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Henry VIII And Ann Boleyn by Edgar Lee Masters (1934)

December 8, 2012

Now to take our leave of Mary Boleyn and return to the real principals of this story, Henry and Anne. Just them, in fact– this playlet (it’s eighteen pages long) is one of four published in Edgar Lee Masters’ Dramatic Duologues. The book didn’t get the reception Masters was hoping for – reviews were unenthusiastic and according to his biography, only one of the plays has ever been performed, and it wasn’t this one (the chosen play featured Andrew Jackson and Peggy Eaton). A depressing example of the book’s reception could be seen in the copy which I read. It was a presentation copy, numbered and autographed by Masters himself, and until I opened it in November of 2012, none of the pages had been cut. So, what lay between them?

The scene opens in “an ante-chamber in the palace,” and later on we’ll discover that this is May of 1536. Henry VIII is seated at a desk, and the audience can see his “gross and powerful face”, while he mumbles to himself. Anne enters, on the verge of tears, and reproaches him for first loving and then abandoning her – he who had assured her that would be her servant forever now will “these many nights desert / Your couch with me, and heap your disregard / For which you ask no pardon!” She goes on to draw the weary moral that a man’s devotion will last only until “the terrored hour of consummation,” and that afterward he’ll despise the woman for surrendering. “Yea, and what little treasure has been gained, / So estimated after it is won!”

Henry tells Anne, none too politely, that he came here so he could have some privacy, but that she should stay anyway since he has something to tell her. We won’t learn what it is just yet, though, because Anne begins a nervous speech insisting apropos of nothing that she is Henry’s loyal wife, and Elizabeth’s mother

… whom you care not for,
Not even in her sweet infancy, and despite
All prophecies of her greatness to be in time,
And England’s world supremacy under her.

“She will become a woman if she lives,” replies Henry, master of the obvious. He reproaches Anne for being the cause of his putting Catherine away, and reminds her that he can lower her as much as he has raised her, especially considering that she too has done no better than to bear a girl. He suspects witchcraft:

… a power
As it were of witchcraft, or a nightmare holds
Prosperity back upon me, and this union.

Furthermore, she’s unpopular with the common people:

My people will not have you: that is all!
They would not take you at the first, nor have
They opened hearts to you along the way;
And now those hearts are locked besides, and I
Have no key to unlock them with.

Anne once again reminds him that he didn’t used to feel that way, and mentions his love letters wherein he looked forward to their wedding, and containing “sweet postscripts drawing / A figure of your heart, wherein you put / My name’s initials.”

Henry rebukes her once again, this time by reminding her how he’s elevated her family and how much more peaceful things would be in Europe if it hadn’t been for that damn annulment crisis. He imagines “The Vatican my friend, and Luther leashed” and regrets the death of Thomas More, all of it due to Anne’s lovely neck (we’ll be hearing about that again) and “lips so poppy-red.” The author has obviously done his reading, as Henry mourns all the money he spent on her in a passage reminiscent of the wardrobe descriptions in Brief Gaudy Hour:

… And I remember,
How in the week that Thomas More resigned
I paid the money that you lost at bowls;
And bought those thirty ells of golden arras
In Flanders for your nightgown, yes and satin,
And black velute.

Anne, possibly because she’s too desperate to pay attention, hasn’t realized that reminding Henry of how he used to love her is an ineffective tactic at this point, so once again she gives it a go – there was a time “When for my love no loss was held too great, / No pain too troublesome,” but he’s become bored.

….and on this neck,
Whose ivory slenderness once stirred your blood
To passionate kisses, and importunities
For more, and more, for which you have no wonder
Now but looks dulled by familiarity,
Saying, That is your neck, and what of that?

“Perhaps I am unseminared,” snarls Henry in reply, leaving Anne shocked — “You imply / That I have said so? Never, on my troth,” — and me reaching for the dictionary in confusion. “Unseminared”, as it turns out, is an outmoded way of saying unmanned, or rendered impotent, so yes – the same accusation that George Boleyn so imprudently read aloud, and my new word for the day. Anne weeps that Henry can no longer tell truth from lies, and asks him to go to the country for a while, to “flee the Mephitic breath” of court until he can get his head cleared. “In my absence you will dance,” is Henry’s grim reply, reminding her that he has been paying “one Mark Smeaton” for dancing lessons since last year. Anne again insists on her loyalty, and Henry grunts out just enough lines to make it clear that he now conveniently suspects her virginity when he first slept with her.

