Today Is the 95th Anniversary of Playwright Robert Bolt's Birth

His stage and screen plays are worth taking a look at.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Bolt's best known play, A Man for All Seasons, contains a few lines that all lawyers and supporters of the rule of law can appreciate, particularly in these polarized times. The context is this: One of the play's villains, Richard Rich, who will eventually perjure himself in order to send Sir Thomas More to his death, has just left the More home. More's wife Alice, daughter Margaret, and future son-in-law, William Roper, urge him to arrest Rich, saying that he is a bad and dangerous man. More declines to do so, saying that Rich has broken no law. His exasperated wife explodes:

ALICE: While you talk, he's gone!

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.

ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man's laws, not God's–and if you cut them down–and you're just the man to do it–d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes. I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

The words are pure poetry for lawyers (though they are, of course, Bolt's and not those of More himself).

Bolt seems to have had a subtle understanding of human nature and of the role of law and social custom in regulating that nature. He wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia too. In it, Prince Faisal is heard to say almost offhandedly:

With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that many people would think that the answer is obviously that passion is the more reliable motive. But Bolt uses Faisal's comment to foreshadow what was to come. After Lawrence is put through several horrific experiences, his passion begins to push him in other directions and his commitment to mercy evaporates.

Are "good manners" really the more reliable motive? Well … that's the term Faisal uses. But if one substitutes "what our social customs require" maybe one gets a little closer to whatever bit of wisdom Bolt's Faisal character is trying to convey. Faisal doesn't claim that adherence to custom will always prove to be the more reliable motive. He merely expresses—presciently as it turns out—his doubts about Lawrence's passion. Likely Faisal had seen before that an unbridled passion to do what's right has a disturbing tendency to morph—often unnoticed—into something quite different. We should all be on the lookout for that tendency.

By the way, Bolt also wrote much else, including the screenplay for Doctor Zhivago.

NEXT: Brickbat: Look for the Union Label

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  1. Excellent reading. Thanks.

  2. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome sex plane and temple priest?” — Many billionaires, powerful people, and two presidents

    1. I would rather trust (more than one who is passionate *or* merely polite-per-current-customs) someone whose mercy is based on valuing human well being in light of reason and evidence.

  3. Robert Shaw’s best role, even though he only has a few minutes of screen-time and looks nothing at all like his character (Henry VIII).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVbpq-GeFlk&t=6s

    1. Henry VIII wasn’t always a fat slob, but I don’t know whether he was at the time of the play’s action or not.

      1. Henry was alleged to be a good looking, sporty, fellow until after his jousting accident in 1536. So Shaw’s physique would be reasonable for the play’s action from 1529 to 1532.

      2. He was never trim and wiry like Robert Shaw, though.

        1. I’m not sure that trim and wiry are the first two adjectives I’d use to describe Robert Shaw.

          https://c8.alamy.com/comp/HEHEP3/lotte-lenya-robert-shaw-james-bond-from-russia-with-love-1963-HEHEP3.jpg

          Well built would seem to cover it.

    2. He is great in AMFAS, but then again, he was almost always great.

      cf. Jaws, Taking of Pelham 123, The Sting, Battle of the Bulge.

      1. The Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian.

      2. His “USS Indianapolis ” monologue in Jaws gives me chills every time I watch it.

      3. I thought he was kind of lame in JAWS. But JAWS has long been close to top of my list of overrated movies. Ooooh, a big shark. Yikes! And a bunch of totally one-dimensional characters, and a stock cliche plot (venal government official ignores danger, people get killed).

        You left out a much better movie with Robert Shaw: BLACK SUNDAY. Here, this clip shows why it’s such a goddamm fantastic thriller:

        https://www.youtube.com/embed/waoazjmeomQ?start=170&end=188

      4. Also excellent in Young Winston

        1. My list was not intended to be exclusive 😉

          Shaw is one of the greatest supporting actors ever. Up there with Claude Rains, Robert Duvall and the lesser-known Cyril Cusack.

          1. Other amazing supporting actors most people have not heard of but you should look them all up, include: Francis L. Sullivan, Flora Robson, and Nicholas Worth.

  4. The “real” Sir Thomas More (or “St. Thomas More”, as the Catholics call him) executed several men for translating the bible and approved of the burning of “heretics” at the stake. He said of Martin Luther “He speaks as though he rested on the bosom of Christ, yet all the time is closed up tightly in the anus of Satan”, which wasn’t very nice. He was hostile to the enclosure movement, which increased the efficiency of English agriculture, claiming that “sheep were eating up men,” displaying a typical aristocratic hostility towards free markets.

    1. “which wasn’t very nice”

      But accurate, see Luther’s views on Jews.

      The enclosure movement was a disaster for farmers in England except for a few wealthy, politically powerful landowners. It was hardly “free market” because it was mainly accomplished by force and uncompensated seizure.

