The curtains part, revealing the unlit scaffold of a cathedral. It spans more than half the width of the stage. An anonymous, un-applauded servant appears. He lights two candelabra. Offstage, chatter and clinking plates suggest a dinner party. Once the candelabra are lit, the servant exits. The audience are cradled in the little light produced by the candelabra, the sole comfort in this awe-inspiring place.
The solemnity of the scene is palpable. At once august and austere, the room bespeaks greatness. Enter Sir Thomas More, expertly embodied by Frank Langella. He easily maneuvers the room in the dark, seems intimately familiar with its obstacles, crooks and recesses: this place is his home. Soon, others enter, chatting lively, joking freely, and even as Sir Thomas More joins in on the fun, one feels a sense of heaviness about him absent in the other characters, not the heaviness of unhappiness or ennui but the heaviness of wisdom.
His home seems a manifestation of the atmosphere of his mind – grand in scale, humbly presented and comforted by a small light. That light, his unfailing conscience, will be threatened throughout the play.
Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, written initially as a BBC radio play in 1954 and then adapted by the author for the stage, is an exploration of the limits of the conscience: how much suffering can a man endure before his light is snuffed out? The title of the play is borrowed from Sir Thomas Mores contemporary Robert Whittington, a grammarian and Latin scholar, who wrote, “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
Set in England in the early 1530s, during the reign of King Henry VIII, the play follows the ascendency and ultimate fall of More, the famed philosopher, who, in 1516, authored Utopia, a novel that investigates the nature of social structures by imagining a more perfect society and comparing it with Mores own. No mention of that work is made in the play; in fact, More is not treated as a philosopher at all, but as a religious scholar and an able statesman at a time of great upheaval for both God and State.
Lutheranism was on the rise, threatening a schism in Christendom. Henry VIII, in opposition to the practices of Catholicism, sought a divorce from his queen, who had failed to produce an heir, so that he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. More stands alone among prominent government officials in opposing the divorce, and for this, he was assailed on all sides by power-hungry cronies of the crown. The more influential More became, the more he was attacked.
At the outset of the play, More is merely a trusted employee of the crown. By the second act, he has assumed the enviable position of Lord Chancellor from the previous Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, a pragmatic, scheming man who, having failed to secure Henrys divorce, is arrested for treason.
Mores primary antagonist is Thomas Cromwell, a machinating statesman whose aggressive loyalty to Henry wins him, by the second act, the position of chief minister. Cromwell orchestrates a consolidation of clerical power under the crown, effectively severing Englands papal connection and establishing Henry as the head of the church. It is antithetical to Mores convictions that any man but the Pope should head the church, and so he quietly resigns in protest, much to the dismay of his friends and family who fear retribution from the King.
No longer a salaried employee of the crown, More and his family sink into poverty. No longer constrained by orthodoxy, the King orders Parliament to secure an annulment of his marriage. It does, and he weds Anne Boleyn. Meanwhile, Cromwell manages to usher the passage of several new acts, notably the Act Respecting the Oath to the Act of Succession, which required all subjects of the crown to swear an oath stating that Henrys marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate.
Every subject swore the oath but More, who, when pressed by his friends to relent and swear the oath for his own safety, said instead, “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos. His obstinacy leads to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual execution. In the final scene, an exhausted More, his body broken from a year imprisonment, slowly climbs a set of stairs, at the top of which waits the hooded executioner.
He is stopped by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, another religious leader portrayed as more pragmatic than truly spiritual, who relays a message from the King repent now, and receive mercy. As repentance means submission, More refuses, preferring to suffer his route to heaven than suffer the pangs of his conscience. The Arch Bishop snidely asks whether More is sure that God will accept him, an alleged traitor to the crown. Illuminated in a beatific light, the sad but unshaken More thoughtful replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”
Doug Hughes’ production is faithful and solid (though it wisely omits the Brechtian character of the Common Man) and the cast is particularly mpressive. Frank Langella delivers a commanding performance as Sir Thomas More. The script demands both melodrama and subtlety, and Langella seamlessly interweaves the two, characterizing More as a man of great passion and marked restraint.
Equally notable is Zach Greniers performance as Thomas Cromwell, a character whose slimy scheming could easily have slipped into caricature, thereby castrating Cromwell, in the hands of a less able actor. While Greniers Cromwell is never likeable, he seems at times eminently reasonable, a man whose tone connotes confidence. Greniers Cromwell is a pragmatic villain, not the sort of man one sympathizes with but the sort of man one imagines to find in the upper echelon of power, the sort of man who would want to rule.
Richard Rich, Cromwells eventual right-hand-man, played by Jeremy Strong, shares a similar pragmatism, but his cowardice and stinging conscience bar him from greatness. An acquaintance of Sir Thomas More, Rich is willing to betray every confidence to make his way up in the world, though he himself fails to recognize this treasonous trait until he has already sold out an innocent man.
Strong presents Rich as an unsteady commoner, a simple man who desires what hes told to desire a loyal friend in the company of such, a man of ambition when foisted into government employ the sort of man who can fool himself into believing anything. Strongs performance is assured enough that he manages to fool the audience as well.