OBITUARY : Robert Bolt

John Calder
Thursday 23 February 1995 01:02

The author of A Man for All Seasons and the writer of the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Robert Bolt occupied a place in the history of the modern British theatre that is difficult to define. He belonged to no school, but continued a tradition that was declining when he began to write, revived it and took it forward to new successes.

Coming in age between Terence Rattigan (born 1911) and John Arden and Harold Pinter (both born 1930), he adhered to the Rattigan model of the well-made play, based largely on the delineation of character on the stage, the drama of human reactions to events and problems, and the clash of personalities, plays with recognisable beginnings, developments and endings. Bolt's output for the theatre was fairly small, but he also wrote quality screenplays and many of his films became box-office successes.

Although there is a resemblance to Rattigan in style and subject matter, particularly in Bolt's early work, there is also a similarity and some connection with the work of his junior John Arden, especially in political and philosophical outlook, if not in style: Arden's plays are a form of expressionistic total theatre, whereas Bolt is always naturalistic, never stretching the audience beyond its expectations intellectually. Bolt's and Arden's big plays on historical subjects appeared at about the same time in the late Fifties and, as the two knew each other, some cross-pollination is likely. Bolt can also be compared to Arthur Miller, both in style and in the way he tackles moral issues dramatically.

In 1979 Bolt suffered a severe stroke which paralysed his right side and gave him a serious speech impediment, which improved with time, but never left him. He made a Herculean effort to recover enough to work normally and learnt to use a word processor with his left hand amid a profusion of electronic gadgetry that helped him to move and to transfer his thoughts on to paper. He also tried during the following years to lead as normal a social life as was possible.

Bolt was educated at Manchester Grammar School, went on to Manchester University and entered the RAF a year later, where he served from 1943 to 1946. After National Service he returned to the university, went on to further study at Exeter, and then taught for three years at Millfield School.

His first play, The Critic and the Heart, was successfully presented at the Oxford Playhouse in 1957, but it was in the same year with his second, Flowering Cherry, with a distinguished cast led by Ralph Richardson at the Haymarket Theatre, London, that he achieved national recognition and financial as well as critical success. The play realistically depicted a marriage gone stale, a depressed, prevaricating husband (Richardson) undergoing what today is called the male menopause, and his sad, doomed attraction to a younger girl who represents his lost youth and blighted hopes.

This was followed by The Tiger and the Horse (1960), with Michael Redgrave and his daughter Vanessa in the cast, and in the same year the most successful of all his plays, A Man for All Seasons, in which Paul Scofield scored a notable triumph. It depicted Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's chancellor, a wily lawyer treading the narrow path between royal favour and political and moral principle. Principle wins in the end and costs More his life, but he does not hesitate to sacrifice it when the die is cast. A Man for All Seasons and its theme were to play an important part in Bolt's own life. It also became a successful film.

In 1960 Bolt joined the "Committee of 100", a group of well-known people who had decided that the nuclear arms race needed stronger opposition than was being provided by a handful of concerned politicians and scientists, and the polite Gandhian tactics of CND, then led by Canon John Collins. The danger of nuclear war seemed very real and the committee, chaired by Bertrand Russell and having among its members leading writers, artists and others in the media and arts, declared their intention to use massive civil disobedience to attract public attention. It was easy for the police and MI5 to arrest the ringleaders of illegal demonstrations on charges of conspiracy, but it was another matter where well-known and highly respected public figures were concerned: the arrest of a significant proportion of the hundred celebrities would attract maximum publicity and much sympathy.

At the big Trafalgar Square sit-down in September 1961, Bolt was arrested in the company of John Arden, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and many other prominent theatre people. He refused to be bound over to keep the peace and was sentenced to a month in gaol. He shared a cell with Christopher Logue.