      1. Well, burning people isn’t very nice either, even if they are Protestants. And Jews got to vote a lot earlier in Protestant America and Great Britain than they did in Catholic Europe.

        As far as enclosure goes, I just happened to be reading a book on the Renaissance, which said that it affected only 3 percent of English farmland. Furthermore, Robert C. Allen, in his excellent book, “The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective,” argued that enclosure was an important factor in improving the efficiency of British agriculture, helping to create a high-wage economy, which was in turn an important factor in setting the stage for the industrial revolution. Because wages were high, it made sense to spend money on expensive machinery.

        1. You have to enclose the village to save it, I guess.

          Enclosure was still wrong. Small farmers had rights even if they were inefficient.

    2. He said of Martin Luther “He speaks as though he rested on the bosom of Christ, yet all the time is closed up tightly in the anus of Satan”

      I have nothing to add. I just wanted to quote its awseomeness.

  5. The trilogy by Hilary Mantel involving the same cast of characters casts an entirely different light on More and Cromwell, with Richard Rich being merely Cromwell’s agent and More a religious fanatic.

    Worthwhile studying both views.

    1. “More a religious fanatic”

      Yes, Saint Thomas More, Martyr of the Catholic Church, who was killed because he would not acknowledge the Church of England and prosecuted heretics, was a “religious fanatic”.

      The author was hardly a genius at figuring this out.

    2. Mantel has explicitly stated she wrote her books to destroy the reputation of Thomas More. Cromwell was a man few contemporaries found pleasant, a thug and a man who could be counted on to provide a false confession when needed, and contra Ms Mantel he was noted by contemporaries for keeping his daughters illiterate.

      1. I think it says a lot about our time that we have reached a level of revisionism that makes More the villain and Cromwell the hero.

        1. Or perhaps both More and Cromwell were villains and it was villain vs villain, and only modern tribalism drives the need to make one of them out to be a hero.

          1. Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was either valid or not.

            If not valid, then the law requiring people to attest to its validity on pain of treason, was an unjust law.

            If it was an unjust law, there was nothing villainous about defying it.

            1. And if More had died a natural death, he’d probably be remembered primarily as “that Renaissance humanist who wrote Utopia.”

            2. “If it was an unjust law, there was nothing villainous about defying it.”

              As if that were the only thing More ever did that might be considered villainous. Did you miss the part above about him prosecuting heretics?

              1. He only burned four. How many heretics did Janet Reno burn?

            3. If not valid, then the law requiring people to attest to its validity on pain of treason, was an unjust law.

              This is also true if the marriage was valid.

              1. Where’s Pollock to point out that I never denied that?

          2. (1) Both More and Cromwell did their share of morally-ugly deeds and both a lot of positive good as well. Making either out to be a saint is a bit of a reach. To be fair to the Catholic Church, burning Protestant heretics used to be a lot less controversial than it is today, with all this darn political correctness….

            (2) I don’t think Ms Mantel hides any of Cromwell’s actions as Henry’s pit bull, but she does put the best possible gloss on them. Her portrayal of More is acerbic, but likewise factual. Bolt’s play was pure hagiography, but that’s OK too.

            (3) One of my architecture professors recommended A Man For All Seasons from the perspective of finding (aesthetic) freedom by following (aesthetic) constrains

            1. More was well within the moral frame of his time, by the standards of the 15th century, he was pretty restrained.

              Cromwell was considered brutal during his lifetime.

              1. (1) So More’s murders were moral, frame-wise, but Cromwell’s weren’t? Good to know…….

                (2) I don’t doubt Cromwell was considered brutal during his lifetime, as he was brutal and had a lot of very prominent enemies. But look hard enough and you can find people who considered More brutal. You just need to canvas his victims. They were maybe a little less prominent than Cromwell’s enemies, one example being Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

                (3) As the King’s top enforcer, Cromwell was pretty restrained by the standards of the 15th century too…..

                (4) Actually, Cromwell was also “well within the moral frame of his time” – right up to the point he married Henry to a women the king found ugly. Then he suddenly wasn’t. Hans Holbein was to blame, his portrait of the lady in question being too generous. This cost Cromwell his head, but that was well within the moral frame of the time too…..

                1. Cromwell’s fabrication of Anne Boleyn’s adultery after arranging her marriage is rather spectacularly unwholesome. There is no way to call that moral.

                  1. I don’t disagree in the slightest, particularly because there were multiple victims aside from Anne herself. To fabricate her adultery he needed to fabricate her co-adulterers, and Cromwell created several. Both More and Cromwell used the laws of England to protect what they were pledged to protect, Church and King respectively. But neither were particularly bloody-minded and their tally of victims was small compared to figures with similar authority in other countries.

