What is it about the kings of England that we find so fascinating? Especially the Tudor dynasty, and among them, especially Henry VIII? Is Shakespeare to blame with all his wonderfully exciting histories about the kings of England? If you Google “Henry VIII” you get almost 6.5 million hits. If you search for Henry VIII movies, there are so many that you can find a list of the top 10 actors who’ve portrayed him on TV and the big screen. This is without even taking into account spinoffs — movies about the people surrounding him and most affected by him.
Possibly the man most connected with the story of Henry VIII and his clash with the Pope and the Catholic church was Sir Thomas More who alone stood against Henry’s choice to put aside his marriage to Queen Catharine, replace the Pope as head of the church in England, and marry Anne Boleyn. Despite the fact that More refused to speak against the marriage, his reputation throughout England and Europe caused the silence to be construed as opposition and the king couldn’t let it rest there.
Robert Bolt wrote the play A Man For All Seasons in 1960. It played on the London stage for a year starring Paul Scofield as More, who then played it for a year on Broadway, and then again in the movie in 1966. The delightful Leo McKern of Rumpole of the Bailey fame played the Common Man at the Globe in London and Thomas Cromwell on Broadway. Richard Leech played Henry in London, Keith Baxter played him on Broadway, and the incomparable Robert Shaw played him in the movie. Another notable in the movie was Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey.
The movie, I had seen several times; the book I have carried around with me from city to city most of my adult life and never read it. Only the other day did I realize the book belonged to my older brother, not my sister whose high school books I often inherited. I never studied it in high school; I’m not sure how that worked out to be so. As I watched the video this week (taped years ago from the TV) while riding my stationary bicycle, I remembered the book, was able to find it, and sat down to read it in two sittings.
The movie is almost word for word to the play. The major difference is the movie setting with its castles, palaces, and country fields is actually much less dramatic than the setting described by Bolt at the beginning of his play:
THE SET is the same throughout but capable of varied lightings, as indicated. Its form is finally a matter for the designer, but to some extent is dictated by the action of the play. I have visualised two galleries of flattened Tudor arches, one above the other, able to be entered from off-stage. A flight of stairs leading from the upper gallery to the stage. A projection which can suggest an alcove or closet, with a tapestry curtain to be drawn across it. A table and some chairs sufficiently heavy to be congruous indoors or out.
With the stage directions written in, it is easy to visualize the action as Bolt conceived it with great effect. The language is wonderfully written and Bolt’s preface about More and the times gives illumination to the script. Oddly enough, there were two different endings: the one used on Broadway and in the movie, the other used at the Globe in London, an ending which is rather more sardonic. Both are written in my copy of the play. Bolt says that “what the world needed was for one man to be true to himself” and that as he researched the man, More “became for [him] a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off”. Reading the play opened up new dimensions for me, as do so many of the books about the time that I read. Anyone who loves the time period and enjoys the drama of the stage would find this play a delight, and Bolt’s preface eloquent. * * * * *