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Theatre: A Man for All Seasons

A Man for All Seasons is an award-winning play and film by Robert Bolt. After successful runs in London (1960) and New York (1962), it was adapted to film in 1966. The play and film made a star of Paul Scofield, who won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for his performance. The movie picked up five additional Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinneman). Inspired By actual historic events.

Once upon a time, Sir Thomas More was a barrister who became the most trusted adviser of Henry VIII. More was a Catholic with a keen moral focus, and his advice was good.

Then Henry wanted to divorce wife Catherine of Aragon, who'd failed to produce a living son, so he could marry the fertile Anne Boleyn. More refused to support this plan; he considered it immoral, and against his religion. The fact that the original marriage had been arranged to help foster peace with another Catholic country (Spain) didn't help.

Henry VIII decided to Take a Third Option; leave the Catholic Church and found a new one, the Church of England, with himself as the head. More hated this idea and refused to support it — although he'd made a bit of a stink about corruption and abuse of power in the Church, his Catholicism forbade him from supporting an outright schism. But everyone else who was anyone in the government did support the king. More, rather than kick up a protest, resigned and kept his mouth tightly shut, but the fact that he would not publicly endorse the idea made it pretty obvious to everybody that he was against it.

King Henry VIII was now good and angry at Thomas More, and the persecution started in earnest...

In addition to the film, the play has been produced for television at least three times, including a 1988 version starring Charlton Heston. The 1988 version stuck closely to the stage version, including retaining the Fourth Wall-breaking narrator-character.

Tropes associated with the play A Man for All Seasons include:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Richard Rich, whose climb up the political ladder requires him to deliver More to the executioner.
  • As the Good Book Says: More, paraphrasing Matthew 16:26 (and Mark 8:36 and Luke 9:25):
    More: Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world...But for Wales?
  • Author Tract: The play makes it very clear that More is the fella we're supposed to be cheering for.
  • Being Good Sucks: It's a major theme; Thomas More remarks that vice often brings greater rewards than virtue, so we must expend extra effort to be good.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Common Man addresses the audience directly.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted here. It isn't after a certain point, but More thinks it should be.
  • The Corruptible: Richard Rich.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cromwell and, on occasion, Sir Thomas:
    Wolsey: The King wants a son- what are you going to do about it?
    More: (dry) I'm very sure the King needs no advice from me on what to do about it.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Sir Thomas More.
  • Downer Ending: The only person to get a happy ending in this story is Rich.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Sir Thomas knows exactly where his resistance is taking him.
  • Greek Chorus: The Common Man, who also takes on multiple roles (including More's executioner).
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • At More's actual trial, it is highly unlikely that Richard Rich committed perjury, as his own written account of his conversation with More would contradict him.
    • Henry VIII is portrayed as an intellectual cypher, though possessed with a low cunning. In reality, he was, like all the Tudors, something of an intellectual with a real appreciation for fine culture.
  • Hollywood History: Among other things, the play doesn't mention More had three children besides Margaret: Elizabeth, Cicely, and John, besides his various foster children. (BTW: It's historically correct that More made sure his daughters received full formal educations- a rarity at that time.)
    • One odd elision is that while the Duke of Norfolk is a major character, his being Anne Boleyn's uncle goes unmentioned.
  • Hollywood Law: More is made to say that "When I was at law, it was the custom to ask the prisoner if he had anything to say before sentence was passed upon him." This is the garbled US version. In England, it is "Do you know of any reason why sentence should NOT be passed upon you?", in the unlikely event that there is cause for the defense to "move in arrest of judgement". (As Henry Cecil points out from his days on the bench, most criminals in the dock have no idea of this, and judges find it easier to just let them ramble when they take it as an invitation to rant about whatever is eating them than to try and shut them up.)
  • Honor Before Reason: Done nobly.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sir Thomas More.
  • Inspired By
  • Ironic Echo: "This isn't Spain. This is England!"
  • Karma Houdini: "Richard Rich became Chancellor of England...and died in his bed."
  • Loss of Identity: Averted. Sir Thomas makes it clear, though, that if he had consented to swear a false oath, this would have been his inevitable fate. Richard Rich arguably falls victim to it, though we do not really see the effects onscreen.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: The climax turns on one of these; it's the cause of the Downer Ending.
  • Never Learned to Read: More's wife.
  • Offscreen Karma: Various villains conspire to have Thomas More unjustly executed for treason. The narrator gives us their subsequent fates:
    Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became chancellor of England and died in his bed.
  • Off with His Head!: Sir Thomas (with the aid of a Gory Discretion Shot, of course).
  • One Steve Limit: Five of the historical figures presented in the play were named Thomas; to avoid confusion, the play mentions only Thomas More's first name, while Cromwell, Wolsey, Cranmer and Norfolk are referred to only by their surnames or titles.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!
  • Smart Guy: Sir Thomas More and his daughter, Margaret.
  • Succession Crisis: Why all this is happening in the first place — Henry VIII wants a male heir, and wife #1 (Catherine of Aragon) hasn't provided one.
  • Take a Third Option: King Henry choosing to split from the Catholic Church, of course. But also Sir Thomas' decision to side publicly neither with the Reformers nor the Catholics and to remain silent about Henry's choice.
  • Take That: "Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"
  • Teeth Clenched Team Work: Norfolk and Cromwell. The two hate each other, and are only working together because the King wishes it.
  • Turn Coat: Richard Rich (against More), Thomas Cromwell (against Wolsey), and, much less opportunistically, the Duke of Norfolk.
  • With Us or Against Us: There's no arguing with Henry VIII. Nor is it possible to just keep quiet and not say anything about the King's plans one way or the other; Henry will have an endorsement, or else.

Tropes added by the 1966 film include:

  • And Starring: Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More.
  • Decomposite Character: The Common Man is decomposed into his various separate roles, with one, Sir Thomas' servant Matthew, retaining a little of his function as commentator.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress
  • Hot Consort: Anne Boleyn (in the five seconds we see her, anyway).
  • Large Ham: King Henry. During his attempt to get More's endorsement, he's basically shouting the entire time. Even the other characters notice it, and are listening at the window. Or away from the window, given the volume.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Anne's scene has her in an ermine-trimmed dress.
  • Smart People Know Latin: The king tests how smart sir Thomas' daughter is by asking her to talk in Latin.
  • Star-Making Role: For Paul Scofield and John Hurt.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: at the end of the film, a voiceover explains what happens in the next few years (for most of the characters, things get worse).

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alternative title(s): A Man For All Seasons
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