Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt

Infobox Actor
name = Robert Bolt
birthname = Robert Oxton Bolt
birthdate = birth date|1924|8|15
birthplace = Sale, Cheshire, England
deathdate = death date and age|1995|2|21|1924|8|15
deathplace = Petersfield, Hampshire, England
spouse = Celia Ann Roberts (1949-1967)
Sarah Miles (1967-1976)
Ann Zane (1980-1985)
Sarah Miles (1988-1995)
academyawards = Best Adapted Screenplay
1965 "Doctor Zhivago"
1966 "A Man for All Seasons"
baftaawards = Best British Screenplay
1962 "Lawrence of Arabia"
1966 "A Man for All Seasons"
goldenglobeawards = Best Screenplay
1965 "Doctor Zhivago"
1966 "A Man for All Seasons"
1986 "The Mission"
tonyawards = Best Author of a Play
1962 "A Man for All Seasons"
Best Play
1962 "A Man for All Seasons"
awards = NYFCC Award for Best Screenplay
1966 "A Man for All Seasons"

Robert Oxton Bolt, CBE (August 15, 1924 – February 21, 1995) was an English playwright and a two-time Oscar winning screenwriter.


He was born in Sale, Cheshire, England. It was at Manchester Grammar School where his obsession for Sir Thomas More developed. He attended Manchester University, and after war service Exeter University. For many years he taught English and history at Millfield School and only became a full time writer at the age of 33 when his play "The Flowering Cherry" was staged in London in 1958, with Celia Johnson and Ralph Richardson.

Although he was best known for his original play "A Man for All Seasons" - a depiction of Sir Thomas More's clash with King Henry VIII over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon - which won awards on the stage and in its film version, most of his writing was screenplays for films or television.

Bolt was known for dramatic works that placed their protagonists in tension with the prevailing society. He won great renown for "A Man for All Seasons", his first iteration of this theme, but he developed it in his existential script for "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). In "Lawrence", he succeeded where several before him had failed, at turning T. E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" into a cogent screenplay by turning the entire book on its head and making it a search for the identity of its author. Lawrence, by Bolt, is presented as a misfit both in English and Arab society.

It was at this time that Bolt himself fell foul of the law and was arrested and imprisoned for protesting nuclear proliferation. He refused to be "bound over" (i.e, to sign a declaration that he would not engage in such activities again) and was sentenced to one month in prison because of this. The producer of the Lawrence film, Sam Spiegel, persuaded Bolt to sign after he had served only two weeks. Bolt later regretted his actions, and did not speak to Spiegel again after the film was completed. Later, with "Doctor Zhivago", he invested Pasternak's sprawling novel with some sense of narrative and the characteristic Bolt dialogue - human, short and telling. "The Bounty" was Bolt's first project after a stroke, which affected not only his movement, but his speech. In it, Fletcher Christian takes the "Lawrence" role of a man in tension with his society who in the process loses touch with his own identity. "The Mission" was Bolt's final film project, and once again represented his thematic preoccupations, this time with 18th century Jesuits in South America. Bolt's final produced script was "Political Animal", later made into the TV movie "Without Warning: The James Brady Story" (1991), about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan and the struggles of his press secretary, James Brady, to recover from a near-fatal gunshot injury he received in the process. Bolt was initially reluctant to make the film, but after meeting with Brady he felt he could relate to Brady's struggles with a cerebral injury; thus, a lot of his own experiences recovering from his stroke found their way into the script.

Robert Bolt was married four times, twice to the actress Sarah Miles. His first wife was Jo Riddett, who divorced him in 1963; she became a successful novelist. In the early '80s he had a short-lived marriage to Ann Queensbury. He had four children: Sally (who died in a car crash in 1982), Ben (who later became a film and television director), Joanna, and Tom (who battled heroin addiction as a young adult before becoming a successful watchmaker). He suffered a heart attack and a stroke which left him paralysed in 1979. He died aged 70, in Petersfield, Hampshire, England following a long illness. He had been appointed CBE in 1972.

Partial list of plays

Bolt wrote several plays for BBC Radio in the '50s, as well as several unproduced plays, so this list is incomplete. Many of his early radio plays were for children, and only a few (see below) were adapted for the stage.

