Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Six Acts by M.L. Tyler (1884)
This play distinguishes itself by being the only work I’ve encountered in which Jane Seymour gets the opening lines. Naturally, they’re unpleasant ones – she’s rebuking Anne for being the only one of Queen Catherine’s ladies not to be working hard at their sewing. “Mistress, you shame us with your diligence!” says Jane. “See, madam, she will harm those pretty eyes / That shoot such dainty glances at the King!” After some brief fluttering, Anne protests that she merely pricked her finger and didn’t want to stain the sewing, Catherine’s ladies whisper about Anne’s flirtatiousness and wonder if Catherine will take the veil, and Jane Seymour makes her ultimate intentions clear in an aside: “Marry! But she shall rue it one bright day / When her star sets and mine begins to rise!” Henry strides in at this point and demands a song from Mistress Boleyn, the flavour of whose song is sufficiently indicated by the first verse:
They call me idle, vain, and gay;
They say I fritter life away
In empty jest!
When shall I laugh and mock dull care
If not when I am young and fair?
This appears to be the signal for Vespers, so Anne and everyone else depart, leaving Henry alone to work on some writing while monologuing – “Let me resume my labours, in hot haste / To prove that Katharine ne’er was my true wife.” Presumably he’s working on A Glasse Of The Truthe, though the title isn’t stated. While he’s busy writing and hoping that the ever-prayerful Catherine will retire of her own free will to some place where she can pray constantly, Anne comes back in search of Catherine’s missal. Henry finds it first, and won’t give it up unless Anne lets him kiss her, which after some demurring – “A kiss! I’d die, rather!” she does, just at the moment that Catherine herself walks in to find out what’s happened to her missal and her maid. The curtain comes down on an extremely awkward tableau, and rises again on another one: this time it’s Thomas Wyatt, one-sidedly in love, pleading with Anne “by all the love I bore thee as a child / By all the love I bear thee in this hour,” to break off her flirtation with Henry, as he fears she’s standing “upon a giddy precipice” and will eventually fall like Catherine, and probably harder. Anne tells him to stop treating her like a child: “A woman grown, with faultless nerve / And matchless intrepidity, am I!” and like many a prospective second wife since, assures him that things will never go wrong between herself and Henry because most of the problems were Catherine’s fault. Wyatt, however, isn’t buying, and in a speech that could have been written in any number of recent novels, begs her to elope with him to France and leave this gaudy den of vice for an honest country life:
What quiet happiness may yet be ours,
Remote from all the jarrings of a Court,
The meanness, the intrigues, the petty spites…
Be more than Queen – be woman! Be my Queen!
Queen of my heart, my intellect, my life!
At this moment, the King is announced and Wyatt scuttles off after grabbing a tablet from Anne, who informs the audience that “there are two voices warring my heart” – one telling her to take up the king “temper his rude mind / with mercy: help him throw this yoke of Rome,” and the other reminding her of Catherine.
Since Percy was estranged, you have no love
For prince or churl. You would avenge dead love
By slaying her love’s life? No mercy shown
To you, should make you merciless? Oh, shame!
Shame to your reason, Anne! Shame to your heart!
Was she not ever gentle unto you,
With all her Spanish bigotry and pride?
With all the slights you heaped upon her head?
The second voice seems to be gaining the upper hand by the time Henry actually reaches the room, as Anne begins pleading to him for Catherine: “Surely so long – such constant love as hers / Must make the marriage holy in God’s eyes?” She reminds him of the dispensation, but unfortunately her earlier conversations with Henry have been all too effective: “‘Twas you, / E’en you yourself, taught me distrust of Rome” he tells her, and assures her that he would have divorced Catherine even if he’d never seen Anne – but to compensate her for the current delay, he’ll make her Marchioness of Pembroke.
