The playwright Robert Bolt was born in 1924 in Manchester, England. In 1941, he began working at an insurance agency. Later, he attended Manchester University, served in the Royal Air Force, and fought in World War II. After the war, Bolt worked in England as a schoolteacher until 1958, when his play Flowering Cherry met with success and critical acclaim. He wrote A Man for All Seasons in 1960, and the play was mounted on the London stage that same year and in New York in 1961. Bolt went on to write the screenplays for director David Lean’s famous films Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965). He adapted A Man for All Seasons for director Fred Zinnemann in 1966, and he won Oscars for both Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons.
Bolt begins his preface to A Man for All Seasons by announcing that the story on which he bases his play is well known. In 1509, King Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragón (Spain), thereby cementing his then-tenuous alliance with Spain. The pope granted Henry a dispensation (an exemption from Catholic law) to allow this illegal union between a man and his brother’s widow. The couple then attempted to produce an heir. Unfortunately for Henry and everyone else involved, the couple had no success producing a male offspring, and in any case, the king had become enamored of the lusty and presumably more fertile Anne Boleyn. Henry therefore sought to overturn the pope’s previous dispensation in order to annul his marriage to Catherine and enable him to marry Anne. Citing Leviticus 18—“Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife”—Henry requested a second dispensation from the pope, this time for a divorce from Catherine. Henry argued that Catherine’s inability to produce a male child proved that their marriage was wrong. When Pope Clement VII refused to dispense with his previous dispensation and allow the divorce, Henry dismissed his adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, who then died of heart complications. Henry then appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England in 1529.
Meanwhile, Henry and his associate Thomas Cromwell enacted legislation to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church in England. As soon as the pope assented to Henry’s appointment of Thomas Crammer as Archbishop of Canterbury, Crammer quickly authorized Henry’s divorce and remarriage. As a result, Henry was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. In 1534, Parliament enacted the Act of Supremacy, which established Henry as the head of the Church in England and eliminated the authority of the pope.
Sir Thomas More, who was born in London on February 7, 1477, was beheaded on July 6, 1535, for failing to swear to Henry’s oath of supremacy. For his courage and commitment, More was sainted on May 19, 1935. A humanist and a friend to Erasmus, More was also author of Utopia (1516), a novel that pictured an ideal society founded solely on reason. More was a true Renaissance man, “a man for all seasons.”
Following the standard historical account, Bolt discusses his interest in the subject matter and some of the important philosophical questions at hand. He begins by dismissing the modern tendency to analyze texts according to socioeconomic trends—such as from the prospective of progressive economy or conservative religion. This type of analysis, explains Bolt, focuses on the power of social forces rather than on human beings as individual agents. Ultimately, Bolt disapproves of this type of interpretation because he believes it is important to see conflicts as collisions between human beings, not just systems. He prefers to hold the individuals in his play accountable for their actions. Moreover, Bolt argues that looking at history as the interaction of large-scale, abstract forces, such as religion and economy, robs us not only of agency but also of identity. We begin to use social categories to describe an individual, so that the answer to the question “What am I?” becomes a statement of someone’s material and social circumstances.
Bolt says he is uninterested in the influence socioeconomic forces and trends may have had over More. Instead, citing Albert Camus’s treatment of his protagonists as an inspiration for his own depiction of More, Bolt renders More with a stable and centered self-image. Bolt was attracted to what he interpreted as More’s “adamantine,” or unyielding, “sense of his own self.” Bolt explains that the conflict in his play hinges on More’s need to make a decision when he is asked to swear an oath against the Catholic Church. Because Catholicism is something More believes in, Bolt argues, Catholicism is something that More essentially is.
To justify his interpretation, Bolt outlines the difference between what an oath meant to More and what it might mean to us today. Whereas modern audiences might view the oath More was asked to swear as a symbolic or ritual exercise, More saw it as an “invitation to God” to judge More. These days, Bolt writes, when someone takes an oath, he or she usually provides a guarantee in the form of cash, but for Thomas More, an oath was a contract in which More was his own collateral. His own life, his own soul, depended upon whether he kept his word.
Bolt claims to be writing against the grain of contemporary theater as well as against the grain of contemporary historical study. Specifically, Bolt explains that his style is a “bastardized version” of the theatrical technique called alienation, which was conceived by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brechtian alienation was a highly didactic method of encouraging (and sometimes forcing) the audience to think about the characters and the message presented on the stage, rather than simply viewing theater as entertainment. According to Brecht, the convention of alienation discourages audiences from identifying with the characters on the stage. However, as Bolt notes, Brecht did not always follow his own didactic technique. In A Man for All Seasons, Bolt says he wishes to engage his audience not by slapping it in the face, but by creating an “overtly theatrical” piece that involves the audience while providing enough distance for critical reflection. Bolt explains that his attempt at alienation in the play comes by way of the character named the Common Man, who periodically addresses the audience and comments on the action, encouraging the audience to identify with him as both a thinker and a participant in the action of the play.