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2013 - 2014 Season

Sampling the Legacy of Sir Thomas More

by Adam White, dramaturg

What do Vladmir Lenin, Pope Pius XI and Bill Clinton all have in common?

Well, they’ve all had a run in with Sir Thomas More, in one way or another. Let’s take a look at three sites where the legacy of Thomas More intersected with the worlds of these men.

Site #1: Vladmir Lenin and the Obelisk of Alexandrovsky Gardens 

The year is 1918. We are in Alexandrovsky Gardens, Moscow.

This place is known as the first park built in the Soviet Union’s capital, and is a place of monuments and memory. In 1914, an obelisk is erected in Alexandrovsky Gardens as a celebratory monument to 300 years under the rule of the Romanov dynasty.

This year, though, the Bolsheviks are in power, and Vladmir Lenin decides to modify this monument to reflect the times. All traces of the Romanov dynasty on the obelisk are erased and replaced with a list of revolutionary socialist thinkers approved by Lenin.

Thomas More’s name is included. This is because Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia, published in 1516. In this work, More wrote of a fictional society that was ideal and good, but could never be achieved. In fact, the word ‘utopia’ was coined by More with this publication. It was More’s ideals for a communistic democracy that Lenin admired.

Just last year, the Russian government once again modified the obelisk. The list of thinkers has been erased, and the new obelisk celebrates the Romanov dynasty. The monument was unveiled November 2013.

Site #2: Pope Pius XI Canonizes St. Thomas More

An image of Pope Pius XI

The year is 1935. Europe is tense; Hitler is gaining power in Germany and the threat of totalitarianism feels very real. It is in this moment that the Catholic Church announces the canonization of Sir Thomas More as a saint.

St. Thomas More’s sainthood sends a powerful message to the world. He is a symbol of moral integrity and bravery in a very troubled time.

That being said, More’s elevation to sainthood isn’t all rosy; More was very involved in suppressing the Lutheran faith during his time. There were raids, burnings and even executions enacted by More with the goal of extinguishing the Reformationist spirit. Some would say that his resistance to the Lutheran faith bordered on madness.

Certainly an interesting intersection in history.

Site #3: Bill Clinton and His Impeachment Trial

An image of the proceedings during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial
Photo by KEYSTONE

It is January 14, 1999. It is the Impeachment Trial of President Bill Clinton and Congressman Henry Hyde makes the opening statement. And who does Congressman Hyde quote at the opening of the impeachment trial? None other than Sir Thomas More:

“As the playwright Robert Bolt tells it, More was visited by his family, who tried to persuade him to speak the words of the oath that would save his life, even while, in his mind and heart, he held firm to his conviction that the King was in error. More refused. As he told his daughter, Margaret, ‘When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again. . . .’ Sir Thomas More, the most brilliant lawyer of his generation, a scholar with an international reputation, the center of a warm and affectionate family life which he cherished, went to his death rather than take an oath in vain.”

Hyde then went on to stress to the Senators the gravity of the trial. No doubt Hyde meant to draw a comparison between the moral integrity of Thomas More and Bill Clinton.

Isn’t it fascinating that Bolt’s Thomas More now speaks for Thomas More?

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