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Near the end of the first act of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England is on stage with his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and his future son-in-law, William Roper. Just leaving is Richard Rich, later to prove the mortal enemy who by perjury sends More to his death. Rich has aroused the suspicions of all, and Alice, Margaret, and Roper urge More to arrest him because be is a bad and dangerous man. More refuses, saying that Rich has broken no law. Exasperated, More's wife bursts out:
ALICE: While you talk, he's gone!
MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes. I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
Sir Howard Beale, the Australian ambassador to this country, took the late Mr. Justice Frankfurter to see Bolt's play in New York in 1962. Beale recounts that the Justice could scarcely contain his excitement during the scene just set out, and as it ended Frankfurter whispered in the dark. "That's the point, that's it, that's it!"
After this lengthy excursus, I can ask: is it the point? The point about the historic figure, More? The point about Bolt's More, as he is portrayed for us by Mr. Daniel Seltzer?
We have a man, More, to whom life had been kind. Vastly admired by his contemporaries for his wit and his learning, he had advanced far in the world of the height of his profession--Lord Chancellor of England and Keeper of the King's Conscience. Although he did not augment his income with bribes, as so many judges then did, he had enough to live more than comfortably. Some evidence suggests that the marriage to Alice (his second) was not wholly satisfactory (in a poem he refers to her as a shrew); but, all in all, Sir Thomas appears to have been as happy in his family as most men hope to be.
And then he sets aside office, finds himself imprisoned in the Tower and finally lays his head upon the executioner's block. The reasons are, of course, familiar--Henry VIII wished to marry Anne, the Pope would not agree with Henry that the royal marriage to Catherine was void; unable to put aside Catherine with the consent of the Pope, Henry put aside the Pope. More would not swear to the act of Succession, for it asserted the lawfulness of the King's acts--thus to the Tower. Falsely convicted of open denial of the King's supremacy over the Church, he loses his head. This much is familiar. But, we ask, why? Why does Sir Thomas follow the path of martyrdom that four hundred years later was to make him Saint Thomas? This is the question that Bolt explores in his splendid play and to which I muse essay an answer.
Bolt's answer, as I find it in his text and the reading of it by the Summer School Repertory Theater, is two-fold. First, More believes, almost to the last, that his lawyerly skill will preserve his neck. We find him replying to Roper's fears of an adversary. "He's not the Devil, son Roper, he's a lawyer! And my case is watertight!" Faced with the possibility of a test oath. More, good lawyer that he is, wants to see the statute--"But what is the wording?...It will mean what the words lay!...It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. Have we a copy of the Bill?" Enough laws are still planted in England. More thinks, for him to stand whatever winds may blow. The sources that tell us of More's life--his books, his letters, the life by son-in-law Roper, those by the mysterious "Ro: Ba:" and by Nicholas Harpsfield, the records of his trial, stray accounts of his execution--these sources show the truth of this view. A point it is, but not the point (nor did Mr. Justice Frankfurter think it was--his words were a comment on law, not on literature or history.
The second point that Bolt puts forward is More's insistence on the inviolacy of his conscience--he would not say that which he did not believe. And here is where I think Bolt goes wrong. More was a man of conscience and the motive Bolt ascribes to him was a strong one, but Bolt interprets this concept of conscience in an oddly modern way. We find Mr. Seltzer speaking often of "self" and endeavoring to explain his action. He speaks too of God, but I come away from text and performance feeling that this More's God is one Sir Thomas would not have recognized. Bolt gives us almost a Tillichian "ground of being," not the deity of A.D. 1535. When More on the scaffold protested that he "died the King's good servant, but God's first," he, I think, had a simpler more direct faith than Bolt has been able to find words for, a belief whose awful (in its original sense, if you please) intensity we can scarcely comprehend and which Mr. Seltzer, for all the wit and warmth and beauty of his artistry, has not captured.
The play that provokes these thoughts is, despite its failure to achieve greatness, a very fine play indeed. Bolt has read his sources well and gives us an epic of substantial accuracy, deep feeling, and considerable verbal felicity. As a piece of theatre, it moves well, always keeping our attention, occasionally gripping it. A Man for All Seasons, six years after it opened in London, seems likely to have a long life.
The production serves Bolt well. With any play the first question must be about the direction, and Mr. George Hamlin has animated the words and the actors with skill. But with this play we must ask next and urgently about the Sir Thomas, and there Mr. Seltzer serves superlatively. This is a performance that makes one believe in More's goodness, his wit, his integrity; a performance of remarkable and lovely serenity.
At the conclusion of it, we feel that we know and admire the same man his contemporaries knew and admired, and it is a moment before we realize how much our admiration must be given also to the actor who has made this possible.
In a generally strong cast I would single out George Wright, Arthur Friedman and Jeff Tambor for particular praise. Wright shows us a King Henry who at first seems curiously light but whose capacity for working his will is slowly and impressively revealed to us. Friedman makes of the Spanish ambassador the supple but less than subtle diplomat he is meant to be while Tambor gives us a Thomas Cromwell of vulpine cunning and cruelty.
Lewis Smith's costumes are sufficient to the occasion, but Judith Haugan's sets are in parts and at times awkwardly distracting. There are other criticisms that might be made: one disastrous piece of casting, that of--but enough! This production should be seen, and I would not discourage you
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