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October 31, 2005

Kenneth Minogue considers, did Robert Bolt get Sir Thomas More right? A Man for All Seasons - Robert Bolt

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons
directed by Michael Rudman, Martin Shaw as Sir Thomas More
Richmond Theatre, Richmond, London
24th - 29th October 2005

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
3rd January - 8th April 2006

Sir Thomas More was an enigma to his contemporaries, and he is little less mysterious to us. His Utopia was a perfect society of a rather puritan or socialist kind, and notably hostile to the institution of money, the transcending of which (More suggested) would also be the end of:

rapine, brawling, quarrelling, brabling [?], strife, chiding, contention, murder, treason, poisoning…
Making poverty history would be child's play compared to this ambition! A rather saintly figure, then (and of course later canonised) but also one who climbed to the top of the political tree in an age when dishonesty and deception were the rules of public life.

Robert Bolt's play has a title that makes for him the one claim that seems least plausible. He was certainly, in a sense, the man for that season, but not for all. He was indeed, as he himself put it:

the king's good servant, but God's first.
He could be rough on heretics in the King's name, and relentless in giving the Tudors a good name by blackening the last Plantagenets. But then he died a martyr, and it is this fate (no less than his authorship of Utopia and his friendship with Erasmus) that has dominated his posthumous reputation. In an age in which safety depended on doing lip service to the caprices of power, More couldn't quite bring himself to take the last easy step – the oath of supremacy.

And Bolt does not avoid the issue of what was at stake, for (as the devious Spanish ambassador is there to point out) More's resignation threatened to install him as the figurehead of the Catholic discontent simmering in the north that was to culminate in the Pilgrimage of Grace. More did not actually oppose the Oath, or anything else. He merely remained silent. But as Cromwell made clear at More's trial, there are many kinds of silence, and some of them are marvellously eloquent.

Bolt's project is to account for the fact that the King's good servant ended on the block. The easy way would have been to attribute to him a set of principles and a delicate conscience. But one of the most striking things about Bolt's More is that no such fragmentation of the personality is admitted. More knows quite well (as he shows in his conversations with Richard Rich and William Roper) that principles are things nearly as slippery and changeable as appetites; and as for conscience, a concept slowly emerging in his time, it might as easily function as an instrument of irresponsible dogmatism or even treason itself. More is a unified self in which conscience and principle have been absorbed into his essence. His Catholic faith is, quite simply, what he is, and it is unaffected by the fact that he does not regard the Popes of his time as morally serious guardians of Christianity. Therefore, finding himself sinking into a dangerous situation, his instinct was to play possum. That meant sticking to the letter of the law even at the cost of being recognised (as he was by Wolsey) as a moralistic prig.

The law is at the centre of his conception of Britain. Without law, he observes, a wind would blow across the country that would leave very little standing, and of course under Henry, the country was living through just such a time – perhaps the most despotic period in our history. More believed that the law could protect him: it would guarantee that, so long as he did nothing that might even suggest treason and resistance, he would be allowed to live, if not richly, at least in peace. But it is characteristic of despotism that silence is not enough. All must join in acclaim for the despot, and Bolt provides us with a marvellous scene in which the bully Henry, with his menacing changes of mood, descends on the More household in Chelsea for an informal visit. Henry needs More because of his reputation for integrity – precisely the characteristic that makes him an unsuitable instrument for the King. More understands the fact that the law, English Common Law and Statute, means the letter in which it is expressed, and not in what everybody else knows to be its "meaning".

A Man for all Seasons is, then, the story of a man caught in a trap, and using every device of his ingenious mind to avoid the accusation of treason that is closing in on him. He is out of his depth, but then so is everyone around him – none more so than his nemesis Thomas Cromwell, himself to end on the block five years later. The difference is that no one understands what More is up to, including his wife, as he appeals to her in a moving scene before his execution. He has kept his own counsel so long that he can hardly fully express what he is doing, and why. It is in the brilliance with which he conveys this that Martin Shaw's More is at the centre of an excellent production.

The Bolt-eye view of this tragedy is given by the "common man" who mutates from butler and prologue at the beginning to executioner at the end. Politics, this character seems to suggest, is a high risk game played for its excitement, but the business of the people is to swim with the current, and survive. Bolt thinks that most of us are like that, and More a "man for all seasons" because he is always needed if the moral life is to survive. It is a plausible view, but the historical evolution of Britain has always been (among other things) a dialogue between pragmatists and men of principle. Too much of either, and we should have become a very different country.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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The more (pardon the pun) one views or reads Bolt's Man for All Seasons, the more one sees personal virtue as a desirable goal for all people in public life, indeed, for all people, period.

Posted by: costello at January 29, 2007 01:43 AM
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