The Volokh Conspiracy

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

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


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.