Herewith follow several acts seemingly written to show just how shortsighted and idiotic our two main characters can be – first comes the story of the book of prophecies (deposited in Anne’s room secretly by one Rich, a servant of Wolsey’s who will later be a sort of messenger-at-large for all of the unsympathetic characters) and when Anne Boleyn and Anne Saville find it, the latter panics and then goes into a trance wherein she sees a vision of Anne Boleyn’s execution and tells her to “Fly for your life, fly to the court of France!” Anne Boleyn, revelling in Wolsey’s increasingly awkward situation (sweet revenge for “Percy, my betrothed, whom I so loved!”) tells Anne Saville that the vision of her head as “a football in the mire” is nothing to worry. “A football in the mire! Why should I care? / I shall not live to see it rolling there!” Herewith we switch to the game of bowls in which Henry sees Wyatt’s tablet, decides that Anne must have had an affair with him, and goes storming off to confront her, which he does while a number of her ladies-in-waiting, who have been sewing her wedding dress, sit rapt at attention in the next room. After disputing that she loves Wyatt except as a friend, Anne announces her intention to go to him anyway, since life with Henry will be impossible if he’s always jealous. “Farewell for ever!” she says, two or three times, while the instantly-repentant Henry begs her to come back and finally promises to marry her the next day if she’ll only not leave him. “My future narrows round me like a shroud,” Anne reflects optimistically as he leaves.
After a brief coronation procession in which she gets a lot of catcalls, we learn that Catherine of Aragon is dying and see her both sending her last letter and informing her attendants not to curse Anne, for “she, too, has sown the wind – is like to reap / The whirlwind. Let me hence, and pray for both.” Henry is much affected by Catherine’s last letter and tells the messenger (the ubiquitous Rich) to order the court into black as a sign of respect, after which, in a characteristic touch, he should –
Hie to Kimbolton! – not an hour’s delay! –
And seize in my name all her properties:
Hold them, for me, against yon rebel crew
That herded with her – traitors all! – away!
Dost understand? Begone! – poor Kate! Poor Kate!
The messenger finds Anne socializing with a fair number of people, including Wyatt, Jane Seymour, Lady Boleyn (I think this is supposed to be Lady Rochford) and Mark Smeaton, who is told to sing and after performing a gloomy song about a queen whose “smiles are not for me”, is roundly scolded by Anne (“Foolish boy / When wilt thou learn the manners of the court?” after which she takes his harp and sings her own song about how happiness lies in having no love at all.
The news of Catherine’s death and the order into mourning leads Anne to make her own decree: “Then I am Queen indeed! … / Let all who love me wear a yellow dress / In token that mine enemy is dead.” Jane Seymour and Lady Boleyn are suitably shocked, the former speculating on when it will be someone else’s turn to enjoy her position, and most of the others (including Wyatt and his sister) are worried that Anne is overstepping herself. “Poor Anne,” says Mary Wyatt, “She hardly knows herself / She’s drained the sparkling cup of full success / Till, and small wonder! – it intoxicates.”
Lady Boleyn and Jane Seymour are, of course, delighted to tell Henry of “the flauntings of his yellow butterfly”, and Henry is touched by Jane’s following his own orders on going into mourning. Meanwhile, Mary Wyatt tells Anne to apologize, but Anne refuses – “That was Katharine’s way/ To follow him, and cry! ‘Tis not my plan,” and just at that moment she walks in on Jane and Henry having a moment. “My sin! My sin! Katharine, thou art revenged!”
By the next act, Anne has both turned to religion and suffered a miscarriage, which is circuitously described when she’s disguised and helping a beggar woman whose son has just died.
Hush! No – ’tis nothing! – only that I knew
Another case like yours: – an infant killed
Whom she, and he, and all this English realm
Would have resigned their best to keep in life.
But dead – dead – dead! Alack! A pretty boy,
But dead! – his fault! – no blow – but keen heart-stab:
And, when the infant died, I know not what,
But something died in her – her courage? – heart? –
I know not what it was – and yet she lives!
Back at the palace, Mark Smeaton is there once again but apparently his playing hasn’t improved. “Art not ashamed to sing so out of tune?” says Anne, along with similar compliments, until Smeaton finally cuts loose, telling her “‘Tis not my voice is tuneless – ’tis your heart,” and finally “One smile, one kindly glance for my reward!” Anne tells him “I have no heart for jesting now,” and tells him to leave. Smeaton, apparently not considering that someone who’s both miscarried and caught her husband in flagrante with someone else might have an excuse for being in a bad mood, scolds her for ignoring him and finishes by once again demanding “One soft, bright smile / One, and enslave me to my dying day!”
“Can you not let me be?” says Anne (and the reader), but the conversation is interrupted at that point by Mary Wyatt, who bears the ill tidings that Henry saw her drop her handkerchief to Sir Henry Norris and Anne needs to go and beg his forgiveness. Anne leaves, although not to do so – “I’ll never let him know I’ve come to care / For his displeasure – that was Katharine’s way.” Meanwhile Lady Boleyn, who was conveniently present for everything, commiserates with Mark Smeaton, who is fuming at his rejection and unwisely decides to let Lady Boleyn in on recent developments in his fantasy life:
I swore that I would link her name with mine
In death: – in life I had no part with her! –
But with my death would purchase me a part
With her, and in her death, – ay, in her death!
