The atheist, Robert Bolt, the martyr, Sir Thomas More, and I met in a Houston college classroom decades ago.
Recently, we Catholics celebrated the feast day of St. Thomas More, rekindling the friendship I feel with playwright Robert Bolt and his man for all seasons, St. Thomas More. And for at least the fifth time, I read Bolt's splendid play, A Man For All Seasons. It seems more than fitting to revisit this play just a few weeks before the national conventions where the candidates for the Presidential office will be decided. In hopes, perhaps, that the integrity, moral courage and fidelity of the Patron Saint of politicians, St. Thomas More, may rain down upon the proceedings and the candidates.
Although the movie won Oscars for the actors and producer, Bolt's actual two-act play is far superior to it's dumbeddown movie version. The first paragraph of the preface to the play makes clear how great a treat we are in for:
The bit of English History which is the background to this play is pretty well known. Henry VIII, who started with everything and squandered it all, who had the physical and mental fortitude to endure a lifetime of gratified greeds, the monstrous baby whom none dared gainsay, is one of the most popular figures in the whole procession. We recognise in him an archetype, one of the champions of our baser nature, and are in him vicariously indulged.
The Henry that Bolt writes about is not the porcine figure of the Holbein portrait, rather a gifted, vibrant man, still young and well-schooled in his Catholic religion. Who authored a book about the seven sacraments of the Church, 'The Defence of the Seven Sacraments', warranting the title, 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope. Who sincerely loves and admires his new Chancellor, Sir Thomas More.
But the King wants a divorce, he needs male heirs. Bolt explains:
The motives for such a wish are presumably as confused, inaccessible and helpless in a King as any other man, but here are three which make sense: Catherine had grown increasingly plain and intensely religious; Henry had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn; the Spanish alliance had become unpopular. None of these absolutely necessitated a divorce but there was a fourth that did. Catherine had not been able to provide Henry with a male child and was now presumed barren. There was a daughter, but competent statesmen were unanimous that a Queen on the throne of England was unthinkable. Anne and Henry were confident that between them they could produce a son; but if that son was to be Henry’s heir, Anne would have to be Henry’s wife.
The Pope was once again approached, this time by England only, and asked to declare the marriage with Catherine null, on the grounds that it contravened the Christian law which forbade marriage with a brother’s widow. But England’s insistence that the marriage had been null was now balanced by Spain’s insistence that it hadn’t.
With a mind sufficiently canny to persuade his Catholic cardinals and almost all of his advisors of the illegitimacy of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother Arthur. King Henry uses Leviticus for the basis of the dissolution of his marriage to the Queen. But Henry is unable to convince Sir Thomas More.
You must consider, Thomas, that I stand in peril of my soul. It was no marriage, she was my brother’s widow. Leviticus: ‘Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife.’ Leviticus, Chapter 18, Verse 16.
But Deuteronomy— Henry (triumphant) Deuteronomy’s ambiguous!
More: (bursting out) Your Grace, I’m not fit to meddle in these matters – to me it seems a matter for the Holy See—
Henry: (reproving) Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a Pope to tell him when he’s sinned? It was a sin, Thomas; I admit it; I repent. And God has punished me; I have no son. … Son after son she’s borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within the month; I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything.… I have a daughter, she’s a good... It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the Popes back to St Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.
More: (eagerly) Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?
Henry: Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest. … There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves – and there is you.
More: I am sick to think how much I must displease Your Grace.
Henry: No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. Respect? Oh, man it’s water in the desert. …
Bolt writes that he obtained much of his often stark, always economic dialogue from More's actual correspondence. This interchange between More and his wife Alice seemed to call out to me the very first time I read them all those years ago. Even after the fifth reading, they still do. More's wife Alice knows her husband. As do few others, she grasps the depth of her husband's faith, her fear for him is real and valid.
More (takes in her anxiety) Well, Alice. What would you want me to do? Alice Be ruled! If you won’t rule him, be ruled! More (quietly) I neither could nor would rule my King. (Pleasantly.) But there’s a little … little, area … where I must rule myself. [Italics mine.] It’s very little – less to him than a tennis court.
Those words ring out throughout this play. One which feels not like reading history rather about all too current, even familiar personages, as we read of Cromwell's carefully constructed conspiracy and trumped up evidence, More's son-in-law's betrayal and More's heart-breaking attempts to compromise, to placate. Once again, Bolt explains:
At any rate, Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off... Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigour, and could no more be budged than a cliff. This account of him developed as I wrote: what first attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death. For there can be no doubt, given the circumstances, that he did it himself. If, on any day up to that of his execution, he had been willing to give public approval to Henry’s marriage with Anne Boleyn, he could have gone on living... This brings me to something for which I feel the need to explain, perhaps apologise. More was a very orthodox Catholic and for him an oath was something perfectly specific; it was an invitation to God, an invitation God would not refuse, to act as a witness, and to judge; the consequence of perjury was damnation, for More another perfectly specific concept. So for More the issue was simple (though remembering the outcome it can hardly have been easy). But I am not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian. So by what right do I appropriate a Christian Saint to my purposes? Or to put it the other way, why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. Of course it’s much less effective now that for most of us the actual words of the oath are not much more than impressive mumbo-jumbo...