Wednesday, October 15, 2008
A Man for All Seasons
“He (Sir Thomas More) was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.” Samuel Johnson
Last year Frank Langella won a Tony for his role as a delightfully slippery, but finally defeated Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. This season he’s back on Broadway as the noble and uncompromising Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. While watching him portray Tricky Dicky was much more fun, watching him as More is downright inspiring.
Robert Bolt’s 1960 bio-drama about More’s epic struggle with his conscious and his king won the Tony for best play in 1962 and it still holds up well today. In 1966 it was made into a feature film, with Paul Scofield reprising his Broadway role as More, and won six Academy Awards.
Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction to it now as I had when I first saw it in 1981 at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE. Both times the play, which takes place between 1529-1535, dragged for me in the first act; I looked at my watch Saturday at intermission and was surprised to see only an hour had passed. All that talk of canon law, Apostolic Succession, royal succession, English history, and wars made it seem longer. The second act, now as then, held my attention throughout its 75 minutes and sent me from the theatre feeling awed and challenged.
More, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, lived a life of privilege, holding a high position and enjoying the friendship of the king and his fellow noblemen. But he was unafraid to talk truth to power. When King Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, couldn’t bear him a son after 18 years of marriage, he wanted to divorce her to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, despite his Catholic Church’s law against it. More refused to give his approval.
His stance earned him a beheading. It also rewarded him 300 years later with sainthood. I don’t know if the real-life More was as saintly at all times as Bolt has crafted him, but I wish the playwright had allowed him to struggle a bit with some conflicted feelings instead of being so darned sure of his stance throughout. Even after a year in prison with the dampness of his jail cell having stripped him of his health, and wearing only rags against the cold, when he is finally granted a visit with his family, his comment about life among the rats and mice and dripping water comes off as pure Pollyanna: “Except it’s keeping me from you, my dears, it’s not so bad. Remarkably like any other place.” He sounds like St. Paul noting that he has known want and fullness and is able to be content with either. Okay, that’s fine for a living saint, but for a dramatic character I’d like a little more anger and indignation over the injustice he is suffering.
Luckily Sir Thomas does allow himself some sarcasm. When the Duke of Norfolk (Michel Gill) tries to make a case for giving in, he argues that the nobility of England are religious and yet they aren’t challenging the king. More replies: “The nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount.” And when Richard Rich (Jeremy Strong), a young man formerly in More’s employment where he was treated fondly, lies at More’s treason trial and is rewarded with the title of Attorney General for Wales, More, in a combination of pain and amusement, says to him: “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”
It isn’t so much the law of the Church that compels More; it is the law of his conscience. “A man’s soul is his self,” he says. Though all others around him are signing the oath declaring that what the king is doing is right, More refuses. “You might as well ask a man to change the color of his eyes,” he says. “I can’t.”
In his preface to the play, Bolt said it was More’s commitment to personal conviction and strong sense of self that inspired him as a 20th century playwright. He noted that one of the effects of industrialization is that people had lost a concept of themselves as individuals.
But More never does. “One, I’m an individual, and two, I’m responsible for my actions,” he says. “I will not criticize or judge anyone else. I won’t think less of you if you sign this oath, but you are asking me to do something against my private conscience. I can’t do it. And I take responsibility for this -- which means I give up my life for it.”
This is the first Broadway revival of A Man for All Seasons since the original 1961 production. Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning director of Doubt, directs. An interesting program note offers this tongue-in-cheek comment about the timeliness of this production: "It should be remembered that A Man for All Seasons deals with 'an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice.'" If only our age were more fastidious in this regard!
Besides Langella, a three-time Tony winner, the all-around solid cast features Hannah Cabell (as Margaret More), Michael Esper (William Roper), Zach Grenier (Thomas Cromwell), Dakin Matthews (Cardinal Wolsey), George Morfogen (Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop), Patrick Page (King Henry VIII), Maryann Plunkett (Alice More), Charles Borland (Jailer), Peter Bradbury (Steward), Patricia Hodges (Woman), Triney Sandoval (Thomas Chapuys) and Emily Dorsch, plus Curt Bouril, Alex Cole, Elizabeth Gilbert, Miguel Govea, Einar Gunn and Andy Lutz.
The design team includes Santo Loquasto (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), David Lander (lights), David Van Tieghem (original music and sound) and Tom Watson (hair and wigs).
Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of A Man for All Seasons continues at the American Airlines Theatre through Dec. 7. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the American Airlines theatre box office, 227 W. 42nd St.