“Your conscience is your own affair; but you are a statesman!”
"When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos."
Sir Thomas More may indeed be a “man for all seasons,” but there is no season quite like the political and moral climate of the elections to contemplate this early-modern statesman, humanist scholar, and “hero of selfhood.” No doubt, Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company took this into consideration in their revival, this fall, of Robert Bolt’s 1960 classic, A Man for All Seasons.
Indeed, one can draw many lessons from More and his circumstances. Quoting from the play’s preface, a playbill note reminds us, with an irony Bolt did not intend, that we are peering into “an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice.” And then there is the struggle of the politician facing laws “repugnant to God” and his Church, but surrounded by the concession and persuasion of his colleagues.
The strength of Bolt’s script and Doug Hughes’ direction is that neither turns the play into a lecture on politics. Instead, we see the story of More’s life in his own time, allowed to speak for itself. Hanging before the set, in place of a curtain, is a large copy of Hans Holbein the Younger’s study for The Thomas More Family, a rough sketch not unlike the vague, monochrome picture of More that most of the audience carries into the theater. Behind Holbein’s picture looms a post-and-beam skeleton of a house, which serves as the production’s single set. The costumes, like the set, give us enough to know that we are in Tudor England, but they do not steal the show.
For the aim of Bolt’s play is to color and shade, with dialogue and expression, the audience’s mental sketch of Thomas More. The plot unfolds as we watch More, played by Frank Langella, encountering those who love him and those who oppose him, and in the play’s most heart-rending scenes those two are the same.
More’s wife Alice, played by Maryann Plunkett, and daughter Margaret, played by Hannah Caball, are dragged through hell with him, and both capture their characters’ incomprehension of the man they love so well. “I am faint when I think of the worst that they may do to me,” utters More to Alice in the climactic prison scene. “But worse than that would be to go with you not understanding why I go.” Her angered protestations dissolve into consolation: “As for understanding, I understand you're the best man that I ever met or am likely to; and if you gowell, God knows why I supposethough as God's my witness, God's kept deadly quiet about it!”
Then there are the characters who understand More’s silence only too well. Michel Gill and Jeremy Strong portray the Duke of Norfolk and Richard Rich, whose pliancy stands in sharp contrast with More’s conviction. Patrick Page’s Henry VIII is full of charm, intelligence, and energy. His goatee gives him the aura of a young investment banker lining up the pieces for a major acquisition, unwilling to admit any impediments. And then there is Zach Grenier as Thomas Cromwell, the master accuser, and in that sense a deeply satanic character. With persistent malice he plots and lays traps, waiting for More to fall or cave.
But More does neither. He begins with the stride of a statesman and ends with the shuffle of a prisoner, yet throughout he is a bulwark against concession and shallow appeasement. Frank Langella’s hefty frame and rich baritone realize More’s character in a physical way: Almost always the largest man on stage, Langella draws to himself all the energy in the house. He towers over his fellow actors, visually depicting the might of integrity in the face of moral compromise.
For Bolt’s protagonist is, from first to last, a man of conscience. “Now explain how you as Councillor of England can obstruct those measures for the sake of your own, private, conscience,” Cardinal Wolsey challenges More, furious at his refusal to support the King’s proposed divorce. More’s answer is simple: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” Conscienceconscience well formed, that isdoesn't merely supersede public law and duty; it reveals a higher law and man’s all-encompassing duty.
This duty cannot be reduced to the all-too-common glorification of bad instinct and worse whim. The dictum “Be true to yourself,” Thomas More knows well, frequently leads to self-betrayal and social disorder. Instead, the ultimate duty is to be true to reality, true to truth. To stand fast, even, as More tells his daughter, “at the risk of being heroes.”
Unfortunately, Bolt’s enthusiasm for the uncompromised conscience and the undying individualthe “hero of selfhood”sometimes engulfs the more humble and rooted More of history. “This isn't ‘Reformation,’ this is war against the Church!” Bolt’s More emphatically declares after the bishops have succumbed to the King’s Supremacy. “The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is. . . . Why, it's a theory, yes; you can't see it; can't touch it; it's a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it's true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it . . . I trust I make myself obscure?” “Perfectly” replies his sometime friend, the Duke of Norfolk. One gets the feeling that Bolt, like Norfolk, doesn't fully understand the man before him.
