by Adam White, dramaturg
“The man who tells lies hides the truth, but the man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.” – Robert Bolt, author of A Man For All Seasons
It’s a thought-provoking quote isn’t it? Interestingly, Bolt in his witticism makes no claim as to who’s bad or who’s good in his observation of liars. The word ‘forgotten,’ actually, may imply a certain absent-mindedness about the man who tells half-lies. Generally, there is no ill will in one who is absent-minded… That’s something one simply is, for better or for worse. It wouldn’t be much of a jump, then, to say a half-liar may be a well-intentioned person; after all, what’s the other half of a half-lie? Isn’t it a half-truth?
It is with this frame of mind we come together to consider A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt, a historical drama set in 16th century England in which the valiant Sir Thomas More maintains the moral high ground in the corrupt courts of King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More sacrifices his all for what he believes to be right and true, and ultimately More is sentenced to death for his unwavering belief.
Certainly Sir Thomas More’s sacrifice is admirable, even remarkable. If learning lessons and morals is the purpose of theatre like A Man For All Seasons, then I am of the opinion that this story has the potential to encourage every viewer to be a better human. That being said, there are a myriad of reasons theatre artists make theatre, so perhaps I’d be doing the artists involved a disservice by pigeonholing this production as propaganda for honorable living. In the same vein, I think it would also be a disservice to say that A Man For All Seasons, though a historical drama, is wholly accurate in its portrayal of Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and the host of characters who populate the play. To be frank, this play does not portray the events as they really happened, but instead portrays the events as Bolt willed them to happen. To use Robert Bolt’s terminology, A Man For All Seasons is, in some sense, a half-lie (and to use my word, then, a half-truth). And perhaps this is not all that surprising; such is the nature of historical drama.
However, if A Man For All Seasons is a half-lie/half-truth and Bolt is right in saying that half-lie/half-truth’s are told because one has misplaced the truth, I can’t help but wonder where the story of Sir Thomas More shed the complete ‘truth’ (truth, I guess, being historical accuracy) and started to take on other interpretations, new layers of meaning.
Based off of the research I’ve done, I’d say the story of Sir Thomas More took on a life of its own the moment More was beheaded. That isn’t me being macabre. Honestly, once this legend was uninhibited by its central figure’s existence, Thomas More’s and Henry VIII confrontation took off and became a myth that resonated with people across cultures and times. (A phenomena which I will explore in my next post.)
This practically universal draw of Sir Thomas More’s example underlines this story’s significance. While historical ‘truth’ may be have been absent-mindedly left behind hundreds of years ago, it seems to me that it was never malevolently left behind. Indeed, the reason this story has survived the ages may be that it is now confidently owned by of the Western world. It is our story, in some archetypal, Campbell-ian way.
It’s from this angle I approach dramaturgy for A Man For All Seasons. Next week, I’ll be taking a look at specific sites in history where Sir Thomas More’s story cropped up once more to play a part in Western history.
Afoniya. “On the Removal of a Moscow Statue.” Afoniya’s Blog. N.p., 10 July 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
“Obelisk in Aleksandrovsk to a Garden Restored with Mistakes.” Rupaper.com. N.p., 31 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
“Rep. Hyde’s Opening Statement.” PBS. PBS, 14 Jan. 1999. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
“Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).” Thomas More. Oregon State University, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
“Unveiling of a Restored Obelisk Commemorating the House of Romanov’s Rule.”President of Russia. N.p., 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.