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The Seduction Of Anne Boleyn by Claire Luckham (1998)

March 30, 2013

This curious play, predating The Other Boleyn Girl by three years but drawing on many of the same sources, gives us an unexpectedly poetic Henry, an Anne who wants to take the veil, and one of the earliest Boleyns to embrace an alternative lifestyle.

The play opens with the entire Boleyn family at prayer. By the entire family, I mean the core family – although Mary Boleyn is married by this time, we don’t see her family – in fact, the only non-Boleyns we see throughout the play are Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Mark Smeaton, thus keeping the cast a manageable size and leading to the distorted impression that court policy was set by approximately three people over the course of ten years. But back to the opening – it’s a rare instance in which Thomas Boleyn gets the first word, and he uses it to lay out his plans and invoke the Almighty for assistance in fulfilling them:

If a righteous man has one aim in life it is to better the lot of his family. It’s all in the future – my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. I see myself as part of some great river called family, that conjoins and combines with other greater and lesser tributaries through marriage, conmingling and uniting until the whole seems to form a great rush forwards …. Part of myself lives in the future. Dear God, our father, help us to realise what can be.

He then proceeds to family business: telling a reluctant George that it’s high time he married (“there are plenty of women, good women who will make good wives”) rebuking Mary for her affair with the King, despite her pointing out that it’s brought them quite a bit of profit. Anne is there, but is uncomfortably out of place with her siblings, balking at Mary’s accusations of flirtation and showing an interest in religion which neither of the others seem much inclined to emulate, then or later.

A scene later, it’s apparent that Mary is pregnant with Henry’s baby, and Henry is doing everything he can to oil out of responsibility, rather comically, it must be said. “William must be … congratulated,” he says, and wanders away while Mary throws things after him and screams – “Piss, piss! Cat’s piss! Help me not go crazy!” It turns out that her pregnancy has reawakened old discontentments, because before we know it he’s consulting Thomas Boleyn over a certain passage in Leviticus which astute readers will be able to guess. They pray for guidance, after which Thomas observes that “sometimes meanings change, very slightly, in translation.” The grateful king takes up the hint. “You mean in Hebrew that verse might … there might be another interpretation?” He offers Thomas payment, but the latter only desires that his daughter receive a place at court.

Catherine of Aragon is not exactly thrilled to receive the Frenchified sister of her husband’s ex-mistress as her new attendant – “Some people are given little dogs as presents. Some people have furs or plate even, jewels are not unheard of, but the King must send me a new lady-in-waiting.” Anne makes the acquaintance of Mark Smeaton, who starts off with a double-edged joke about committing treason and moves on to giving her worldly-wise advice about George: “I do not think he will be happy in his marriage. This Jane Parker. You must get him to fall in love with her or there will be big trouble.” How Smeaton knows this we’re not given to understand, but Anne recoils at his further suggestion of a love potion – “You look clever enough to conjure up some magic” – and tells him not to use such dangerous terms as “witch” around her if they’re to be friends. Soon enough, Smeaton is bonding with George over the latter’s unhappy marriage – “Jane wants me grown up. She looks at me like some idiot she discovered in her bed.” Soon enough they’re kissing, although George backs away after a moment, fearing discovery.

Meanwhile things aren’t going well for Henry, who’s making a last-ditch attempt to beget a male heir with Catherine and is having performance issues. Luckily, Thomas Boleyn turns up with Wakefield’s translation which states that the offending couple shall be “without sons.” “The Pope must give us an annulment. Thank you Almighty God!” shouts Henry, and runs offstage to pass the baby to Wolsey. While the invisible Wolsey is busy slogging through the paperwork, Henry is breaking the news to Catherine, who doesn’t take it well (“I respect you,” Henry keeps telling her, and it’s about as effective as you’d imagine) and also flirting with Anne, asking her what her ideal husband’s qualities would be – “Feed me coddled eggs, run through the long grass with me, help me climb trees, find birds’ nests, we’ll examine beetles, and lie under the stars and talk …” says Anne, to which Henry responds that “This is not a man; he’s half nursemaid, half playmate, not even grown-up.” “He’s what I want,” says Anne.

He is not what she’ll get, however. What she’ll get is Henry flirting with her some more and then propositioning her – “I want to fuck you,” is how he elegantly puts it – and then grabbing her. She spits at him, runs off, and then panics and decides to take the veil as one way of escaping; a plan that meets with her mother’s and Catherine’s approval, but not Henry’s. After a meeting with Thomas in which Henry dismisses the idea of marrying Renee of France (too plain and crippled for him) he suddenly thinks of a solution to two of his problems: marry Anne instead! Thomas objects mildly to being asked permission for courtship by a man who’s technically married to someone else, but he is the king after all, and Anne is promptly brought in and urged to consider the prospects – gold plate, jewels, the crown, and a Henry who at least is trying to woo her fairly. To no avail: “I never want to be in love – if it makes you behave like this,” she tells Henry, and threatens again to go into a convent or (briefly) to kill herself. He gives her a ring and leaves, after which she tries to pray, but finds her thoughts keep straying to other matters. During their subsequent scenes, Henry is full of extravagant metaphors – he’s all about butterflies, comets, flowers, and somehow all of them manage to be like Anne.