Yet the conviction behind More’s obscurity is illuminated by a few poignant interchanges, in which the mantle of the clever lawyer and steel armor of the self fall momentarily away. It is in being true to the higher law, even when it seems utterly inexpedient and practically irrational, that More proves most true to himself: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers thenhe needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them.” “But in reason!” cries his daughter, scanning the dank prison. “Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” “Well . . . finally,” he replies, “it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
More’s words here are staid and simple, but among the profoundest of the play. Not all agree. “A Man for All Seasons turns the extraordinary into the ordinary,” writes John Lahr in the New Yorker’s review of the Hughes production. And that, he suggests, is precisely its fault. It is ordinary, not in the sense that it aggrandizes the audience or familiarizes the protagonist, making More’s struggle and suffering akin to that of everyday humanity. Instead, it turns the whole strange historical moment into a undistinguished comic-book tale.
“Caricature, not character, is the play’s idiom,” Lahr derides, and New York Times critic Ben Brantley agrees: “Mr. Bolt’s scriptwhich clearly and intelligently outlines Henry VIII’s epochal war with the Roman Catholic Church over matters maritalneglects to include several essential ingredients for a compelling dramatic hero. Like conflict, doubt, vacillation, and change.” In short, More is just too good, with hagiography overshadowing the blemishes that make ordinary man such an awe-full piece of work.
If these criticisms are true, it is certainly wise of the current Broadway production to mimic the film version and remove the character of the Common Mana Brechtian figure, reminiscent of a Greek chorus. Without even a name or proper costume, just a basket of hats letting him assume any role from steward to executioner, he would only augment the mundanely fantastic, comic-book feel of the play.
And yet, his quotidian face and wry remarks are exactly what is needed, exactly what the critics sense to be missing. “The Sixteenth Century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all other centuries,” remarks that not-impartial character. In his preface, Bolt unpacks what he means: “The proper effect of alienation is to enable the audience reculer pour mieux sauter, to deepen, not to terminate, their involvement in the play.” To this end, Bolt employs the “most notorious of all alienation devices, an actor who addresses the audience and comments on the action.” An actor, in short, who makes the audience deepen their engagement and even see themselves.
It is true that More’s character doesn’t quiver in foggy doubt, much less flow with the royal tides. His dramatic identity revolves around his steadfastness, but that does not mean there is no conflict or development. The Common Man functions to put us on stage alongside More, whether as steward, publican, or perplexed observer. “The likes of me can hardly be expected to follow the process of a man like that,” he says ruefully after one of More’s particularly convoluted musings. Reasoned reflection, he thinks, is a bore and a bother.
The audience might well chuckle at his scantily-veiled jibes and grumbles. “Old Adam’s muffled up,” the Common Man complains at the start, wishing he could play his role in blessed nakedness. But as the play goes along, his character transforms in at least some eyes. Though he may never be found “in the stalls, among his fashionable detractors and defenders,” Bolt writes, “ in the laughter this character drew down from the gallery. . . . I thought I heard once or twice a rueful note of recognition.” The Common Man changes in the audience’s sightor their sight is changed by the Common Man.
Although the Hughes production loses this Brechtian mirror, it doesn’t completely forget the element of personal confrontation: More, at his trial, is seated facing the audience, whom Norfolk and Cromwell address as the jury. “Is it my place to say ‘good’ to the State’s sickness?” More asks them to ask themselves. “Can I help my King by giving him lies when he asks for truth? Will you help England by populating her with liars?”
The Common Man of Bolt’s script escapes with his head. “I’m breathing. . . . Are you breathing too?” he asks, as he stands alone before the execution block after the ax and lights have fallen. “It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friendsjust don’t make troubleor if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.” Bowing his head in modest goodbye, he adds, “If we should bump into one another, recognize me.” Some don’t have to look too far for recognition, to find the play’s conflict not in the vacillations or soliloquies of Morefor there are nonebut in the musings of their own minds.
“Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,” mutters the rueful Hamlet, unable to kill either the King or himself. One can imagine the ghost’s Wolseyian retort: “Your conscience is your own affair; but you are a statesman!” If the Thomas More of Bolt’s play and of history is right, however, it is not conscience that makes cowards, but reveals them.
It is conscience that makes men“even at the risk of being heroes.”
Amanda Shaw and Nathaniel Peters are assistant editors of First Things.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's A Man for All Seasons
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
"Saints and Sinners" by John Lahr, New Yorker
"Martyr Me a Little (the Perils of Thomas)" by Ben Brantley, New York Times