*"The Last of the Wine" (1956) - A play showcasing the reactions of ordinary Englishmen to the advent of nuclear armageddon - one of Bolt's pet political issues. One of Bolt's radio plays which Bolt tried to adapt to the stage. However, the play was either never performed or performed a few times and then cancelled. "Wine" has never been published or performed since.
*"The Critic and the Heart" (1957) - Bolt's first professionally produced work, it involves Winifred Blazer, a middle-aged spinster whose life is ruined by the arrival of a mean-spirited art critic into her life. It was a very modest success; Bolt was never satisfied with it, and greatly re-wrote it, retitled "Brother and Sister", in a version produced in 1967.
*"The Flowering Cherry" (1958) - concerns an aging man who loses touch with reality and gradually isolates those around him. Ran on the West End starring Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson (succeeded by Wendy Hiller) to success but mixed reviews - many critics felt it too closely resembled Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" - and had a brief but unsuccessful run on Broadway starring Hiller and Eric Portman.
*"The Tiger and the Horse" (1960) - this play is the first of Bolt's to develop his themes of individualism, society, authority, and politics. It concerns an aging college professor, John Dean, who is running for Vice-Chancellor of a prestigious university, but finds his election undermined by his daughter's love affair, a political petition, and his wife's deteriorating mental state. The play starred Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, among others. It was also the first play directed by Bolt's frequent collaborator, celebrated actor-director Noel Willman.
*"A Man for All Seasons" (1960) - as mentioned above, involves Sir Thomas More's conflict with Henry VIII over his break with the Catholic Church. Adapted from a radio play Bolt had written in 1954, it is generally regarded as Bolt's finest work - and certainly his most successful. The play develops in full his themes of individuality versus society and authority as corrupt. The strain of Brechtianism which would pervade many of his later works is first present here, in the character of the 'Common Man', who both narrates and takes part in the action as various minor characters. The original run starred Paul Scofield as Thomas More, as well as Keith Baxter as Henry VIII, George Rose as the Common Man, Leo McKern as the Common Man in the West End production and Thomas Cromwell in the Broadway show (a role originated in London by Andrew Keir and later taken over by Thomas Gomez), and Albert Dekker as the Duke of Norfolk. It was a huge critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, has had several revivals, and was made into an equally acclaimed film in 1966.
*"Gentle Jack" (1963) - a somewhat unusual work by Bolt, a comedy involving Man's involvement with Nature. A banker, Jacko, is sent to the countryside on vacation, and becomes influenced by a Nature spirit who convinces him to abandon his mundane, materialistic life and live in a state of nature, indulging in base pleasures such as murder, sex, and general mischief. Jack, however, is torn between his desire to inhabit both the "Natural" and "Logical" Worlds. It was one of Bolt's few unsuccessful plays; Bolt, who considered the play his best work for the stage, regretted this, feeling that perhaps he had not articulated his points well enough. The play starred Kenneth Williams, Michael Bryant, Sian Phillips, Edith Evans, Timothy West and Bernard Kay in its original run.
*"The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew" (1964) - a children's play, involving a heroic knight, Oblong Fitz-Oblong, sent to slay a vicious dragon on a far-away island, leading him to face off with the crooked Baron Bolligrew, who controls the island, and an evil wizard he recruits to help him. Surprisingly, despite being written for children, the work contains many of Bolt's favorite themes of integrity and honor - as well as Brechtian devices which fit naturally within the general fantasy setting of the story. The show was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for a showing at Christmastime, 1964. Among the original cast were John Normington as Fitz-Oblong, Michael Jayston as the play's narrator Bolt perennial Leo McKern as the title character and a very young Malcolm McDowell in a small part; a revival in the late '60s featured Roy Kinnear as Fitz-Oblong. Paul Scofield provided a voice recording for the dragon. Like "A Man for All Seasons", the play had been written for the BBC, and in 1995 was re-written into a children's book. The play was extremely popular, and throughout the 1960s and '70s it had a yearly revival at Christmas in Britain.
*"Vivat! Vivat Regina!" (1971) - Bolt's most successful show after "A Man for All Seasons", a historical account of the reigns of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I of England, comparing and contrasting the personalities and reigns of the two female rulers. Highly successful, it ran for several months on Broadway, winning several Tony nominations. The original cast included Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth and Bolt's wife Sarah Miles as Mary.
*"State of Revolution" (1977) - An in-depth political depiction of the Russian Revolution of 1917, focusing on Lenin as "a great man possessed by a terrible idea", and the struggles of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin to gain power under him. It is told from the point-of-view of Anatole Lunacharsky, Minister of Education under Lenin. The original cast included Michael Bryant as Lenin, Terence Rigby as Stalin, Brian Blessed as Maxim Gorky, and Michael Kitchen as Trotsky. Though meticulously researched, the play received mixed reviews and had a short run before being shelved. Bolt himself felt that he hadn't gotten the play quite right.

"State of Revolution" was Bolt's final produced play, though he wrote several others that were never published or produced. He spent much of the mid-to-late '70s working on a play about portrait artist Augustus John (famous for a series of portraits of T. E. Lawrence), but his work on "The Bounty" and later his stroke forced him to abandon it.