I would so order it that she should die!
So would I make her mine! So brand my name,
Famous in all the annals of the world,
On hers: indissolubly joined, – her name,
My name! So would I fling a double scorn
On her who scorned me!
“A curious dream” says Lady Boleyn, and next thing you know, Anne is being arrested and conveyed to the Tower, asking if she’ll die without justice. Rich once again turns up after she leaves, awaiting Lady Boleyn, who is writing down Anne’s “railings” for the delectation of the court. Meanwhile we see Wyatt and his sister, the latter of whom is trying to comfort the former, who is beginning to lose his mind Ophelia-style:
What use to you, that gaudy crown of flowers
Caught by the breeze, and swirled a-down the stream?
Dank, dead are they, now, in your dripping hair.
I warned you not to go! – I tried to stay,
In vain, your course …
Wake, little Anne! The flowers would live again
Could you but lift your lids, and look at them.
But you are dead! – What use to crown the dead?
“Ah! He is mad,” says Mary, just to make sure we know what’s going on. Next comes Anne, who has apparently already been tried and condemned. “The bitterness of death is past!” she says, saying that she deserves punishment, albeit not for the sin she was condemned for. She wonders if marrying Percy would have made everything better, and finally concludes that:
At this last hour I do not know – or care!
But then it quite reversed my being – robbed
All my whole nature of its tenderness …
Since that time
Heartaches, and feverish gaiety were mine,
Merging in anger: frantic jealousies,
That culminated in that other death,
That infant death, that costs, to-day, my life.
“A strange, sad life, crowned by a strange, sad death,” she says of herself, and tells one of her ladies (not Anne Saville or Mary Wyatt, though they’re both present) to pass on her message to the King that he’s promoted her from gentlewoman to marchioness to queen to martyr. Henry, meanwhile, doesn’t seem too disturbed. He and Rich (again!) are awaiting the cannon shot that signals Anne’s death, and once it sounds, Henry tells Rich to make sure all the papers from the trial are destroyed before shouting “Sweet Jane, I fly to thee!” After this, we see a somewhat-recovered Wyatt in the chapel, crowning Anne’s corpse with flowers, as all she has now is “The crown of deathless and devoted love.” At that moment, the stage directions inform us, “A merry wedding-peal is heard.” The sexton announces that the King is now married to Jane Seymour, and Wyatt shouts “Thank God! This deed of shame / Hath vindicated, to all times, her name!” And curtain.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex – the characters make a few obligatory references to the political and religious angles of the story, but that’s about it – as when Henry tells Anne “Twas you, / E’en you yourself, taught me distrust of Rome,” but we never see that discussion, just the ones where Anne is either avowing her love for Henry or threatening to leave him.
WHEN BORN? Not clear.
THE EARLY LOVE: Percy is referenced several times, although not seen. Anne describes him briefly early on as having been the one whose loss hardened her heart, and on her last day in the tower she remembers him with more detail “I gave my heart’s whole love / To Percy. He was all unworth it; / A poor weak soul …” Wyatt loves her desperately, warns her against the evils of the court and even asks her to elope with him to France to escape the King’s clutches; although she doesn’t love him, she briefly considers it but the lure of material gain at court is too much for her – besides, she considers Wyatt to be too good for her.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: The hostile ones are Jane Seymour and Lady Boleyn; given that they’re shown disapproving of Anne slacking off at her work and celebrating her rival’s death, it’s hard to see them as monsters of iniquity. Anne Savile is friendly and has several lengthy conversations with Anne, including of course the one wherein they find the book of prophecies, and Anne Savile has a quasi-vision of Anne Boleyn’s beheading and tries to give her a warning. Margaret Wyatt, whom Anne twice calls “my gentle monitress” is another cautious friend – she warns Anne about the foolishness of her yellow clothes and continually tries to get her to dampen down her behavior and apologize to the King out of genuine concern for her.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Smeaton is faithful to the point of severe irritation; after his third or fourth attempted avowal of love the reader is entirely with Anne as she tries to persuade him to dry up and leave her alone. Rich is an opportunistic servitor who will back whoever pays the bills. Ultimately, though, he’s disappointing – you could take him right out of the play and it wouldn’t lose much. I kept waiting for him to be the linchpin in some plot to bring Anne to her doom but in the end all he really did was run errands that could have been done by anybody.