            2. Both More and Cromwell did their share of morally-ugly deeds and both a lot of positive good as well.

              Could you provide some specifics about the “positive good?”

              1. I presume I’m not tasked to speak for More, so will restrict myself to Cromwell. The most expeditious thing is to cut&paste from Wikipedia (how did we get along before Wiki ?!?) :

                Geoffrey Elton, however, in The Tudor Revolution (1953), featured him as the central figure in the Tudor revolution in government, the presiding genius, much more so than the king, in handling the break with Rome and in creating the laws and administrative procedures that reshaped post-Reformation England. Elton wrote that Cromwell had been responsible for translating royal supremacy into parliamentary terms, creating powerful new organs of government to take charge of Church lands, and largely removing the medieval features of central government.

                In short, a central figure in the transition of England from a medieval to modern state……

            3. People overlook the fact that it wasn’t just the Catholic Church that punished heretics.

              Heresy was understood by just about everybody at the time to be a very serious crime. One of the problems, though, was that local prince/potentate types liked to use heresy charges as an easy means to eliminate rivals and enemies.

              The main point of the Inquisition was to put an end to that practice, and set up a fair (by the standards of the day) means of adjudicating heresy charges.

              1. Not to quibble, but I’m pretty certain the main point of the Inquisition was strangling the Reformation (like a baby in its crib). Like the poor, there are always heretics among you. But pre-Reformation the Church did not feel the need to launch a world-wide multi-organization concentrated campaign to ensure heretics were processed in an even regulatory manner.

                1. My understanding was that it started in France in the 12th century in response to the Waldensians and Cathars (who were proto-Protestants).

                  One thing I left out in my post above was that the Church wanted to reserve to itself the decision-making authority on what constituted heresy. That is what drove the process. But that process was, by the standards of the day, remarkably fair.

                  It is difficult for us to see it that way today, because we have a hard time accepting the notion that heresy is a crime deserving of serious punishment. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, though, it was a given.

                  1. Right you are. There was a large expansion of the Inquisition in response to the Reformation, but it’s start was much earlier as you say.

          3. Now that is a sane position.

  6. True story*: Bolt wrote the script of that Star Trek episode where Spock says that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

    *Not really.

  7. Bolt also wrote the screenplay for Smokey and the Bandit.

    1. They also brought him in to spiff up the dialogue in Piranha and Airport ’77.

  8. I forget who said it, but it was something like “if you find yourself beheading more than one wife, maybe the problem is with you.”

  9. Longtime Conspiracy readers will note that I periodically quote from this passage. Another:

    “The law is not a light for you or any man to see by. The law is not an instrument of any kind…The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”

  10. “Likely Faisal had seen before that an unbridled passion to do what’s right has a disturbing tendency to morph—often unnoticed—into something quite different. We should all be on the lookout for that tendency.”
    a la Daenerys Targaryen, I suppose.

  11. Overall, Somin is right. There is a need for radical freedom of movement.
    But he’s wrong in this instance, because the role of any republic is to protect the rights of its citizens. If someone inside or outside the country seeks to destroy the country (which is what BDS is all about in relation to Israel), then that republic has a duty to not aid such enemy in any way, including not letting them into the country.

  12. Yes. I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

    It’s worth noting that, after this ringing defence of law, the very next scene is Cromwell meeting Rich in a tavern and buying him. Which in time brings More to trial and conviction on perjured evidence supplied by Rich. Bolt would not have juxtaposed those two scenes without it being a deliberate attempt to show the contrast between More’s high minded defense of the rule of law, and the practical reality.

    My own favorite exchange from the play is this one, from the trial, after Rich has given his perjured evidence and is beginnibg to leave the court. :

    More : There is one question I would like to ask the witness. That’s a chain of office you’re wearing. May I see it? The Red Dragon. What’s this ?

    Cromwell : Sir Richard is appointed Attorney General for Wales.

    More : For Wales. Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales.

    Wales of course is a very beautiful country, with wonderful people and the best national anthem in the world – by an enormous distance. So it is a little unkind to dismiss it in this way.

    Nevertheless, in More’s time, Wales was hardly the jewel of the King’s Dominions and the force and wit of More’s gentle rebuke is overwhelming.

    1. Azerbaijan’s is fantastic. Scotland doesn’t have a national anthem but one of the three often used is Highland Cathedral, which is a great song on the pipes. The USSR anthem is good too, when not played slowly.

      Honestly, most anthems are pretty boring.

      1. You’re right that it does matter how they’re played. For Land of My Fathers it has to be the full crowd singing it at top volume before a rugby international. And since it’s Wales, everyone in the crowd can sing. In tune.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM4mIlYKG9s

    2. I am partial to Jerusalem myself (as unofficial anthems go), but Men of Harlech is great too.

  13. Dr. Zhivago; Lawrence of Arabia; A Man for All Seasons. Quite a triptych.

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