Despite his prolific stage output, Bolt is probably better remembered for his work on film and television screenplays. Bolt's work for director David Lean garnered him particular acclaim and recognition, and Bolt tried his hand at directing with the unsuccessful "Lady Caroline Lamb" (1972). While many criticized Bolt for focusing more on the personal aspects of his protagonists than the broader political context (particularly with "Lawrence" and "Man"), most critics and audiences alike praised his screenplays. Bolt won two Oscars, two BAFTA Awards, and won or was nominated for several others.

*"Lawrence of Arabia" (with Michael Wilson) (1962) - despite disputes between Wilson and Bolt over who contributed what to the script, Bolt provided most of the film's dialogue and the interpretation of the characters while Wilson provided the story and outline. Wilson was uncredited, and Bolt alone was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award. Bolt and Lean refused to recognize Wilson's contribution to the film, and Wilson was not credited until 1995.
*"Doctor Zhivago" (1965) - Bolt won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay
*"A Man for All Seasons" (1966) - Bolt won the Oscar again, adapting his own play to the screen (with some help from Constance Willis).
*"The Red Tent" (1969) (uncredited additional dialogue)
*"Ryan's Daughter" (1970)
*"Lady Caroline Lamb" (1972) (also directed)
*"The Bounty" (1984)
*"The Mission" (1986)
*"A Man for All Seasons" (1988)
*"A Dry White Season" (uncredited revisions of screenplay)
*"Without Warning: The James Brady Story" (1991) (TV)

Bolt also worked on the early drafts of the script for "Gandhi", but his script was considered unsatisfactory and he was replaced by John Briley. He also had several unrealized projects, including a TV miniseries of Gore Vidal's novel "Burr" and an adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time".


Although held in high regard during the '60s and '70s, today Bolt is generally regarded as a second-tier playwright by most theatre critics. Other than "Man" (and perhaps "The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew"), none of his plays are widely remembered today, and most are out of print. Bolt's prolific output in the '60s largely ended with the failure of "Gentle Jack"; only three more stage plays followed this, and at a highly sporadic rate. Many also criticized Bolt for neglecting his stage career for his film work: theatre director Frith Branbury (who worked with Bolt on "Cherry" and "Tiger") was quoted by Bolt's biographer, Adrian Turner, as saying "I thought he was going to be a really important dramatist but he preferred Sam Spiegel's yacht." [Turner, Adrian: "Robert Bolt: Scenes From Two Lives", p. 179] Another Bolt friend, John Dunn, felt that Bolt "wanted to be a great playwright, but hadn't turned out as one." [ibid., p. 225]

Bolt's work has been alternately praised and criticized by critics for being overly derivative of other writers (most notably the conscious emulation of Brecht Bolt himself admitted to) ["A Man for All Seasons", First Vintage International Edition, 1990; p. xix-xx] , for creating implausibly articulate and wordy characters [a criticism Bolt himself levels towards his early plays in the introduction to "Man" p. xvii] , and for (as noted above) viewing historical situations from the perspective of an individual. [Prufer, Sabine: "The Individual at the Crossroads: The Works of Robert Bolt, Novelist, Dramatist, Screenwriter", p. 92]

However, Bolt's work as a screenwriter is more widely - and positively - recognized, particularly his work for David Lean. He won two Oscars (among other awards and nominations) for his screenplays and is generally regarded as one of the best major screenwriters.

Contemporary screenwriter William Monahan, who wrote the screenplays for "Kingdom of Heaven" and "The Departed", credits Bolt's script for "Lawrence" as his primary inspiration for becoming a writer and recognized Bolt's influence during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2007. Robert Towne has also acknowledged Bolt as one of his favorite screenwriters.

A filmmaker more directly influenced by Bolt is Oliver Stone. Early in Stone's career, he and Bolt collaborated on a script about Patty Hearst's kidnapping, a project which was ultimately shelved. Stone would later call Bolt one of his biggest mentors and influences. [Turner, 368-369]

Actor Charlton Heston, who starred in several versions of "A Man for All Seasons", once referred to that play as the greatest English-language play of the 20th Century, and felt similarly strongly in regards to Bolt's writing abilities.


*Prufer, Sabine. "The Individual at the Crossroads: The Works of Robert Bolt, Novelist, Dramatist, Screenwriter". Frankfurt-am-Man; New York: P. Lang, 1998
*Turner, Adrian. "Robert Bolt: Scenes from Two Lives". London: Hutchinson, 1998. ISBN 0-09-180176-1.


External links

*imdb name|id=0004122|name=Robert Bolt
*Screenonline name|id=488286|name=Robert Bolt biography and filmography
* [,8,BAA.html The Making of "Lawrence of Arabia"] , Digitised BAFTA Journal, Winter 1962-3, including article by Robert Bolt

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