If you are starving for Christian theatre or if you are at least interested in Christian theatre, rush over to the Acorn Theatre in Manhattan, 410 West 42nd. St., to see one of the great dramas in the last 50 years.
The mission of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) is to present theatre with a Christian vision. I have seen all the productions of FPA and found all of them excellent. The latest is a “must see.”
I can still vividly recall the first time I saw Robert Bolt’s drama “A Man for All Seasons.” Because I cannot recall whether it was a preview or very early in the run of the production, I don’t recall if I had read a review of the play before seeing it. Probably I went to see it because I knew that I had to see a play that was about St. Thomas.
What I do recall is the large number of empty seats there were in the theatre. I concluded that a play about St. Thomas More would not have much of an appeal to the usual audiences who attend Broadway plays.
About a month or two later I went to see the play for the second time. The theatre was packed. Either the reviews or word of mouth had drawn in the crowds. Second to William Shakespeare’s works, my two favorite plays are Bolt’s play and Graham Greene’s “The Potting Shed.”
On Broadway, Paul Scofield played the lead. He also played the lead when the play was made into a film, gaining himself an Academy Award. Scofield was so good in both the play and the film that I cannot think of Thomas without having an image of Scofield in my mind.
The Work of an Agnostic
What surprises me about the play and the film, for which Robert Bolt also wrote the screenplay, is that he was an agnostic. How could an agnostic pen these two deeply religious works? A priest friend of mine claims that the theme of both the play and the film is about conscience and so both can appeal to someone who is not religious and indeed could be written by an agnostic.
Obviously my friend has the evidence of the play and film, which in fact were written by an agnostic. However I also see the story of both play and film as about conscience but more specifically about Christian conscience and that is what amazes me about Bolt’s accomplishment. I think the story as written by Bolt is deeply Christian.
A Perfect Film
Whenever I give a talk about film – either in class at St. John’s University or at some special event – and I am asked to mention some films that I consider great, I often say that I consider “A Man for All Seasons” a perfect film. What I mean by that is that everything works in the film. The story is marvelous. The color, scenery, direction and editing all contribute to a masterpiece.
The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also directed “High Noon.” I think that Zinnemann’s direction strikes an enviable balance between the history behind the story and the struggle of one man to do what is right, to speak truth to power.
Zinnemann never allows the film to become merely a sprawling spectacle in which the human struggle is minimized or even missed completely. Nor does he reduce More’s struggle to a psychological problem. From the beginning of the film to the end, More appears as a strong Catholic believer, a believer who is ready to suffer even death for his Catholic faith.
A Kind of Magic
As I reflect on the film, I think of six performances that are really extraordinary and that contribute strongly to making the film a great work of art. Many people contribute to the creation of a film. One bad actor can ruin a film, one great performance can carry a film but when an ensemble of actors succeeds in bringing their characters to life, there seems to be a kind of magic.
In addition to Scofield, Robert Shaw as King Henry the VIII, Wendy Hiller as More’s wife and Susannah York as More’s daughter turn in excellent performances. But my favorites are Leo McKern as Cromwell and John Hurt’s portrayal of Sir Richard Rich.
From beginning to end Cromwell is a schemer trying to score points with King Henry. Like More, Rich has a conscience problem but he perjures himself for prestige, power and wealth. Though we are repelled by him, we also moved to pity him.
I believe that FPA is offering a special gift in reviving “A Man for All Seasons” and I am hoping that the production is both a critical and commercial success. I am confident that it will be.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two columns on the Fellowship for Performing Arts’ production of “A Man for All Seasons.” Father Lauder will resume his series on marriage Feb. 9.
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, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.