Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons continues to take the world by storm after almost a thousand performances since 1960. For a historical play, a play about William Shakespeare’s era at that, this is amazing. It follows our two titular men for all seasons, Thomas More and The Common Man as Thomas More is trialed and beheaded for his “crimes” against the King. I believe that A Man for All Seasons continues to be popular today because of the depth and complexity of these characters, and for its themes in integrity (the conscience vs. convenience), the individual and corruption.
“[The] Century of the Common Man…like all centuries” needs someone that is as coarse, as witty, and as selfish as Matthew the Steward, also known as The Boatman, the Jailer, the Executioner, and of course, the Common Man. He is what we are. Through Matthew, Robert Bolt tries to achieve Brecht’s alienation effect, though we as the audience can tell that “[The Common Man] largely fails” in “thrusting the audience off the play.” No one can watch or read the prelude of the Common Man and not fall into the play’s line-work. The Common Man is our guilty pleasure as a jester, actor and a commenter. He slips easily and effortlessly into many disguises, keeping his personality and his “true master” intact with every change. He, although a character with feelings and motives, is also a symbol of not only the common people but also of selfishness. Matthew is a man who is only trying to make a way for himself, not as a way to express himself, but to keep himself alive. As he says to the audience, breathlessly in the alternate ending of the play: “It’ isn’t difficult to keep alive friends…just don’t make trouble.”
Thomas More is both his foil and antithesis. He is what we wish to be. As the Common Man is the threshold for human dignity, More is the paragon of integrity. He is jovial and even wittier than the Common Man, although more cautious and world weary. As a classmate of mine had commented, “More is the standard to which all other men bow.” He says what he will do and never misses the beat, even if it means missing his head. His challenge of the oath, although a quiet and reserved one, is what many us hope to be willing to do for our own beliefs. Robert Bolt “[treated] Thomas More, a Christian Saint, as a hero of selfhood” whose reasons for refusing to swear the oath was as pure and as tepid as his reasons for serving the law: “[It matters not that] I believe it, but that I believe it.” In the play, More reminds me of Jesus Christ in the way that no other character can fully understand him or live up to his level of dignity. It is in this way that he never ceases to astound the audience with his pose and grace, and his unshakable integrity even in moments of fear and regret.
The play champions More’s integrity and moral conscience. Bolt masterfully reenacts the making of a saint by contrasting his black and white morals to the various shades of gray around him. As Bolt says: “[More] knows where he ends and where he begins.” It’s refreshing for an audience to see an actor that know who he is, what he stands for and why he’s the hero without them having to constantly break the fourth wall or be crudely anticipated to “save the day”.
Personally, I love A Man for All Seasons because while it values the importance of religion in a person’s life, it does not make religion a centerpiece within a person’s character. As far as the play tells us, all the characters were varying degrees of “Christian” be it Catholic or Anglican. Their religion however was not responsible for their personality, as Robert Bolt said himself in the Preface. A Man for All Seasons champions a person’s individual behavior as their own and only their own. Whether they are better off as “a live rat than a dead lion” is up entirely for the audience to decide, which draws us in more. We must be alert to answer who is the villain, who is the rival, and who is the hero. Although we immediately find a hero in Thomas More, as the play progresses we continue to question who is the bad guy and ask ourselves, “who is truly evil and the cause of Thomas’ death?” It ensures that each character acts the way they do not because of a predetermined chess game but as people, making the play all the more dramatic.
The ability of the play to be dramatically effective all the time also makes it timeless. It prevents most people from wanting to learn about Thomas More’s death as any other historical figure’s death in a history lesson, and drags them to the seats of their nearest theatre. One can imagine by reading the script how every prop from the goblet to the Common Man’s basket herald an ancient time. One can see the decadence in ever step of each of the actors. With the exception of the Common Man’s dress, the cast dress too richly to be servants of the state. I especially was amused when Richard Rich showed up in his robes of Wales. The play is dramatically effective also because it is amusing. I laughed aloud at times when the Common Man, Thomas More and even Alice spoke. The cast makes this play less heavy-handed and dreary and more of a classic epic.
One of these days, I will go and watch A Man for all Seasons on the original Globe Theatre stage and marvel personally at how Robert Bolt’s modern classic continues to capture the imagination. Until then, I will continue to reread his script for an enjoyable afternoon.