn’t cross, and the same couldn’t be said of Cromwell.


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