A Man for All Seasons is timely. Was it ever not? The story of Thomas More’s refusal to ignore his conscience and tell a convenient lie to appease ferocious political forces ought to steel us all, especially those for whom refusal to back down will result not in decapitation but something more like 48 hours of light contumely on Twitter. Robert Bolt’s 1960 play will not resonate among everyone, of course: merely those who have principles.
Smartly directed by Christa Scott-Reed in midtown Manhattan’s Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (through February 24), the production comes to us from the Fellowship for Performing Arts, a group that presents great plays that incidentally are underlain by Christian themes. If you are among those who complain that popular culture has turned away from Christianity and moral grounding in general, you may place your money where your mouth is by buying tickets for this strong and sobering piece, or for FPA’s other offerings. It is currently touring the country with productions of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and C. S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert, a one-man show about the life of the Christian apologist.
A Man for All Seasons finds Thomas More (an implacably mild Michael Countryman) struggling to keep his balance amid the turmoil unleashed when Henry VIII (an amusingly huffy Trent Dawson) demands that the pope release him from his first marriage so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Cardinal Wolsey (John Ahlin) and the king’s cynical chief operative Thomas Cromwell (Todd Cerveris), who will do anything to stay in the king’s favor but will eventually find his own neck on the chopping block, counsel More to humor the sovereign. Instead, More simply refuses to comment. Such is the level of respect he commands that his mere failure to speak out in support of the king is an insult. “This silence of his is bellowing up and down Europe,” Cromwell grumbles. More breaks no law, which leads Cromwell to try to find or invent one of which More can be said to stand in contravention. The King is perfectly willing to chop the heads off those who shame him, but only after due legal niceties are observed. More is far too clever to commit any crime whatsoever, though.
There is some debate over the historical accuracy of the play, but the story Bolt tells remains deeply stirring. More was commandingly portrayed by Paul Scofield in the Oscar-winning 1966 film that was also written by Bolt (who, for good measure, also gave us the screenplays for Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia). Countryman’s More, a balding, slight man, lacks the vigor or the authority of Scofield’s More, but his quiet poise serves the material well enough. Cerveris, though, doesn’t invest Thomas Cromwell with nearly as much wicked opportunism as the character requires. Cromwell (the central figure in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) should draw the attention at least as much as More does, but comes across here as more of a toady than an anti-saint, the avatar of the unprincipled.
More’s famous speech to his son-in-law about why the law must be upheld even if the devil were to avail himself of it is as true now as ever, when four Supreme Court justices and one major political party simply operate under the assumption that major court decisions should be made by starting with the desired outcome, then reasoning backward to find whatever pretext is available to justify it. That More was a rock-solid Catholic and an equally stalwart defender of neutrally applied legal process is a clarifying reminder of where conservatism comes from. “The law is not an instrument of any kind,” More argues. “The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”
A Man for All Seasons has endured in large part because of the famed exchange about the devil and the one that leads to a line that will make every Welshman grit his teeth in fury. (The latter, at the performance I attended, got a huge laugh from the audience, even after all these years.) But Bolt’s writing is crystalline throughout, not just in the most-quoted sections. “First men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts,” More observes, and an exchange between More and his wife is one for the Hall of Fame of understatement: “Did you cross him?” she asks, referring to the sovereign. Replies More, “Somewhat.”