A Man for All Seasons
Premiered on BBC Radio, 1954
he abundance of scholarly, literary and popular interest in the Tudors and the lives of its most prominent players, including King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, has only grown over time—in America as well as in Britain. We see the trend lately in the novels of Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall: A Novel and Bringing Up the Bodies each won the Man Booker Prize. We see it in programs such as Showtime’s The Tudors, which ran for 38 hour-long episodes.
The scholarly trail, too, is capacious. Thomas More’s reputation, in particular, has received much scrutiny over the past quarter century, first with the publication of the late Richard Marius’s 1984 study, Thomas More: A Biography, followed by Louis L. Martz’s Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man (1990); Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More (1998), and two masterful studies by John Guy, Thomas More (2000) and A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg (2009). This quarter-century of More revisionism has been paralleled by ongoing scholarly endeavors with the publication of the Yale edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More and a companion publication, Moreana (begun in 1963), which serves as a compilation of articles on More and his circle.
Richard Marius’s 1984 biography set off a rich debate on More’s character (its dark side) against the hagiographic accounts that arose first from his canonization by the Catholic Church in 1935 and, perhaps above all, from the work A Man for All Seasons, by playwright Robert Bolt (1924–1995). The legacy of that play began with a BBC radio broadcast on July 26, 1954, and a subsequent BBC television production in 1957. The notice and popularity of Bolt’s play then culminated in its theatrical performances in London and New York in the early 1960s, and in the 1966 release of the film that garnered six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (by Bolt), and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Scofield). Indeed, the Thomas More of popular culture, including American Catholic popular culture, has become at least as real as the man himself ever was. The More of fiction has become firmly connected to various very real political ideals and defining moments of truth and conscience that animate them. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the play’s first airing, an opportunity to plumb the subject beckons.
he real Thomas More (1478–1535) was a lawyer and devoted Catholic at the moment reformation was sweeping Europe. He was appointed Lord Chancellor by King Henry VIII in 1529. His objections to the King’s efforts to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, eventually led to his resignation as Lord Chancellor and his arrest in 1534 for refusing, as one writer noted, “to take an oath implying England’s ecclesiastical independence from Rome.” He was confined to the Tower of London for 15 months, tried, convicted of high treason in one of Britain’s most famous trials, and five days later, on July 6, 1535, beheaded. Celebrated as a great humanist throughout his life, he is best known for Utopia, published in 1515.
The film A Man for All Seasons is a powerful and graceful adumbration of the complicated life that More lived. We learn little of that life in detail, but this is possibly what intrigued Paul Scofield, who made the part of More classic and enduring. Scofield summed up the reception of the play in the 1960s in a letter to Adrian Turner, Robert Bolt’s biographer:
The Broadway production was necessarily different from London because nearly all the actors were American . . . [but] we used the same scenery and costumes. The play was hugely successful in America. Audiences seemed to view it from a moral and spiritual standpoint whereas, broadly speaking, London audiences enjoyed it more as a story about England, as a historical play.
Scofield’s perceptive observation says much about what different audiences take away from the same performance, revealing more about the audience than about the play. What were Americans in the mid-1960s reading into the drama that made “a moral and spiritual” understanding an important part of their experience?
The most obvious place to begin an answer to this question is with the recognition that American audiences had little knowledge and probably less regard for the intricacies of British history. At one level, it is safe to say, American Catholic viewers saw More as one of their own in heroic splendor. Coming just a few years after the secular martyrdom of the first Catholic President one can easily imagine all sorts of associations made, both shallow and deep. But the film also drew more broadly from a deep well of American experience with dissent and with living the courage of one’s convictions, particularly political and religious ones. In other words, Americans related to A Man for All Seasons for its existential themes—ones that could inspire the least and most powerful, the poorest and the richest, Jew and Christian alike.
The film was thus precisely ahistorical in the minds of viewers who required little or no knowledge of More’s circumstances other than the fact that he struggled to defend himself against powers that seemed destined to destroy him. Along the way, he would, by one encounter after another, lay out the boundaries of humility, decency and conviction. Despite inaccuracies and conflations that could drive an historian to seething, the moral tethers of lasting worth allow and forgive the stretching of historical truth as long as the basic facts remain in place. The drama More created for himself by not “giving in” thus formed a serviceable backdrop for any number of meaningful readings or interpretations in fiction.