Anne pleads for Elizabeth as proof that she loved Henry only “Her infant brilliancy is proof / That she was got in love, though the crude law / Had not yet sanctioned her,” and asks Henry straight out if she can credit the gossip “That you have called me witch and whore as well?” “Yes, that you may,” he replies, and Anne finally lets loose by telling him that “Plainly, you judge all others by yourself,” and that if he suspects her of fooling around it must be because he’s doing something similar himself, a speech which would be much more effective if she didn’t take yet another detour into prophecies about Elizabeth’s glorious future. It turns out, to the surprise of both Henry and the reader, that Anne is deeply suspicious of “Lady Jane Grey”, at which Henry blusters a little about how she’s reading something into nothing, and then tells her to “Attend now, and consider how our patience, / And love are ended.”

“I read disaster in your gathering brows,” says Anne, but, like the wedding-guest, she cannot choose but hear. Henry then launches into an account of how Mark Smeaton, upon whom Anne had showered many gifts (“You’ll not deny that, I suppose?”) recently had a little dinner date with Cromwell, anachronistically described as the Earl of Essex, and how Smeaton “like a rabbit before the hound” was badgered by Cromwell about his jewelry and clothing, and whether they were presents from the queen, and finally tortured with the knotted rope tied around his head.

Yea, so he asked this dancing master more,
This perfumed dandy whom I fed an honored;
Have you had Ann Boleyn, they call the Queen?
You have? How many times? A dozen say you?

“O, devil hatched, incredible lies!” shrieks Anne, whilst Henry, not cottoning the fact that she’s horrified at Mark’s torture and not at his “revelations”, bellows at her about the shame of his cuckoldry, “O monstrous villainy! O perfidy!” and tells her to protest her innocence when she lays her head on the block, since the guards are already outside. “Not much to cut,” says Anne, fingering her neck, and begs Henry to look after Elizabeth before “reeling out” of the room, presumably to be arrested and hauled away in short order. The playlet ends with a solitary Henry mumbling that

Jane Grey shall be my wife a fortnight hence,
And I shall father a king to be. What ho!
Cromwell, come hither! I would consult with thee!

COMMENTARY: The play is too short for my usual breakdown by category, but if it’s not a very good play it’s still interesting when compared to other popular portrayals of Anne Boleyn from that time. It’s also rather endearing to see Masters, so strongly associated with solidly American themes, joining the ranks of those who have been seduced into trying to fictionalize Anne Boleyn, and his Anne is an awkward hybrid of older and newer styles. The theme of Anne as a coldhearted temptress – or at the very least as a calculating woman burned by her bad experience with Henry Percy — was already well underway by the 1930s: E. Barrington’s Anne Boleyn, published two years before this book, was a sterling example of Anne as a beautiful, calculating, bitch who sowed the seeds of her own destruction by breaking down social barriers previously taken for granted – but who was nonetheless innocent of the charges against her. It was a real change from the Annes of previous centuries, who were almost complete victims – unwilling recipients of Henry’s attentions, virtually forced into marriage with him, and until the twentieth century often done in by evil outside (usually Catholic) forces. Masters’ Anne is a throwback in many ways; pitying Catherine of Aragon (she points out to Henry that it was his choice to pursue her, and that she is “justly punished” now for what she unwillingly did to Catherine) and making it clear that her share in their romance was at least partially unwilling, if that bit about the “terrored hour of consummation” is to make any sense. Her long prophecies about Elizabeth’s future greatness also hearken back to the plays earlier centuries – of course, it also looks forward to the speech at the end of Anne of the Thousand Days, so maybe there’s just something about drama which makes these speeches irresistible.