THE PROPHECY: When Anne Saville sees the book of prophecies showing Anne Boleyn beheaded, she has a prophetic moment:
For – as you spoke
The air grew dense; – then came a sudden gleam –
Or so it seemed to me! – I saw a sight –
A vision – awful – terrible – beyond
What words may paint: – all in a moment, – gone
As soon as come! But, in that fiery gleam,
A stage – a crowd of wildly staring eyes,
Dilated – fixed in horror past belief –
A sea of upturned faces, white as death –
A swiftly flashing blade – a sharp-drawn breath,
Caught from a million throats – a cry – a thud,
As reeled a bleeding trunk, and prone to earth
Fell headlong! Madam! Yours the robes – and yours
The head, with eyes that moved – looked, slowly, round
From the red hand of him that flashed the sword!
‘Twas but a gleam: – but such a gleam as sears
A life-time in a moment – will not pass!
IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth is referred to but not seen, and her birth isn’t part of the story. However, in the Tower Anne bitterly remembers how Elizabeth was taken from her and sent to a different household “Lest the King should hear her crying,” so it seems safe to say he wasn’t overly thrilled by her appearance.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Unusually, just one family member appears or is even mentioned – “Lady Boleyn,” who shares a mutual loathing with Anne, entices Mark Smeaton to tell her his revenge fantasies and then turns him in for adultery, and finally notes down all of Anne’s ravings while in prison and sends them on to the King as proof of her adultery with other men. At first reading I took it for granted that this character was a mis-named Lady Rochford, who’s usually saddled with performing any villainous acts which need to be done by a woman, but as there’s no mention of George Boleyn I think perhaps this character is intended to be Anne’s aunt, Lady Boleyn, who attended her in the Tower and did indeed help to note down what she said. She did not, however, attend Anne earlier or have anything to do with the initial accusations (of course, Lady Rochford may well not have either, but a lot of history books said she did), so most likely the character is an amalgam of the two – whether done intentionally or as a result of confusing the two women, I don’t know.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – she says in the Tower that she has sinned, “But not as they would have it!” She goes on to elaborate:
My punishment is just
It fits my sin with awful nicety:
Like cap on pale eschscholtzia!
Her sin is to have helped entice Henry from Catherine. Eschscholtzia, if you’re wondering, is a genus of the poppy family, and before it blooms its sepals look like an enclosing cap. It was named after one Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, who was born in 1793 and whose name is thus one of the stranger anachronisms I’ve seen in Boleyn-centered fiction. Did audiences of 1884 really know their botany as well that, or could the author just not think of a good way to squeeze “poppies” into the meter?
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I think you’ve got the idea by now.
ERRATA: Well, it’s a nineteenth-century play – the characters and timelines all have to be collapsed to some degree. Once again, however, Thomas Cromwell is notably absent from the story – responsibility for Anne’s fall rests entirely on the shoulders of Lady Boleyn, with an assist from the dimwitted Mark Smeaton and the handkerchief Anne dropped during the May Day joust. Wyatt couldn’t have been twining willow-wreaths about Anne’s head at her burial as he was in prison at the time (though apparently he really did see her “lovers” being beheaded from his window, which must have been pleasant). Anne did have an aunt, Elizabeth, Lady Boleyn, waiting on her when she was imprisoned and who does seem to have assisted in noting down her conversation for evidentiary purposes, but she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the original accusations, and Lady Rochford, who seems to have been the other inspiration for the character, seems to have had very little to do with them either. Jane Seymour was not married to Henry the day of (or the day after) Anne’s death – they were betrothed the day after and married an abstemious ten days after that.
WORTH A READ? I think it’s more of academic interest by now, but nonetheless it has its redeeming moments – it’s not every day you see a flower-strewn mad scene for a man, after all. But what breaks the play is the character of Anne – she’s not heroic, and she’s not evil on a grand (or at least entertaining) scale, either – she comes across as shallow, rather kittenish, and a firm believer that love (from a king) means never having to say you’re sorry. Her predicament may ultimately stem from her miscarriage and the whisperings of Lady Boleyn, but it’s hard to work up much sympathy, or even interest, for her beforehand.
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