A Man for All Seasons

Now playing at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.

I have only vague memories of the film adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, which I saw as a child (my parents have weird ideas about what constitutes a kid-friendly movie), but I remembered enough to know that the play is about the persecution of Thomas More. Being uneasy about both religion and martyrdom, I didn’t expect to relate much when I bought a ticket to this new production, but I figured it would be interesting nonetheless, a curiosity of both the Reformation and the idealistic 1960s.

So I was surprised—quite surprised, actually—when the play did resonate for me. Underneath all the historical trappings, it proved relevant and meaningful. Turns out it’s less about religious principles than about legal principles, and More, far from being off-puttingly eager to make a statement with his own death, is, in fact, a reluctant martyr, trying to find an honorable way out of his predicament right to the end. And with Frank Langella playing More, that end is a memorable one indeed.

There is, of course, something odd about making Sir Thomas More into a martyr for our times. While he was Lord Chancellor, More cracked down on followers of William Tyndale, who had translated the Bible into vernacular English. He ordered half a dozen Protestants burned at the stake and imprisoned many others, some of whom he may have had tortured (historians disagree on that point, and More denied contemporary allegations). One could easily view More’s own execution as his just desert.

But Robert Bolt’s play leaves out More’s miniature counter-Reformation. His More is less a historical figure than a paragon, the human embodiment of following one’s own conscience in a dangerous, deceitful world. And as that, it works surprisingly well. Nonbloodiness of his hands aside, Bolt’s More doesn’t feel like a saint. As played by Langella, he has a dark sense of humor, rich with irony and self-deprecation, and a lawyer’s Clintonian facility for parsing language. (Heh. Normally I’d frown on such a cheap shot, but our dear former president is pissing me off these days.)

This production belongs to Langella, with his commanding stage presence and eloquent voice. Langella accomplishes the neat trick of making More not entirely likable at the play’s outset. His More is a bit too confident in his own moral rectitude, a bit too dismissive of how his political acrobatics will affect his family. You can see shades of cockiness in the man’s certainty that he can outplay the king and all the royal entourage, and somehow that hubris, the classic tragic flaw, makes More more sympathetic as the play nears its close.

The supporting cast is fine, but the only real standout is Patrick Page, who plays the king in a single scene in which Henry presses More to support his divorce from Katherine. The king cajoles and argues and threatens and pleads, and More sidesteps every advance. Page and Langella make you feel the history between these two men, the real fondness, tainted though it may be by a vast imbalance in power, and Page’s deft sketch of an intelligent, well-meaning man spoiled by royal privilege shames Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who, with much more material, conveys nothing so much as petulance on The Tudors.

The king never makes another appearance in A Man for All Seasons, but his presence, as the head of state, hangs over the rest of the play. Just as the British conversion to Protestantism was less about religion than politics (to say the least), so, too, was the prosecution of More less about religion than politics. And as Bolt writes him, More is a martyr not for the Church but for the Law. More believes that those empowered with enforcing the law respect it as he does; his tragedy is discovering that he is wrong, that they match his devotion with disdain, and that his carefully crafted defenses matter little in a corrupt, unrestrained state.

And that’s where the play feels most relevant: in the depiction of an executive office with contempt for the rule of law. More’s argument in defense of the legal system, even when it protects the bad as well as the good, is powerful and persuasive, which makes the perversion of that system—the ancestor of our own—all the more poignant.

As if to underline the continued importance of the Mores of the world, Langella can also be seen around New York in previews for the film adaptation of Frost/Nixon, growling the infamous line “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” He is, in effect, playing More and the king simultaneously, for the modern-day counterpart of More is not, as I had expected, a religious fundamentalist. To the contrary, Bolt’s More would make a great lawyer for the ACLU.