by Robert Bolt
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Frank Langella
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, West 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

The further one gets from the debut of a play which has an agit-prop message, the further one gets from the sensibility of the era in which it was created. So when watching the first Broadway revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons since its debut in 1963 (the second NYC revival if you count a 1987 one off-Broadway and likewise produced by the Roundabout Theatre) it can be helpful to bear in mind that its hero’s unconflicted (albeit not, to him, unchallenging) stoicism was very much a portrait for its time.

                  The play, set in England between 1529 and 1535 is about Sir Thomas More, then a Lord Chancellor, and a fervent Catholic, despite King Henry VIII’s having separated from Rome by instituting “the church of England,” a move largely believed—and as dramatized here—to legitimize Henry’s divorce from Anne, with whom he was unable to father the male heir he desired. To cite a Wikipedia entry: “In 1530 More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine. In 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church ‘as far as the law of Christ allows.’ In 1532 he asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming that he was ill and suffering from sharp chest pains. This time Henry granted his request.

                  “The last straw for Henry came in 1533, when More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England. Technically, this was not an act of treason as More had written to Henry acknowledging Anne's queenship and expressing his desire for his happiness—but his friendship with the old queen, Catherine of Aragon, still prevented him from attending Anne's triumph. His refusal to attend Anne Boleyn's coronation was widely interpreted as a snub against Anne.”

                  The drama centers on More’s (Frank Langella) refusal to sign the Act of Succession, which would have gone counter to his belief that any but the holy church in Rome could legislate in matters of religion. More’s arrangement with the king (Patrick Page) (again as dramatized by Bolt) is uneasy but clear: so long as he keeps the reasons behind his refusal to be a matter of private conscience, never articulated aloud to anyone (this will include his family, so that they can never bear false witness under oath), he will not be charged with treason. But via the crafty advisor Thomas Cromwell (Zach Grenier), more and more intricate legal traps are brought to bear, testing not only More’s steadfast mettle, but that of his family, wife Alice (Maryann Plunkett) and daughter Margaret (Hannah Cabell). All leading to the execution from which More had felt certain the law would protect him. Alas, the one thing he refused to reckon with was the law being bent, perverted and ultimately rendered meaningless by those in power.

                  As with any resonant historical drama, the historical figures are presented by the author selectively and at that even selected and composited from a much larger roster of characters (i.e. we don’t meet More’s entire family, nor hear about any members not onstage, nor learn that Alice is his second wife and Margaret a daughter from his first marriage). So though in fact More was a much more complex and controversial person than the fellow of determined nobility presented here, it is as a vessel for the meaning of nobility that More is here used.

                  Though Bolt was a British dramatist, he had his eye on abuses of justice in world politics, and it’s not surprising that the play took hold in the US: A Man for All Seasons hit Broadway a scant few years after Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were putting not-dissimilar pressures to bear on witnesses to inform on innocent friends, colleagues and family in a witch hunt for covert Communists. A drama about a man who will not yield while all around him fold to expedience was exactly what the era wanted and needed.

                  So while critics of this new production are not precisely wrong to say that, over the haul of a play nearly three-hours long, Thomas More is a dramatically static character who would be more interesting if he soul-searched and vacillated—they also miss a primary point: Bolt’s More is no more a figure of 2008 than he is of the 1530s. He’s a figure of the early 1960s. And were he anything else, A Man for All Seasons would tell a different story of another generation and indeed be a different play; for while issues and themes can be timeless, and art in any of its forms enduring, a dramatic work is always a mirror of its time. Often a parochial mirror, at times even a distorting mirror, commonly an unintentional mirror…but a mirror nonetheless, because a writer can only write in the present. There’s little doubt that, with the prevarications of the Republican party, both in office and on the campaign trail, and possibly the snarkiest, most disturbing Presidential race in history, the production team and director Doug Hughes think A Man for All Seasons has contemporary resonance—but it’s a mistake for anyone to think that it could ever be an exact fit to our time. Hence a certain stylistic outdatedness.

                  Now…does that make Thomas More any easier to take in 2008? Let’s just say he has a fighting chance in the persona of Frank Langella, one of the very few American stage actors of note capable of real, classic grandeur in a manner most often associated with scions of British theatre. If he cannot give us a doubting More, he at least gives us one who must react to watching his lifeline to the law degenerate from a steel cable to a tenuous thread.  The transitions he goes through may be those of degree, but Mr. Langella’s wattage is so high that even small adjustments are writ large.

                  If the rest of the cast isn’t quite at Mr. Langella’s level of charisma (and how could one expect them to be), most hold their own, most distinctively Zach Grenier with his unwaveringly villainous Cromwell to provide a balance; Maryann Plunkett, whose admiring exasperation with More speaks (in the best sense) for that of the audience; and Patrick Page as King Henry, whose mercurial volatility expertly captures the pathology of intimidating power. (And I must add, Hannah Cabell in the less showy role of More’s daughter struck me as a very promising newcomer. I believe we’ll see more of her in more prominent parts.)

                  Even with the elimination of The Common Man, a Brechtian character who commented on the action and played small roles in the original version of the script (a character likewise eliminated in the film), Bolt’s play is far too long, by today’s standards, considering that, save for the introduction that sets the players in motion, each scene is a variation of the same battle. Even the epic-style over-writing is indicative of the late 50s, early 60s. But still, there is beauty of language, iconic characterization and a moral that is, in the end, if not as touching as it once was, at least a little inspiring—cajoling us to be better people.

                  If not everything is for all seasons, the strength of that much seems like enough to make allowances for—and even embrace—the rest…

Go to David Spencer's bio   
Return to Home Page