The fact is that Broadway musicals, even the mediocre ones, can still do what they do better than TV or movies can. But straight plays are another story. To succeed, they must deliver something that is not attainable on the screen—which is what makes it so interesting to look back on a Broadway hit from the days when playwrights did not yet have to compete with television.
Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, first produced in 1960, is a case in point, and this year’s full-scale production mounted by the Roundabout, starring Frank Langella as Sir Thomas More, gives us the opportunity to measure how far we have come, and in what direction.
Having always heard the play mentioned with reverence, I was stunned by how boring it proved—boring, easy to predict, morally static (hence not very dramatic), and “worthy” in the worst sense of the word.
Perhaps it’s we as an audience, as a culture, who have been re-educated to see political virtue as dubious under any circumstances. Or maybe the nature of More’s virtue is no longer meaningful to us, at least not as it is presented by Bolt. The playwright eliminated all the elements of More’s character that made him so attractive to his peers and so interesting to posterity, such as his sophisticated philosophical and political ideas, his slyly subversive fable Utopia, and his revolutionary intellectual openness. Stock references are made to Erasmus and Machiavelli, but no real sense of the mental world More moved in is captured. No mention is made, needless to say, of his aggressive persecution of Protestants during his time in power.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
A Man for this Season?
Brooke Allen, writing in the New Criterion, reviews a couple of recent revivals of middlebrow Broadway hits: