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Anne Boleyn by Thomas Fielding (1838): A Lost Play

On December 27 1838, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a notice, nestled in amongst ship arrivals and the results of horse races. That evening at the St. Charles Theater, it announced, “will be performed a new historical play never acted, called ANNE BOLEYN, founded on a period of the reign of Henry 8th of England.” As for the author, the announcement said simply that it was “written by a gentleman of this city.” A few days later, the paper had identified the author as “Mr. T. Fielding” — a man who, despite the paper’s initial coyness about his name, could have had no reason to wish to remain anonymous; during the three previous years he had made numerous appearances in the columns of the Times-Picayune as Thomas Fielding, an actor affiliated with both the Camp Street and St. Charles Theaters. On December 29, the Times-Picayune, while reporting that Fielding’s “new and successful piece drew another good house last night and is to be repeated this evening,” also had a short review that was, in its own way, ominously prophetic.

After an extended commentary on plays that fail to hold the interest of audiences but find success later “in the closet [drama]” due to their beauty of language, the anonymous reviewer writes:

And this is the only fault we have to find with Ann Boleyn. As a literary production it has the strongest claim to our favorable notice. There is a degree of nerve, conception and arrangement in this new tragedy which lifts it above the great number of our modern plays; while the language is poetic, powerful, and vigorous. When we commenced this article it was our intention, notwithstanding the smallness of our sheet, to have made some extracts corroborative of our opinion; but not succeeded in procuring the MSS. we must content ourself with saying that Ann Boleyn is a composition exhibiting a power capable of a yet higher flight of dramatic authorship.

The anonymous reviewer’s failure to secure the MSS must have seemed like a small matter at the time, but closing in on two hundred years later one can only regret exceedingly that he was unlucky in his efforts, because nobody since then has found it either. Thomas Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, quite possibly the first Boleyn drama to be first written and performed in the United States, appears no longer to exist. It is a ghost play, its shade appearing in newspaper reviews, theater notes, and, most sadly of all, in the surviving probate documents for Thomas Fielding, who died less than a year after the premier of his first and only play.

“The Vacant Succession Of Thomas Fielding”

Third by Q. Kelly (2011)

There’s a good idea buried in Third — one articulated by the character Helen Franklin, a modern-day history professor who, like many real ones, has discovered an Anne who strongly resembles herself. “Helen’s theory, or rather, her wishful thought, was that Anne was a lesbian trying to make her way in a ruthless, heterosexual world.” Unfortunately, the world in which we see the lesbian Anne emerge is not hers but our own; kidnapped by an unethical scientist who’s discovered time travel, a few years later she finds herself in the unwilling custody of the now-deceased scientist’s daughter, Helen Franklin, and her sort-of estranged wife, Yalia Yamato. Helen teaches history and is obsessed with the Tudors. Yalia is a cop who accidentally shot a six-year-old during a hostage standoff and as a result is starting to have doubts about having children — hence her estrangement from Helen. They both have serious doubts about the ethics of the situation, but since Anne is already here, along with the chatty, amoral Benjamin Franklin and one other mystery time traveler known only as TT0, they haven’t really got much choice. Fascinating ethical and historical questions arise and are promptly swatted away as the three women get distracted by their evergreen lust for each other, and by the end all we’ve really learned about Anne is that she enjoys sex toys and looks good in a Starbucks apron.

“You Want To Try A Three-Way Relationship Thing?”

The Early Years (1980), The Royal Suitor (1981) and Condemned (1981) by Linda-Dawn Reeve

“I adored my mother and I suppose because I was the youngest and because she had never really been well since my birth, I was closest to her.” Thus begins Linda-Dawn Reeve’s substantial trilogy — a little over six hundred pages — in which we’re introduced to an Anne who at first seems to be so typical of mid-twentieth century Annes that she could have been created from the distilled essences of thirty other fictional versions of her. The youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, she loses her mother at a young age (five) and is soon given a stepmother who, despite her fears, turns out to be kind and loving to her husband’s children. Young Anne is especially in need of affection, for despite her boldness she suffers from being teased about her minuscule sixth finger and the wen on her neck. She has a childish affection for Thomas Wyatt, who is much more serious in his intentions towards her, and her brother George is half in love with Thomas’s sister Margaret. When Anne is seven, her father manages to get her a place among Princess Mary’s attendants as she leaves to marry Louis XII, and after Louis’s death Anne attends the new Queen Claude and incidentally spends a lot of time with Claude’s sister-in-law Marguerite, learning to be witty and graceful and also that women can be as good anybody.

So far, so typical. But when Anne is brought back to England at the age of fifteen, the direction changes sharply — not the direction of the story, which of course can only be changed so much, but the direction of her development. Very shortly after her return, she meets the King at Hever, where he’s come to visit her sister Mary. The King is greatly taken by her and begins doing everything in his power to seduce her, although she rebuffs him and he apparently loses interest. And from that moment, Anne seems to be touched with a frost. The fifteen-year-old who is enjoying falling in love and charming people continues to be just that, even as she grows older and endures the winning and then losing of Henry Percy to Wolsey’s political plans and his father’s ambitions, and her subsequent rustication. In the traditional manner, she vows revenge on Wolsey, but it never seems to cross her mind not to believe in the sincerity of everyone else around her, to say nothing of her endearingly childish certainty that she should be able to manipulate any social situation into going the way she wants it to. And, most unusually of all, she ends up falling genuinely, obsessively in love with Henry VIII.

“I Am Really Very Fond Of Him”

Anne Boleyn: A Tale Of The Sixteenth Century by Anonymous (1843)

I found this short story in an old newspaper database — while it appeared in only one paper, the databases are obviously not complete, and from the note I imagine it was the sort of story which was widely reprinted (a lot of similar stories also appear in December and January, I would guess as filler entertainment for the Christmas and New Year’s season). The moral of is clear, and fairly standard for the time — how quickly fortune can change and how little people can rely on it. And while the story itself is a fairly standard narrative — the young Anne divided from her true love, Henry Percy, by the King’s lust for her — there are a few intriguing aspects.

“Let Us Fly From This Tyranny To A Lovelier Land, Where We May Cull The Flowers Of Life Together”

Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve by Juliana Gray (2013)

The first thing I noticed about this chapbook was its choice of verse form — blank verse, a form whose first known use in English was in 1540. It felt peculiarly appropriate for a series of poems about Anne Boleyn, even though she died a few years earlier — it gives the sense that she’s ahead of her time, but not excessively so, and gives us a thought of what might have been had Anne survived into the middle of the century or beyond. The poems are arranged in roughly chronological order — the fact that many poems are centered on a theme rather than a specific event (“Her Cravings” “Her Sister” “Her Coronation” and so forth — each one a small jewel of distilled emotion) keeps them from being perfectly chronological, as the subject matter of these will necessarily cover any number of years. But the center of the story is clear, indeed, Anne tells us what it is in the first poem “The End.”

Remember, please, that this is a love story
though it ends, like so many stories,
with a good woman’s body in a box.

“A Queen Is Not Required To Explain Herself”

Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson (1876)

There have been a fair number of plays written about Anne Boleyn which never saw the stage, or saw it only for a brief time, but which nevertheless lived on in book form to be read by — and to influence — future Boleyn enthusiasts. Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson is a much rarer specimen: a play which saw many performances over a few years but which has never been published, although it got a great deal of (not always positive) attention from the newspapers and a number of actresses wanted to procure it for their own use. There is a long, complex, and ultimately somewhat sad story behind this, but briefly put, Dickinson — who had previously been a well-known abolitionist platform speaker, and for whom playing Anne was her first acting role — seems to have developed a strong attachment to her character, and although her acting was generally considered poor, she did not want anyone else to play her. Her possessiveness might even have extended to her own official copy of the script — the Library of Congress has two manuscript versions of the play, a fair copy in clear handwriting, and much scratched-out and amended rough copy. Only the rough copy contains Anne’s dialogue, the fair copy contains only dashes and a cue at the end of each piece of Anne’s dialogue, although all of the other characters have their dialogue intact. It’s not clear whether both versions were submitted by her together for copyright purposes, but if the fair copy was intended to be the “official” copy, her protectiveness towards the part extended far enough to prevent anyone else from seeing it even with the greatest amount of effort. Under these circumstances, it’s less surprising that the play does not seem ever to have been officially published. Dickinson’s quarrels with managers, her inability to act up the standards demanded by her own play, and her refusal to publish or sell the play to any other actress led, inevitably, to its disappearance. It survives now only in two handwritten manuscripts.

This is the more unfortunate because although it is far from the best ever written, the play is, in a few ways, shockingly ahead of its time. Its Anne is a paradoxical figure; determined to create her own fate and laughing at the idea of prophecy, yet ultimately hemmed in and destroyed by forces over which she has no control, never realizing that the choices she does have are all false ones, and that her fate has been predetermined. This predetermination is the work of none other than Thomas Cromwell.

“She has dug my grave – I leave you to dig hers in time to come”

The Chained Book by Emma Leslie (1879)

This is one of the earliest books about Anne Boleyn aimed specifically at children, and given that it was published in 1879 by the Sunday School Union, it’s not surprising that this earnest little novella puts the cause of serving and promoting Protestant orthodoxy well ahead of such considerations as character development, internal consistency, or historical accuracy. The chief aim of the book is to give children a simple, interesting story about the beginnings of the Bible in English, and how wicked men sought to stop it and good men sought to promote it, at which the latter group finally succeeded with some help from Anne Boleyn, who is the only person in the book with even a tiny bit of nuance to her character.

“God Will Accept Maidens’ Work, If No Better Is To Be Had”