by Adam White, dramaturg
It is fascinating how a history can morph over time! Depending on the information available and who’s telling the story, history’s facts can be rearranged, modified or even disappear. There are many sites where this phenomena may be examined, but the one most pertinent to those of us working on this production of A Man for All Seasons is the difference between that way that Bolt’s Thomas More feels ‘conscience’ and how Thomas More the man understood the term.
The way Bolt’s Thomas More performs conscience is best encapsulated in his passionate declaration: “…what matter is to me is not whether it is true or not, but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.” When it comes to moral matters and decisions, Bolt’s More centers moral authority in himself. Despite what the people and institutions around him may espouse, he follows his own inner voice because his inner voice alone determines what is right and what is wrong.
This is a very Protestant Thomas More… and Thomas More was a Catholic. He was devoutly Catholic. While the Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons and the Thomas More of history share similar opinions, make similar decisions and ultimately suffer the same fate, the Thomas More of history would probably have much to say on the dangers of the reasoning behind Bolt’s Thomas More’s decisions. To use a quote from from a letter to his daughter Margaret, More believed that:
“[A man] is not by a law of one realm so bound in his conscience, where there is a law of the whole corps of Christendom to the contrary in matter touching belief, as he is by a law of the whole corps.”
And here, in this quote, lies the key to why Thomas More stood up to King Henry VIII.
In Thomas More’s time, the Catholic Church was the Christian community. The English Reformation was brewing, but had not boiled over; it would take a few more years for Reformation ideas to catch on and revolutionize faith in Europe. Thomas More spent his life combating the ideas of William Tyndale and Martin Luther because he believed their ideas would divide Christianity and would ultimately destroy the Christian world. Thomas More envisioned a more united Europe, a Europe banded together in common faith. King Henry’s decisive moves to separate the Church of England from the Church of Rome were acts that, by conscience, More could not abide.
So it wasn’t necessarily individual conscience compelled More to stand to up to King Henry, it was a community conscience — an obligation to the whole body of Christendom — that spurred him. It would be the Protestants of the 16th and 17th-centuries who would champion ‘capital-I’ conscience, who champion the individual. Thomas More was a champion for ‘we’, for ‘us.’
Does this difference between Bolt’s Thomas More and the Thomas More of history tarnish A Man for All Seasons? Bolt’s use of the Thomas More story to drive home a theme of integrity to ‘capital-I’ conscience may seem exploitative, but I think that the tension between the historical Thomas More and his subsequent interpretations has important implications for us. When is it important to act on what I believe to be right and wrong? When do I choose to go with what my community believes to be right and wrong?
Are my beliefs the same as my community’s beliefs? Where do they differ and why?
It seems that there is much to learn from how we tell history.
Duerden, Richard. “A Man for All Seasons.” Telephone interview. 31 Jan. 2014.
Guy, J. A. Thomas More. London: Arnold, 2000. Print.