The film opens with More’s summoning to Hampton Court to meet with Cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles). Under enormous pressure to secure a divorce for the King from Catherine, Wolsey describes her as “barren as a brick”, unable to provide an heir. More’s Catholic faith is immediately contrasted to the urgency that motivates expediency. Wolsey asks More whether he is going to pray for a miracle, to which he replies, “There are precedents.” Wolsey hopes to enlist More in the efforts to secure an annulment but is rebuffed when Wolsey proposes to confiscate church property as a way to pressure the Pope to grant one. More’s refusal, overheard by Wolsey’s secretary, Cromwell, ignites the fuse that eventually leads to his execution. His refusal is pragmatic, not in principle against the possibility of Henry securing the divorce as much as a defense of the sovereignty of the Church as distinct from the monarchy to grant one.
The character of Richard Rich (played by a young John Hurt) is marked by his betrayal of More at the trial at the end of the film, but the more interesting character development is expressed in Rich’s efforts to secure a place at Court, in other words, to further his political ambitions, which require a sponsor. Rich is dismayed at More’s refusal to recommend him and waits to hear More’s plans for him:
MORE: Have you been here all night?
RICH: Yes. You said there was a post?
MORE: Yes. I’ll offer you a post, with a house, a servant and 50£ a year.
RICH: What post?
MORE: At the new school.
RICH: A teacher!
MORE: Richard, no one’s going to give you a place at court.
RICH: Master Cromwell says he’ll do something for me.
MORE: Cromwell? Well, if you know Cromwell you don’t need my help.
RICH: Sir Thomas? If only you knew how much, much rather, I had your help than his.
MORE: Not to a place at court.
RICH: Why not?
RICH: What is it?
MORE: It’s a bribe! “l am the gift of Averil Machin.” And Averil Machin has a lawsuit in the Court of Requests. Italian silver. Take it. No joke.
RICH: Thank you.
MORE: What will you do with it?
RICH: Sell it.
MORE: And buy what?
RICH: A decent gown!
MORE: But Richard, that’s a little bribe. At court they offer you all sorts of things, home, manor houses, coats of arms. A man should go where he won’t be tempted. Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.
RICH: If I was, who would know it?
MORE: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that. And the quiet life.
RICH: You say that. You come from talking with the Cardinal.
MORE: Yes, talking with the Cardinal. It’s eating your heart out, isn’t it? The high affairs of state.
Ambition is always mediated by character and circumstances. More and Rich’s exchange offers a way to understand advice as old as Cicero’s De Officiis. More gives his fatherly advice having already recognized Rich’s own lack of awareness of what was really eating his heart out. “A man should go where he won’t be tempted.” But what, Rich wonders, does having a reputation matter if no one knows it. In More’s mind, teaching serves a great purpose, “Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that. And the quiet life.”
Now, the teaching vocation of the 16th century had yet to drag historical time to its bosom, to become what it is today, a mere ghost of a once otherworldly religious calling. Rich’s desire to follow in the footsteps of More’s this-worldly pursuits has contemporary resonance in the comingling of teaching and government service, with movers and shakers meandering back and forth between the two depending on which party’s leader is in power. The spectacle of resignations from time to time by public figures who land in one endowed university chair or another suggests how little More’s characterization of the quiet life still holds. Yet those who lack or reject Rich’s ambition do sometimes content themselves with the limited public they cultivate. In one sense, we can only know of such people indirectly, precisely because they are out of the spotlights that draw a larger public attention. The recent phenomenon of massive, open online courses, or MOOCs, is poised to give humility a bad name: The MOOC is about simultaneously being known by everyone and by no one. Not so great a public, that.
More is drawn into martyrdom step by step. The central encounter of the film follows his elevation to Lord Chancellor when he meets with Henry, whose powers of persuasion are keen and whose temper is volatile. At one point in their parrying, Henry takes issue with More’s inability to come along:
HENRY: How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.
MORE: Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?
HENRY: Because you’re honest. And what is more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Cromwell follow because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger; there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you.
MORE: I am sick to think how much I must displease Your Grace.
HENRY: No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. But respect…man, that’s water in the desert.