At the time Bolt was writing the filmscript for Lawrence of Arabia and David Lean, the director, was ready to start shooting. The absence of Bolt put the film in great danger as the script was unfinished and the producer stood to lose a fortune. Finally Sam Spiegel went in person to the prison and prevailed on Bolt to sign a pledge to keep the peace and be released. This surrender, in total contrast to Sir Thomas More's refusal to save his life by signing a royal document, had, according to Bolt's friends, a profound effect on his life and self-confidence, and the guilt lasted for years. It may account for a decline in his stage writing thereafter.

Bolt's next plays were less ambitious and much less successful, and it was not until 1970 that he had another success with Vivat! Vivat Regina!, about the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. He achieved, however, a considerable succs d'estime for State of Revolution in 1977, a play set in and after the Russian revolution in which Lenin was the principal character. As well as drawing the personalities of the Bolshevik leaders and their inter-relationships, the play examined the events following Lenin's death and the possible reasons behind Trotsky's departure from Russia instead of staying to fight Stalin for the party leadership. Many consider it Bolt's most fascinating and enigmatic play, certainly the most intellectually ambitious. It had only a limited number of performances at the National Theatre.

To the general public Robert Bolt is best known for his screenplays. They include Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Man for All Seasons (1967), Ryan's Daughter (1979), Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) and The Mission (1986), which he wrote with great difficulty after his stroke. He received all the major screen awards, some of them several times. Bolt had the gift for making history contemporary, so that audiences felt they belonged to the era they were witnessing. His dialogue was natural and revealing: he was himself a great talker before his illness and he gave his natural exuberance to many of his characters.

Before his theatre successes, Bolt was a charismatic teacher of English and history, having the rare ability to inspire even the dullest in the class. This didactic skill is apparent in his work: one always learns from it, not only from understanding the motivations and traits of his characters, like Thomas More and Lenin - he drew historical figures in a way that makes them totally real and plausible - but the reasons of history, why things happened or didn't, the sequences of cause and effect, especially the influence of individual decision on making things happen; everything is made clear. We learn about the realities of intrigue, the clash of egos and the follies of power, as if we ourselves were involved in such events.

Robert Bolt was a mainline dramatist with an intellectual intuition, but like all good teachers he never forced his intellectual arguments on audiences, making it easy for them to come to their own conclusions and discoveries. In this way he flattered them and that is the main factor behind his undeniable popularity and success as against contemporaries who only achieved critical fame and an litist public.

He was married four times, twice to the same woman, the actress Sarah Miles, whom he remarried after his stroke. His daughter by his first marriage died tragically by suicide and his son by Sarah Miles had problems with drugs. Although success came to Bolt relatively early and he never had financial problems after his first plays were produced, his life was blighted by tragedies, yet his will-power enabled him to survive them.

At one time he belonged to the Communist Party and left it, like many others with profound regret, thereafter involving himself in causes rather than party politics. His illness appeared to add a spiritual dimension to his life, but he was never religious in any conventional sense. Good- looking and attractive to women, he was wonderful company to men. He did, however, become very overweight, and the heart-bypass operation in 1979 which led to the stroke was due to this and to his preference to work over exercise.

As an author he belonged to the stable of Peggy Ramsay, for generations London's best-known and most eccentric theatrical agent for plays. With her instinct for commercial success she had much influence on the directions taken by her authors, and was probably responsible for Bolt's giving so much more time to the screen than the stage. He was certainly one of her most profitable clients.

Robert Bolt came from a lower-middle-class family of chapel-going Manchester Methodists, was bright at school, but went through a bad period of lying and petty stealing, possibly to attract attention in a family that, although puritanical and joyless, was also extrovert. But, once away from the family, he blossomed into a cosmopolitan personality, avoided Manchester after leaving university and settled comfortably into London flats and a manor- house in Hampshire. To the end he retained his good-humour, a pleasure in the company of others, and a naturally positive and compassionate attitude to life.

John Calder

Movies flirted with Lawrence of Arabia virtually from his death in 1935, writes David Shipman.

