Friday, September 19, 2008

A Man for All Seasons

"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 marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons."

-Robert Whittinton, on Sir Thomas More, 1520

Get thee to the Roundabout revival of A Man for All Seasons! I had the great fortune to attend the fourth preview on Sunday with Sarah and must say it's well on its way to being one of the highlights of the season. There is one reason and one reason alone that makes attendance mandatory: Frank Langella as Sir Thomas More. When Langella is onstage, which is for almost the entire running time of the play, the combination of Robert Bolt's prose and Langella's formidable talent provides an affecting lyricism, as we watch a man of such integrity refuse to compromise his morals and ideals for political reasons.

Sir Thomas More is a fascinating individual. He was noted as an author, lawyer and statesman. He insisted that his daughters be educated as well as his sons, especially rare in the 16th century. In Robert Bolt's play, the playwright gives us a human portrait of one of the most respected statesmen in the history of England. More, who was one of King Henry VIII's favorites, would meet his end when he couldn't compromise his own moral beliefs and integrity and swear allegiance to Henry, who so desired a male heir that he would split from the Church in Rome, starting the Church of England. When More refused to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to the Act of Succession, which recognized Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn as his wife and their children as heirs to the throne of England, he was tried for treason and was executed by beheading on Tower Hill at the Tower of London. More was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and also has a feast day on the Anglican calendar.

(It should be mentioned that while the play portrays the man as being born with a halo, he was vehemently against Protestant Reformation, leading a violent scourge of Lutheranism in England which included the burning several people at the stake for heresy. Well... nobody's perfect).

Bolt, a noted agnostic, was not so much interested in the religious implications surrounding the character of More, but moreso as a man of conscience and integrity, who refused to bend to the whim of the King. The play had a moderately successful run in London in 1960 and later opened on Broadway in 1961, where it was an even bigger success winning the Tony award for Best Play. The play was made into a film in 1966, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Paul Scofield, who had originated the role of More in London and on Broadway to Tony-winning effect. The film would prove an overwhelming success, winning six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor for Scofield and Best Screenplay for Bolt. A second film adaptation with Charlton Heston (who also directed) would follow in 1988.

Patrick Page has a fantastic cameo as Henry VIII in the first act, a scene that lasts only several minutes but makes a lasting impression, as see both the lighter and darker sides of Henry. Tony winner Maryann Plunkett makes a return to Broadway after a twenty year absence as Alice More, Thomas' second wife. Zac Grenier proves a powerful foil in Thomas Cromwell, who does everything in his power to bring down More. Richard Strong is Richard Rich, the commoner who would become Chancellor of England before his death, and who is considered one of the great political villains of all time. Rich is responsible for ultimately selling out More to Cromwell under what is widely considered to be perjured testimony.

However, it all comes back to Langella, especially in his second act decline from nobleman to prisoner. The second act, really, is where the play truly takes off. There is a great deal of exposition to be learned in the first, where we are given a full introduction to the period, era and political-religious implications of the time. But it is in the second act when More refuses to take the oath and loses everything he has that the play truly soars. Most notably in the heartbreaking scene in which he says goodbye to his family (both on film and onstage this scene can reduce an audience to tears) and the trial scene that immediately follows in which More makes his final statement before the court. His performance is of such definition and quality, I can't help but be excited by the fact that I get to see it again towards the end of the run.

Catherine Zuber provides elegant period costumes, a celebration of earth tones and with such exquisite detail, she will most likely be in the running for her fifth straight Tony win this year. Santo Loquasto's set is simple, yet most effective in use of the space, complementing the staging of the director quite nicely. Hughes has eliminated the character of the Common Man, and really, he isn't missed. The Common Man was a Brechtian device that narrated and commented on the play to the audience, while also appearing as More's servant, the executioner, a boatman, etc. Really, he's not much missed. (And yes, the Bolt estate approved the changes).

I couldn't help but think of the relevancy this historical drama has in our own society. What it says about leadership and remaining true to oneself. There is much to be admired about Sir Thomas More, in not bending to the King's will against his own ideals to the point of losing his life so as not to compromise his moral fiber. My God, what our politicians and statesman could learn from More, as an example on how to govern with integrity, gravitas and conscience.

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