This fine synopsis of politics as a vocation confirms why More’s fate was inevitable. The water in the desert is rarely drunk by politicians whose ambitions are less about gaining power than a belief that power confers authority, that it guarantees respect. Power derives principally from those who fear it, while authority is the acknowledgment of voluntary obedience, not to any particular person, but rather to what that person represents. Henry knew well that he was surrounded by those who responded to his power, and that he therefore required the authority of More’s assent to make that power legitimate. Henry saw More as a way out of his dilemma of having to use raw power against the authority of the Church to have his way.
And so the ante is raised again with More’s refusal to endorse the King’s efforts to secure a divorce. Cromwell tightens the screws in his interrogations of More’s loyalty. More resigns as Chancellor and is faced with having to take an oath swearing his approval of the marriage-to-be. The implications of his refusal are presented in a conversation he has with his daughter Meg:
MORE: What is it, Meg?
MEG: Father, there’s a new act going through Parliament. And by this act, they’re going to administer an oath…about the marriage.
MORE: On what compulsion is the oath?
MEG: High treason.
MORE: But what is the wording?
MEG: Do the words matter? We know what it means.
MORE: Tell me the words. An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it.
MEG: Take it?
MORE: And if it can be taken, you must take it, too.
MORE: Listen, Meg. God made the angels to show Him splendor, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.
The most significant part of More’s instruction to his daughter is how he crafts his devotion to a belief: something compelling for him alone with no implication whatsoever that others are obliged to follow him in the danger that holding to it portends. We are thus offered a precious lesson in moral logic. There has always been about conscientious objection a certain holier-than-thou expectation that I am right and you are wrong. Many years ago, a colleague put an office clerk on notice that she should not garnish his wages for the IRS, to whom he refused to pay part of his taxes because of the government’s military policies. He wanted her to refuse to honor her obligations before the law in solidarity. But More refuses to make himself a cause. His is not a request for solidarity. He offers instead an insight about human nature: “Our natural business lies in escaping.” Human nature promises both virtue and vice, devotion and indifference. To avoid the dire consequences of controversy, as More instructs Meg to do (and does again from his prison cell in the Tower), is neither a symbol of her weakness nor of his strength. On the contrary, both father and daughter are caught up in the same dilemma whose resolution always naturally favors finding a way to stay alive. Such a situation that he faced must always be exceptional.
Conscientious objection in our time comes mostly from the political Left, enhanced by its historic association with the Vietnam War and war in general. A Man for All Seasons bears variable interest against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. When the play was running on Broadway, Vietnam was far below the political radar, but by 1966, when the movie came out, it was anything but. One could see More as a conscientious objector, or as a virtual American speaking fundamental truths to totalitarian opportunism.
A more recent and less familiar objection of domestic significance is represented in a physician’s refusal to perform abortions. When laws restricting abortion were struck down in the United States in 1973, an enormous pressure to meet the new demand emerged, leading to the present configuration of abortion services across the country. It goes without saying that the rogue murders of physicians willing to perform abortions made them secular martyrs. More’s martyrdom was sanctioned by the state, however, and this marks an important distinction between secular and religious martyrdom. The secularist upholding of individualism, exemplified in “the right to choose”, at least in the case of abortion, has little in common with religiously motivated conscientious objection. The physician who objects to this particular right finds himself unwilling to do what the law permits, but like More, he need not be actively engaged in reversing that law. In the peculiar moral inversion that abortion’s legal reformation created, a figure such as Dr. Kermit Gosnell is condemned more for his unsanitary and disgusting practices than for the performance of abortion however late in pregnancy. And the inexcusable murder of physicians is conflated with the decided, non-violent and principled resistance to it. A physician’s unwillingness to perform abortions is viewed as a kind of cowardice by die-hard supporters of abortion, despite consistent public ambivalence about it now some forty years after Roe v. Wade. Moral logic isn’t what it used to be.
he matter of oath-taking is raised throughout A Man for All Seasons. Five centuries later it is difficult to imagine a relationship between the refusal to take an oath and the possibility of public execution. More is cast as the victim of perjury committed by the ambitious Richard Rich. Beyond this portrayal in the film, a great deal of scrutiny has been given to his trial.1 Matters were more complicated than the film depicts. What audiences experienced was not only the sense of profound injustice but also the special courage of More’s silence as his defense:
Cromwell: Let us consider now the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence. The oath was put to loyal subjects up and down the country, and they all declared His Grace’s title to be just and good. But when it came to the prisoner, he refused! He calls this silence. Yet, is there a man in this court—is there a man in this country!—who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of this title?
