Depicting the real historical events of the 16th Century, Robert Bolt’s two-act play A Man for All Seasons was initially brought onto stage in the 1960s, and is still widely performed and studied today. The playwright, Bolt’s excellent manipulation of theatrical elements contributes a big part to the play’s lasting popularity; and it also enables the audience to effectively relate the play to the contemporary world. Bolt’s use of the Common Man is an important device linking the audience and the play; the modernised language he chooses to dominate the conversations on the stage encourages the audience to actively consider how events are portrayed. Bolt’s suggestion of lighting and sound effects enhances the critical ideas in the play; his arrangement for the costumes and props also assists the modern audience’s understanding of the play.
As a Brechtian alienation device, the Common Man is used to influence the understanding of a contemporary audience by directly addressing them. He reads, explains events, foreshadows things to come and transcends time and place as a character in the play as well as a commentator out of the play. His important role as historical exposition to the audience is evident as halfway through Act 1, when he acknowledges Wolsey’s fate and introduces Sir Thomas More as the new Chancellor to the audience; as well as when he accounts for the “two years” that has passed, and introduces the “Act of Supremacy” as Act 2 commences.
The Common Man foreshadows More’s future dilemma at the start of the play, when he, as More’s steward, reveals to the audience that More “would give anything to anyone” and “that’s bad”, because one day when asked for “something he wants to keep”, More will be “out of practice”. By enlisting the Common Man’s opinions of More, which is directed communicated with the audience, Bolt prompts the audience to reflect on whether More was right to stick to his principles, and furthermore, whether they accept his point of view that More is a “hero”.
Another function of the Common Man is to influence the audience to recognise their own characteristics in him, as he represents the opinion of the common folks. In all his roles throughout the play, namely More’s disloyal steward, a cynical boatman, a timid publican, an unsympathetic jailer and two other roles inflicted on him—the jury foreman and the headman, the Common Man represents the unreflecting urge to simply survive over the theoretical belief in principles, by whatever means good or bad. It is the lack of moral reference points, as exemplified by the Common Man and multiplied by different roles throughout the society, that explains to the audience the reason for such injustice as the doom of More. The selfish and pragmatic nature in the Common man act as a contrast to the highly-principled, “saintly” More, and invites the audience to examine the flaws in themselves that are similar to the Common Man, and deepens their appreciation and understanding of More’s integrity and courage.
Bolt also carefully constructs the language in the play to convey meanings and connect to a modern audience. There is suggestion of antiquity in the speech of the characters in the play, but only a hint of it. The Common Man’s colloquial language is clearly not the street talk of the 16th century but the common language of the 20th till today. This trend is evident straight from the start of Act 1: “Oh, if they’d let me come on naked, I could have shown you something of my own…”Seldom does the Common Man speak formally, yet he does, sometimes, offer solemn historical exposition to the audience. However, the Common Man still manages to relate to the audience when reading from a “history book”, as shown at the start of Act 2.
He tells the audience that “…we are dealing with an age less fastidious than our own”, which indicates that the Common Man locates himself in the same time period as the modern audience, and invites them to review the time period of the play together with him. Similarly, halfway through Act 2, the Common Man reads to the audience from an envelope that “descends swiftly before him” which embodies a message from the above or the future, acknowledging the fate of Cromwell, Norfolk, the King, Cranmer and Rich. This also suggests that the characters in the play, except for the Common Man, are all victims of dramatic irony. Thus, the modern audience are invited to develop a historical view of the play and encouraged to make individual evaluations based on the past events.
On the other hand, for Sir Thomas More, an admirable scholar living in the 16th Century, part of Bolt’s dramatic choice was to use some of More’s own languages in the play, which has been slightly modernised as well. More’s language is mostly rational, metaphor-rich and demonstrates himself as a man of reason. For instance, when he “quietly” reassures his family who are worried that he does not the frustrated and “dangerous” Rich, “I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake”, and makes a statement about his shelter—“the thickets of the law”. Equally, More’s speech at his final trail heightens the situation, making his steadfast principles and confidence in the law momentous-“the law is a causeway upon which so long as he keeps to it a citizen may walk safely.” Yet, Bolt still manages to show the audience More’s emotions as human.
This is shown earlier in Act 2, when More’s family, including Margaret, fail to understand his principles as he resigns the office of Lord Chancellor—More sighs: “…oh, you’re cruel. I have a cruel family.”In addition, when More meets his family for the last time in jail, his emotional outburst appeals to the audience as his wife Alice’s response-“I understand you’re the best man that I ever met or am likely to”-restores his composure to have a good death. More exclaims Alice’s bravery and hot heart—“why, it’s a lion I married!” Bolt’s choice of language for his characters in the play is not confined to complicated 16th century words, rather, a considerable amount of fluent modern speech are shown, which is friendly to the contemporary audience.
Bolt’s suggestion of lighting is significant, at moments, to enhance critical ideas. As the general lighting changes from warm, bright lights to dark and cold shadows, the general atmosphere is altered on the stage. This helps the audience to define the mood, time and location of a scene, consolidating their understanding of the scenes. For example, in Act 2, when More is called to talk to Cromwell, there is a “darkness” gathering on the others, leaving More “isolated in the light”, out of which he answers them in shadows. The others in the scene—Cromwell, Norfolk, Cranmer and Rich do not understand his principles but he knows entirely what his stand is ; they are in dark but he is not. Also, when the King visits More’s home at Chelsea, “a source of glittering blue light” at the rear of the stage portrays the excitement of the fortuitous occasion. Equally, “a cold grey light from off the grey water” is used to portray the gloomy atmosphere in the Tower, as well as More’s mental and physical dilemma. The importance of the Common Man is also well stressed by the “single spot” of light descending vertically upon him among the “darkness” of the whole stage.
Bolt’s application of sound effects is significant in defining or heightening the effect of a particular moment. The sounds directly attributed to the King have most obvious effects—“trumpets” for his entry, the “plain song” that heralds his arrival and his own music played in Chelsea during his visit all depicts his ultimate power and authority. Another example is towards the end of the Tower scene, when More’ s family fail to stay longer with him and they all know that it is time to say farewell; the tension increases and becomes almost unbearable –“the first stroke of seven is heard on a heavy, deliberate bell, which continues, reducing what follows to a babble”. Following this, as the play reaches its climax—More’s trial, “portentous and heraldic” music is heard, which provides an abrupt transition and maintains the high tension on stage. The sound effects work well in deepening the texture of the play; it also enhances the understanding and focus of the audience.
Overall, in the play A Man for All Seasons, the playwright Robert Bolt makes good efforts in designing the theatrical elements and applying those, including the role of the Common Man, the language of the characters, dramatic irony, the lighting and sound effects, and many more devices. These work cooperatively to illustrate the content of the play to a modern audience, enhancing their understanding and interpretation. Watching this play becomes a thought-provoking process, where the audience are led by the theatrical devices to develop individual understanding of the play, and consider its relevance to the contemporary life. Once this connection with the audience is built, A Man for All Seasons remains a popular historical play embracing its modern style, which depicts the events in the 16th century and keeps active on stage since the 1960s till now.