Feeling low? Can’t cope? Unable to sleep at night, what with the global financial crisis and all? Why not visit the Roundabout Theatre for a nice, long nap?
The Roundabout’s sleepy revival of Robert Bolt’s old chestnut, A Man for All Seasons (1960), not only leaves you dozing contentedly. It offers the additional pleasure of making you feel spectacularly virtuous for being there in the first place.
Bolt’s dusty costume drama about that original maverick, Sir Thomas More (beheaded, 1535), is mostly a middlebrow bore masquerading as a play of ideas. The thick, sanctimonious air hovering over Doug Hughes’ plodding production isn’t helped at all by the righteous Playbill quotation from Bolt’s original script:
“It should be remembered,” we’re pompously advised, “that A Man for All Seasons deals with ‘an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture.’”
Oh, phooey. It’s a little late in the day for the Roundabout Theatre to awaken from its own prolonged slumber to smugly claim A Man for All Seasons is a highly relevant critique of the excesses of the Bush administration.
If anything, Bolt intended Thomas More’s silence in the face of state persecution as a metaphor for the McCarthyite witch hunts and those who refused to testify.
ROBERT BOLT WAS a British north-country socialist whose early promise as a prototype Royal Court playwright of the revolutionary mid-1950s was lost to the commercial West End and Hollywood. He wrote Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, as well as the multiple-Oscar-winning 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, indelibly starring Paul Scofield.
Plays about martyred heroes were popular in England during Bolt’s time. A Man for All Seasons is grouped with Jean Anouilh’s 1959 Becket and Bertolt Brecht’s earlier and far superior The Life of Galileo (1943). Brecht is the formative influence on Bolt’s episodic treatment of More’s battle with King, Cromwell and conscience. There’s even an all-purpose commentator in the original version of the play who’s known as the Common Man. (The role has been cut from the current revival.)
The mighty Kenneth Tynan, in his negative review of the play, first noted that despite some muscular set pieces during the second act, A Man for All Seasons is inherently undramatic. “Where Brecht is voluble, Mr. Bolt is mum,” he wrote, and it’s hard not to agree when the dramatist gives More such diverting lines: “I trust I make myself obscure. … Good! Obscurity is what I need right now.”