Yet, how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!
MORE: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is “Qui tacet consentire”: the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent.” If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.
CROMWELL: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?
MORE: The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.
More’s daughter prior to the trial had tried to convince her father to take the oath, arguing a thoroughly modern psychological rationale:
MEG: Father. “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth.” Well, so you’ve always told me.
MEG: Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
MORE: What is an oath then, but words we say to God? Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathed to think your father one of them.
MEG: I have another argument.
MORE: Oh, Meg.
MEG: In any state that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here for what you’ve done already.
MORE: All right.
MEG: It’s not your fault the state’s three-quarters bad.
MEG: If you elect to suffer for it, you elect to be a hero.
MORE: That’s very neat. But look now. If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.
Meg’s attempt to establish private belief as the location of true belief anticipates Freud’s formulation of the unconscious that allegedly conceals the truth, thus making any public face a performance (“in your heart think otherwise”). The sociologist Erving Goffman determined that the presentation of self in everyday life was first and foremost a performance, consigning the public taking of an oath to an act that could be either sincere or not.
More objected to taking the oath because in his mind it linked his “self” with “words we say to God.” Higher truths, in other words, are only so malleable. He told his family and others that he could not take the oath but never told them his reasons, thus protecting them as well as himself from their having to lie under oath. This distinction is crucial for understanding the nature of conscience in this instance. More sought to defend his conscience (and protect others) by remaining silent about the reasons for his silence. In that way, he believed, he was protected by the law, Qui tacet consentire.
Now compare this to the legal controversies of the 1950s and 1960s, when school teachers and professors in various states were required to takes oaths of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution in order to retain their employment. Several of these types of laws were eventually upheld by the Supreme Court following numerous efforts to strike them down. Objections raised to these oaths were made on the basis of the First Amendment and academic freedom—in other words, reasons that could be argued in defense of disobeying such laws and demanding their repeal. The power of such objections could be compared to More’s silence (regarded in any case as “eloquent denial”) except that the law protected him in his silence from having to take the oath despite the consequences of losing his office and being remanded to prison, the price paid for his purity of heart. Those who initially refused to take loyalty oaths in the 1960s were eventually faced with the choice of following More’s path or giving in because it was not their fault that “the state’s three-quarters bad.” For the vast majority, no doubt, their natural business lay in escaping.
At his trial, once he is condemned to death, More reveals his conscience, satisfying both himself and his accusers in directly opposite ways:
Since the court has determined to condemn me, God knoweth how, I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Saviour, Christ Himself, to St. Peter and the bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. And more than this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath.
An American audience in the 1960s, whether Catholic or not, understood this last speech as having a Cold War content: It was a rallying cry for religious freedom against any state that would endeavor to restrict that freedom.
In our time, however, the American conviction that animates the separation of church and state is in certain respects in a deep confusion over how to reconcile transformations in civil society with religiously prescribed convictions that oppose those transformations. The institution of marriage is only the latest example of an arrangement that is highly contested between religious organization and civil society. The opposition to same-sex marriage is now largely regarded as emanating from bigotry rather than religious conscience in large part because only certain faith communities retain a strong resistance to it on what they see as principled grounds that inform their convictions. The sea-change of public opinion stands as a form of reformation where those holding religious beliefs in opposition to changes in the law will likely face difficult choices in certain occupational circumstances, certainly not as grave as More’s, but likely nevertheless to create media attention across the culture-war spectrum. The refusal to allow Catholic organizations to participate in state-run adoption services is a symbolic victory or a sad loss, depending where one resides on that spectrum.
riting in the journal First Things in 1999, the late Robert H. Bork revisited More’s life as depicted and exemplified in A Man for All Seasons. Against prevailing interpretations of More’s refusal to take the oath of supremacy as indicative of his true selfhood, as conscientious objection or civil disobedience, Bork reminds us that More’s highest devotion was to the Church and its unity. The reformations, it may be said, have continued unabated ever since, and Bork’s own disappointment with American individualism in its liberal and libertarian expressions against tradition and established law led him to despair, and to conclude, “For More, morality was superior to both human law and the will of the sovereign in that it could be used to shape or to alter that law and that will, though not to justify disobedience to it.” More as original or strict constructionist was Bork’s version of a true conservative, making him quite different from what most Americans made of him as the hero of his own beliefs.
