… A mixed bag …
A Man for All Seasons is founded on a topic of great inherent power: the collision of individual conviction and state power. The play is well written, well constructed, and given every advantage in the fine acting of Frank Langella and the excellent production by Roundabout Theatre.
Why then does it fall flat?
Because Sir Thomas More has all the virtues while his enemies have all the vices. That’s not human nature nor history and so, as drama, it doesn’t ring true.
King Henry VIII and his lieutenant, Cromwell, override the opposition of Thomas More and others to wrest an independent Church of England free from the grasp of the Roman Catholic Church. The historical context is highly ambiguous in terms of “right” and “wrong.” Yet More in this play is all high minded, personal conviction, the King is a callow youth and libertine devoid of political purpose — a vast oversimplification of this empire builder — and the passionate Protestant Thomas Cromwell is a conniving, power hungry Iago — though not endowed with Shakespearian charisma.
The play recounts More’s fall from royal grace to poverty, imprisonment and execution because of his principled stand — his refusal to sanction the King’s divorce from his wife of nineteen years who had not borne him a son, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the very acts that catalyzed the King’s leap for his nation’s independence from the Roman Catholic Church. At the play’s end, More is beheaded for his refusal — “I will not bend” — to sign the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
You’d never guess that Cromwell, who some see as the originator of the English Reformation, was as devoted to his vision of a sovereign England as More was in his loyalty to Rome. History tells us that More persecuted Protestants and was not opposed to burning at the stake for heretics, although he tolerated his Lutheran son-in-law. Evidently he was a mixed bag, like everyone else. Outstanding theatrical experience and skills at play in this production can’t mask the strain of covering up the overly simplistic view of A Man for All Seasons.
It’s interesting that so far this Fall there have been four plays that focus on the conflict between individual conscience and the power of the state — A Man for All Seasons, The Grand Inquisitor, Galileo, and Antigone, all discussed in posts here below. Three of them focus in one way or another on the Inquisition. Is this a category? Theater of the Inquisition?
A Man for All Seasons is playing at American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street in New York City.