Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, about the fate of England’s Sir Thomas More circa 1535, is getting a revival at off-Broadway’s Acorn Theater on West 42nd Street, produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts. Bolt’s play opened in London in 1960 and arrived a year later in New York starring Paul Scofield, who won a Tony for his performance, and in 1966 he won an Oscar in Fred Zinneman’s stunning film version of the play.
The play hasn’t been performed here since 2008, when Frank Langella impeccably took on the More role at the Roundabout Theatre. Now, More is being played by Michael Countryman, a fine New York stage actor who carries More’s intellectual greatness lightly with an understanding of the man’s humanity. A Man for All Seasons is mostly about More’s struggles with a young King Henry VIII (Trent Dawson) and his ruthless though smart associate Thomas Cromwell (Todd Ceveris).
Although the play is historical, it is modest and cheerful until its final scenes bring us close to More's tragic end. Then, in the face of betrayal by Cromwell and other shoddy politicians of the era, More allows himself to show some anger. He stands center stage and shouts down hypocrisy and hypocrites in a scene that builds into something of great theatrical grandeur.
The King and More are the principal players in A Man for All Seasons, though they only meet in one unforgettable scene, where More is serving as counselor to the carnal King. The King pays a visit to More’s home and is dressed in a silly royal foppery costume, designed by Theresa Squire, and walks around the stage offering compliments and looking to More for compromise.
When the King dismisses the scheming Cardinal Wolsey (John Ahlin), More becomes chancellor of England. As chancellor, he serves the King sagely and faithfully. When the King meets Anne Boleyn and quickly insists on a divorce from his Queen Katherine, the answer from the Pope is excommunication. Then the King breaks away from the Catholic Church and forms his own Church of England. He then requires the chancellor to take an oath to him as the head of his new church. That is when a quiet battle begins between the two men. This is at the heart of the play, which progresses swiftly with contending emotions on both sides.
What makes A Man for All Seasons stimulating is the simple, honest way that Bolt tells his story. There are no heroics in this play. More loves the comfort of his family. His Lady Alice is effectively played by Carolyn McCormick as well ashis daughter Margaret Moore played by Kim Wong and his son-in-law William Roper played by Sean Dugan. More enjoys his life and fears death. He wants to stay alive and retain his office and protect his family. But he wants even more to preserve his conscience at whatever cost. He dies with no vain flourish, but he dies rather than compromise his conscience.
Since A Man for All Seasons was written 59 years ago, More’s life and work have been put under time’s historical microscope by modern scholars, especially English writer Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall and the play Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2, which played Broadway in 2015. She examined More’s historical literary records. She calls it a “re-envisioning" and decides that More is a hypocrite.
Brooks Atkinson, the Times theater critic from 1925 to 1960, looking back on the significant plays of his career, like A Man for All Seasons, noted in 1973 that Sixteenth Century More was ”a medieval man and was a bigot. He regarded Protestantism as heresy. He acquiesced in the execution of non-Catholics. Even his classic book of his vision of the perfect state, Utopia, by our standards is fascist. Today, our civilization is more merciful than More’s.“
Still, Bolt’s thought-provoking play still works for an audience, and More’s allegiance to his principals and his personal grace under pressure still make him a man for all seasons from a different world.