Pale Wire (Popscene)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Hemlock, sir?


This morning I finished reading Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. It's a two-act play about the downfall of Sir Thomas More, a respected and learned* advisor to England's King Henry VIII who found himself in disfavor after he failed to support the king's move to divorce himself from both his barren wife and the bishop of Rome.

More, who you may have encountered in a 100-level philosophy class as the author of Utopia, faced a confrontation similiar to those presented to Socrates and Galileo. Renounce your principles, the state said, or walk to the gallows.

I think the reason I so enjoy reading the work of playwrights, which are designed to be heard in a communal theater not read privately in this dork's bedroom, is because I'm allowed to turn over the dialogue in my own head, savor each utterance in the manner I choose, clothed in whatever luxaries of the imagination I see fit. It's a selfish thing. Like a novel, a script feels much more personal, much more my own than a play or a film, which are wholly designed by someone else and which I'm forced to share with others.

Plus I really like good dialogue. And this idiom demands it. There are plenty of great movies and even a few good novels written by men and women without an ear for the spoken word, but I've yet to run into a play that could succeed without it.

Packaging the highly formal language of the period in easily digestable characters, (who are admittedly a bit one-dimensional) Bolt does well.

There's an opportunity here for a debate about putting principle before personal safety and what happens with might conflicts with what's right. Did Galileo make the right choice when he denied his discoveries to save his neck? Is Sir Thomas More a hero, a saint, a fool? Perhaps all three? And what obligation do we have to speak up for our conscience, even when we know our voice may not be welcome? What is it in ourselves — for Bolt's More it was his conscience's fealty to God — if anything at all that we hold as inviolable?

Hell if I know. So I won't even try. But in keeping with the last few posts, I will share a quote from Bolt's preface that I think applies to my own craft.
The economy was very progressive, the religion was very reactionary. We say therefore that the collision was inevitable, setting Henry aside as a colorful accident. With Henry presumably we set aside as accidents Catherine and Wolsey and Anne and More and Cranmer and Cromwell and the Lord Mayor of London and the man who cleaned his windows; setting indeed everyone aside as an accident, we say that the collision was inevitable. But that, on reflection, seems only to repeat that it happened. What is of interest is the way it happened, the way it was lived. For lived such collisions are. "Religion" and "economy" are abstractions which describe the way men live. Because men work we may speak of an economy, not the other way round. Because men worship we may speak of a religion, not the other way round. And when an economy collides with a religion it is living men who collide, nothing else (they collide with one another and within themselves).

*Okay, that word was totally unnecessary. I just really wanted to imagine myself saying it with that regal English infliction that's given us such pleasures as "PRO-cess-SEAS," "ISSS-euhs" and "con-traer-VA-seas."