by Father Robert Lauder
Recently I did something that I have not done in years. One evening, in almost one sitting, I read a truly great play, Robert Bolt’s play about St. Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons.”
The play is special to me for several reasons. My relationship with Bolt’s play goes back to its Broadway production in 1961. The play was a huge success in London, but before seeing it on Broadway I wondered how it would play in Manhattan. Would a play about a Catholic saint appeal to a Broadway audience? The first time I saw the play there were many empty seats, and I guessed that my fear about the poor reception the play might receive on Broadway could be accurate. But when I returned a few weeks later the theater was packed. Word had spread, and what I consider a masterpiece was being welcomed and greatly appreciated. Whatever religious view or lack of religious views members of the audience had, great theater won the day.
When “A Man for All Seasons” was made into a film, it was very successful. It won seven Oscars including best picture. Paul Scofield, who repeated the portrayal of More that he did in London and on Broadway, won the Oscar for best actor. I cannot think of Thomas More without picturing Scofield. Because of a course on philosophy and film that I give at St. John’s University, I have seen the film more than 20 times. Each time I find it inspiring.
I have seen several fine actors portray More on the stage, but none ever came close to Scofield’s portrayal. I think of Scofield as owning the role. Often when I give a lecture about film, I mention “A Man for All Seasons” as an example of a perfect film. By that I mean everything in the film works: The plot is exceptionally interesting and raises extremely important questions about the meaning of personal existence and the meaning of conscience. The scenery and camerawork and music are just about perfect. The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann, whom I think of as one of the great American film directors. He received the Oscar for best Director.
Not only does Scofield give a great performance, but the supporting cast is outstanding. Wendy Hiller plays More’s wife, Susannah York plays More’s daughter, Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII, Leo McKern plays Thomas Cromwell, John Hurt plays Richard Rich and Orson Welles plays Cardinal Wolsey. I am wondering whether there is any other film in which so many supporting players are so outstanding. Are their performances extraordinary because of Zinnemann’s direction? Or were the performers aware that the film could be something special and were motivated to use their talent to contribute to what they sensed could become a cinematic masterpiece?
Bolt got the title for his drama from the following quotation by Robert Whittington: “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 sometimes of sad gravity: a man for all seasons.”
I can see why More would appeal to Bolt as someone about whom he would like to write a play, but what amazes me is that Bolt identified himself as an agnostic. How could someone who does not affirm the existence of God write such a deeply religious drama? A friend of mine thinks the play is about conscience and so is not exactly a religious play. I disagree. The play is about conscience but more specifically Christian conscience.
It seems to me that occasionally artists create beyond what they intend. I believe that artists may not be the best interpreters of what they have created. There is an anecdote about a famous film director, perhaps Alfred Hitchcock, who was asked while he was being interviewed the following question: “What does your film mean?” He responded, “Don’t ask me. I’m the one who made it.” I don’t think he was being facetious. He was admitting that he did not completely understand the creative process.
I once had a brief conversation with film director John Cassavetes, whose films I found fascinating. I offered him a criticism of some of his films. He listened intently to what I was saying and then he responded: “Father, I don’t completely understand what I am doing. My vocation is not unlike yours. We both deal with mystery.” I thought that was a great response.
If I hold up “A Man for All Seasons” as a model of what a drama can be, I suspect that I will not find many contemporary dramas as good as Bolt’s. Reflecting on both the stage and screen versions of “A Man for All Seasons” has renewed my faith in the power of masterpieces.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV. 26
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