In the Thirties Alexander Korda put Walter Hudd under contract because he looked like Lawrence, but later announced Leslie Howard for the role. In 1955 Anatole de Grunwald announced a film with Richard Burton, to be written by Terence Rattigan - a script that was bought by Rank for Dirk Bogarde; when that fell through Rattigan turned it into a play, Ross, in 1960, which Herbert Wilcox bought. Simultaneously 20th Century-Fox and the producer Sam Spiegel announced films about Lawrence, Spiegel's to be directed by David Lean, after their success with The Bridge on the River Kwai. That took a fistful of Oscars, as did Lawrence of Arabia (1962), written by Robert Bolt. It was the beginning of a remarkable partnership.

Lean and Bolt collaborated again on the screen version of Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago (1965), which brought Bolt himself an Oscar for his adaptation. He was to win another the following year for A Man for All Seasons, based on his own play.

It was that play which had led Spiegel to Bolt for Lawrence, with its firm grasp of historical conditioning and its lack of fustian. In tackling the quarrel between Henry VIII and Thomas More, Bolt had more on his mind than the king's bedding and wedding or More's martyrdom; it was a play about conscience and will - whether More's wisdom, skills (as a lawyer) and knowledge would prevail against the king's power. Paul Scofield played More superbly on both stage and screen - in the film with the added virtue of Fred Zinnemann's sensitive direction.

It was Bolt's grasp of complex issues which made him ideal for Lawrence: he was equally at home with Lawrence's particular follies and neuroses as to the reasons why the British were in the Middle East in the first place. It was called "the thinking man's epic" and was the major influence on all subsequent films on political matters in the recent past, from Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton to Oliver Stone's JFK.

Beside it, Zhivago is less richly textured, though perhaps more ordered than the book, and few critics liked Ryan's Daughter (1970), a drama of romance and adultery set in rural Ireland during the First World War. Its reception so discouraged Lean that he did not make another film for 14 years, during which time he declined Lady Caroline Lamb, which, like Ryan's Daughter, was conceived by Bolt as a vehicle for his wife Sarah Miles (as was the play Vivat! Vivat Regina! and, as with Rattigan and Lawrence, Bolt saw that passed over when Hal Wallis simultaneously made his own film on Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots).

Bolt's reputation garnered him a magnificent cast for Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), from Laurence Olivier (as the Duke of Wellington) downwards, but he directed it himself and, unhappily, directing proved not to be his forte. He was to write only two more screenplays, though at the time of his death he had completed a mini-series on the young Richard Nixon for HBO and was working on a six-part adaptation of Jung Chang's best-selling novel Wild Swans.

It is telling and perhaps a pity - in view of such early and modest plays like Flowering Cherry - that Bolt only worked on big, expensive movies. The Mission (1986) did not entirely live up to the expectations of its producer, David Puttnam, and the director, Roland Joffe, who had wanted to make a film on the present conflict in El Salvador. They found the analogies they wanted in a script commissioned by Fernando Ghia from Bolt on Spanish/ Portuguese colonisation in the 17th century. But Bolt's script found insufficient dramatic focus in the conflicts between the Jesuits and the state.

The Bounty (1984), however, seems to me a work of the highest quality, and like A Man for All Seasons was about the conflict between two strong- minded men, in this case Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. Bolt took the view that this was sexual but that Bligh, who was obsessed with Christian, did not necessarily realise it, and Christian, who did, took advantage of it till he inexplicably found himself in the midst of a mutiny. It was by far the most persuasive and interesting of the three movies on this subject, as directed by Roger Donaldson. The script had originally been written for Lean, who had planned two three-hour films.

Lean and Bolt also worked on an adaptation of Conrad, Nostromo, till Lean decided to write his own. The BBC is considering a mini-series based on this book: might they be using Bolt's script?

Robert Oxton Bolt, playwright: born Sale, Lancashire 15 August 1924; CBE 1972; married 1949 Celia Roberts (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1967), 1967 Sarah Miles (one son; marriage dissolved 1976), 1980 Ann Zane (marriage dissolved 1985), 1988 Sarah Miles; died Hampshire 20 February 1995.

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