At the same time, Richard Marius, more the bête noire of More studies than admitted, writing in a volume devoted to debunking historical films, concluded: “Audiences were ready for the story of a heroic martyr to conscience struggling against the power of a tyrant, and Bolt gave it to them.”2 But, as Marius argues, this version of More’s life elided his intense opposition to heretics and his relish in persecuting them. The image of More as willing to die for a belief is contrasted with his insistence about those who should be executed for theirs, except that the film allows only the mildest account of the latter.
Marius and Bork would have had a good debate considering each man’s apparent contempt and disappointment for the direction America was headed. As Marius stated,
Throughout the film the common people are depicted as ignorant trash, gullible, unable to bear ambiguity, incapable of thought, self-righteous, and transfixed by appearances. A Man for All Seasons was designed for just such an audience. It succeeds because it judges us so well.
Marius elsewhere lamented the impact of Bolt’s play and film on scholarly work on More, without appreciating the inevitable fate of all popular culture toward simplification: “I was never able to decide fully in my own mind whether [A Man for All Seasons] was boon or disaster to More studies.” He describes how Paul Scofield’s “stunning dramatic performance turned More into an icon, and icons are usually set too high in walls and are too glittering to be studied easily by mortals of ordinary stature.”
Paul Scofield was awarded an Oscar for his performance in A Man for All Seasons, but he was not present to receive it in person. His modesty and his desire to remain close to home (he lived in Sussex and regularly traveled back and forth to London when he performed in theater productions there over many decades) was well-known, limiting his celebrity but increasing his fame immeasurably. If most ad hominem arguments amount to negative judgments of a person’s views or behavior based on their character rather than on the logic of those views, something nevertheless is revealed of significant positive meaning (as, too, in the case of stereotypes). In Scofield’s case, his acting was as much a vocation as an occupation. His life was devoted to his craft. The notice he received for it mattered, of course, but not as a means to raise his visibility so that he could live more extravagantly or assume a voice by virtue of a celebrity frothed high beyond his craft. He eschewed causes, despite the fact that modern celebrity joins such notice easily and often to many causes. He went, and he mainly stayed, where a man should not be tempted.
Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons has remained a staple of stage performances since the 1960s. One film adaptation, directed by Charlton Heston and starring himself as More, appeared in 1988. Heston had performed the role on stage since the 1960s in many places. The film was shown on the debut of TNT, Ted Turner’s cable network, yet despite his own devotion to Bolt’s play, Heston’s performance has little in common with Scofield’s. The one-time leader of the National Rifle Association lent his reputation to more than his acting craft. This may certainly have helped to advance the cause of gun ownership in America, but it may have diminished the regard for his acting as well.
The most recent, notable revival in late 2008, 45 years after its first appearance on Broadway, starred Frank Langella. Writing in the New York Times soon after it opened, Ben Brantley asked, “Is it heresy to whisper that the sainted Thomas More is a bit of a bore?” Langella, Brantley observed, did not exactly fit the part: “It also makes portraying [More] an uphill battle for an actor who has traditionally been at his best delivering juicy portraits of fabled sinners”, referring to both Dracula and Richard Nixon, to which should be added Langella’s role in the film The Ninth Gate. The play ran for only 73 performances, compared to 637 between 1961 and 1963.
It could be said that Thomas More achieved a kind of trifecta in historical/scholarly, literary/religious and broadly public imaginings of him. His popularity made famous by Scofield in the film led one Catholic critic to write in the pages of America that films must first entertain, but, having said that, those that do entertain rarely elevate their audiences. “A Man for All Seasons is about the best we can hope for in the way of a great theme given consonantly great treatment (for which windfall, incidentally, we are indebted to an agnostic playwright and a Jewish director of great skill and integrity).” Ad hominem, indeed. And only in America?
1See, for example, Thomas More’s Trial by Jury, Henry Ansgar Kelly et al., eds. (Boydell Press, 2011).
2Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Ted Mico et al., eds. (Henry Holt, 1995).