If you have bought your own copy of AMFAS, you will notice, in those pages you must’ve wonderfully skipped over, that there is a Preface. And not just any Preface, a Preface written by the author.
The Preface handles everything your teachers will; it notes on Robert Bolt’s life and other dramas he’s written; his techniques for AMFAS, and symbolisms to look out for, in addition to the historical context in which the play is set.
Seriously, the Preface where it’s at. If your teachers haven’t pressed you to read it already, READ IT. I have some notes on it here, but nothing beats notes that you’ve made yourself.
The Historical Context of the Play
This piece of history is definitely well known so I’ll just say it with the ditty that my teachers taught my younger siblings:
had so many
wives who had to die.
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived!
In A Man for all Seasons, we are witness to the first transition: Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess, and the direct relative of the Spanish king, is about to be divorced. For the marriage to be properly annulled, King Henry VIII had to go to The Pope, who had given him dispersion to marry Catherine in the first place as she was his older brother’s wife. Catherine, although able to give birth to a daughter, (Bloody) Mary, had failed to produce a male heir. And knowing Medieval England, a Queen on the throne was unthinkable.
And although my history textbook makes the process look clean and simple, A Man for all Seasons describes in bloody detail the sweat put into making the Anglican Church to annul their marriage and to get out of debt to Rome.
You will read the A Man for all Seasons and realize that most of the conflict comes from his Catholic faith, and that the very context of the play is taken from a religious matter, divorce. However, in his Preface, Bolt makes it clear that he is not trying to present More as a Christian saint, but rather a saint of selfhood, a man “who knows where he begins and where he left off”. More, although taken from his society (Medieval England when being a Christian man meant being a churchman, and being a churchman equaled being Catholic) and his economic circumstances (born to the merchant class and rose to be a high ranking and well known scholar, i.e. he can read at a time when many people could not discern for themselves what the Bible said), Bolt “takes him out of context” to present him as an individual. He is not the sum total of his society and economy, but rather a man of character.
A Note on the Theatrical Elements of the Play
I find it ironic that when I finally decided to read the Preface, my brother was reading Albert Camus’ L’ÉTRANGER, a book about a sociopath that eventually gets arrested and executed. What would AMFAS have to do with a book about not feeling? Although Bolt never mention by name Camus’ book, he did mention what Camus’ work achieved: it gives “us is a sense of selfhood without the resort to magic.” In short, Monsieur Meursault is not special in any quality, but hero-like in his brutal honesty about himself. Camus had made a book where no one is inherently good or evil, and Bolt copies this style in the sense that no one in AMFAS is truly innocent, not even Thomas More. This is why it’s so difficult to answer the question: “Who is responsible for Thomas More’s death?” This is what Bolt was trying to achieve with Thomas More, and to a lesser extent, The Common Man.
Bolt also mentioned that he used a lot of metaphors surrounding the sea and dry land. The sea, the river, eddies, tides, currents, navigation, ships, and the heron (a water bird) all represent the shaky, unsure identity of each person. Dry land, the path, the falcon (a bird known for nesting in the mountains) and the garden represent society or in More’s words “Man’s law”. Bolt also mentions his previous “failures” at using the fourth wall in The Flowering Cherry and The Tiger and the Horse. He explains that the Common Man is “a bastardized version [of Bertolt Brecht’s device].” or as we know it, the alienation effect. He is intended to draw the audience into the play as a commenter and as an actor, however he “largely fails” in Bolt’s eyes as The Common Man is “harder [to describe] than a unicorn.”
Thanks for reading! If you have any ideas on the Preface, or just want to make my day, leave a comment below!