However, she’s also got characteristics of the newer style in fictional Annes. Sex is mentioned, first of all – she reproaches Henry with the less than nine month interval between their wedding and Elizabeth’s birth, and this certainly was not a feature of the earlier works; nor was Henry’s mention of his rumoured state of being “unseminared” (cuckolded, yes, but not impotent). Religious quarrels, while mentioned briefly, are clearly one of the least important beads in the long string of Henry’s complaints about Anne; her lack of living sons is starting to become the all-important factor in her downfall. And, notably, Cromwell is mentioned, albeit ennobled before his time. Cromwell is conspicuous in his absence from Anne Boleyn fiction until the 1920s or so, but here he’s described as the chief architect of her fall, and the story of his torturing Mark Smeaton, if not necessarily accurate (it’s plausible, certainly, but even the contemporary who described it said it was a rumour, and he had witnessed nothing himself) is at least closer to the truth than the earlier renditions in which Anne’s fall is brought about by nonexistent people (Angelo Caraffa in Anne Boleyn, A Dramatic Poem, 1826) dead people (Cardinal Wolsey in Vertue Betray’d, 1682), or Henry operating through fuzzy, undescribed bit players (My Friend Anne, 1900, and The Favor of Kings, 1912).

Masters clearly did a good deal of reading, as lines describing the love letters, “I can lower you as much as I have raised you,” and having a little neck make clear, not to mention the inventory of clothing and food Henry reels off. This makes it all the more puzzling that “Lady Jane Grey” (or “Lady Grey”, he seems unsure about her title) is named as Henry’s mistress. It’s such a basic mistake that I can’t even begin to conjecture what was going on there.

Masters was an accomplished poet, but this book does not show him at the apex of his powers. I would not want to see this play performed because, paradoxically, it suffers from being too lifelike: Anne and Henry keep on repeating themselves and harping on the same string so that for about ten pages at least their argument just goes in circles. Anne tries to shame Henry into good behavior by remembering his previous love for her, and talks up Elizabeth, Henry tells Anne that he’s lost faith in her, lather, rinse and repeat, with neither of them really listening to the other. Real quarrels are certainly conducted like this, but that much realism doesn’t make for good drama.

According to his biography, Masters felt trapped by the earlier success of The Spoon River Anthology — it was his opinion that many of his other writings were just as good, or better, and had been unfairly ignored. However, Spoon River resonated with people in a way that works like this simply couldn’t. If he had chosen to write Spoon River-like monologues for these people, the results may have been more interesting. In fact, there is one monologue in Spoon River which one could easily imagine being given to another of Henry’s wives. It tells a better and more complex story in eight lines than Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn does in eighteen pages, and it’s Masters at his succinct and brutal best.


Henry got me with child,
Knowing that I could not bring forth life
Without losing my own.
In my youth therefore I entered the portals of dust.
Traveler, it is believed in the village where I lived
That Henry loved me with a husband’s love
But I proclaim from the dust
That he slew me to gratify his hatred.

From → Book Overviews

  1. Brown LIne permalink

    Thank you for presenting this work, which I’d never heard of before. Masters is such an odd character: like the comic actor who wants to play Hamlet, his talent and his ambition pulled in opposite directions. I think he may have written his autobiography in “Jonathan Swift Somers”:

    After you have enriched your soul
    To the highest point,
    With books, thought, suffering,
    The understanding of many personalities,
    The power to interpret glances, silences,
    The pauses in momentous transformations,
    The genius of divination and prophecy;
    So that you feel able at times to hold the world
    In the hollow of your hand;
    Then, if, by the crowding of so many powers
    Into the compass of your soul,
    Your soul takes fire,
    And in the conflagration of your soul
    The evil of the world is lighted up and made clear–
    Be thankful if in that hour of supreme vision
    Life does not fiddle.

    Masters, it seems, wanted to hold the world in the hollow of his hand; but his genius lay in describing how life is mostly comprised of the fiddly bits.

    • sonetka permalink

      I haven’t read enough Masters to be able to talk intelligently about his particular issue, but I do get the strong impression that artistically he’s a miniaturist, at his best with characters small enough for that sort of setting. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, regardless of their ends, are too big for that sort of treatment.

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