Although Anne has been rejecting Henry largely on the grounds of his treatment of Catherine, Catherine sees no reason to behave especially gently to Anne, and soon the resentful Anne decides that she may as well throw Henry a bone and let him wear her favour while he jousts. Afterwards, between angst-filled scenes where Henry confides in George and Thomas about his anger at the Pope and angst-filled scenes where Smeaton and George get hot and heavy, Anne, Mary, and their mother argue about how exactly Anne should be behaving. Mary thinks Anne should just give in while the going is good, or else their enemies will eventually topple her and she’ll be left with nothing, but Elizabeth considers preserving her honour more important. Anne blows up at Henry over the waiting, when there’s yet another delay, and delivers her famous speech about how she might have married years ago if it weren’t for this – she urges Henry, sincerely, to give up and let her go so she can marry and have children – “nurseries full.” Henry swears up and down that he’ll succeed if she just holds on a little longer – not that she has any other option, really; you don’t just give Henry VIII his ring back and ask if you can still be friends. Eventually, George Boleyn – who is having rebellious thoughts about papal authority – gives Anne a copy of “Obedience Of A Christian Man” – and she passes it on to Henry. The light dawns, the monasteries tremble, Anne finally surrenders her virginity, and only Thomas Boleyn seems to realize the implications of they’ve just done.

THOMAS: We’ve made Henry into a monster. `The ruler is answerable to God alone; the obedience of the subject to the ruler is an obedience required by God.’ Henry will become an absolute monarch. Aren’t you scared?

GEORGE: No, no I’m not. Not if he marries Anne, Parent, not if she gives you grandchildren. Grandchildren who will sit on the throne.

Anne becomes pregnant in short order, Elizabeth appears, and in even shorter order their marriage is on the rocks and Anne is wailing at Henry about finding another maid on his knee when she was miscarrying. “I am only behaving like all other men,” says Henry, while Anne tries to come up with a way to recapture the old feeling – Henry’s old feeling, anyway. “We do need to find a way back to each other,” she says, and now she’s the one full of extravagant verbiage comparing Henry to wind and water, while Henry is reduced to “Let’s get it over with.” This is followed by the stage direction which stopped me last week: “HENRY rapes ANNE.”

Nothing good can come of this, and the end result is a severely deformed baby, miscarrying a few days after Henry’s fall at jousting. “I was the one close to death. You had no reason to miscarry,” he says, before starting the speech that many fictional Henrys have made before him. “You do know what this signifies? God is angry,” he says, and it’s not hard to figure out which one of them has been earning the divine demerits. “That poor blighted babe was not my son. I was not the father. He was the product of some sin, some licentious thing, some disgusting adultery – such as witches perform with the devil.” “Henry, this isn’t you. You’ve been so good to me,” Anne cries, but we soon discover that Smeaton has confessed (“What to?” an enraged George asks him). In the last scene we see only the surviving Boleyns – Mary, Elizabeth and Thomas. As Thomas began the first scene, Elizabeth begins the last:

If this was a folk tale, or a fairy story, a tale from the Bible – a Greek myth – any sort of story – you wouldn’t understand it because it doesn’t fit together. It’s not like a puzzle. There are no consequences. No rhyme or reason. You’d think it was far-fetched. Some crazy thing a child had made up.

She denounces Henry and tells Thomas that while she knows he was excused from being a judge, “You should be there, you should be, to scream, holler, unloose her innocence.” “And die with them?” says Thomas. “Why not?” his wife answers. “You’re no earthly use to anyone alive.” She departs, and Mary tells the audience about Anne’s last moments. After Anne’s beheading “The lips still struggled to form words, prayers. She must have been praying, they say. For what? I’d have cursed.” Thomas then breaks into the monologue to inform her that she’s all he has left. Mary walks away, and Thomas is left alone.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, with intermittent bouts of religious feeling. Anne’s religious knowledge doesn’t seem to go very deep – her objection to George and Smeaton’s sleeping together is stilled by Smeaton’s reminder that the Bible says we should love one another – but her attraction to religion and religious life is consistent throughout. The political element is present – Campeggio, the sack of Rome, and the ongoing difficulties with the Pope get sufficient mention – but domestic politics get very short shrift to the point where someone not well-versed in the subject would probably miss them completely. Wolsey’s death and More’s appointment are mentioned in a sentence, but More’s fate never comes up, and when in the last scene Elizabeth Boleyn says “This would never have happened if it were not for Cromwell,” the unwary playgoer would be justified in asking “Who’s that?”

WHEN BORN? Not stated, but she’s the youngest of the Boleyn siblings – “my youngest, Anne,” her father calls her at one point. Mary is already married when the play begins, and her father says that George’s marriage should be attended to before Anne’s, so at a guess the birth order is Mary, George, Anne.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is mentioned briefly at the beginning, but Anne’s feelings on him are unclear – Mary says that she flirted with Percy, which Anne denies, but she doesn’t state flat-out how she felt about him.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Given the size of the cast, the only maid of honour we see on stage is Anne herself, however, Lady Rochford is referenced, along with Madge Shelton. The reference to the latter is oblique – presumably she is the “cousin” with whom Henry has an affair during Anne’s pregnancy of 1534. Jane Seymour does not come up.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Smeaton to George and, by extension, Anne.

THE PROPHECY None, unless you count a moment when Anne’s mother speculates about the ridiculous possibility of Elizabeth succeeding to the throne. “Queen? Queen Bess?”

IT’S A GIRL! Anne herself is overjoyed with Elizabeth’s birth – “I promised him a son. All the same, she’s a miracle.” Henry pets Elizabeth briefly but then goes right back to demanding (and attempting to beget) the required boy.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, although the idea is referenced – Smeaton teases her with being “a witch” and asks her to show him her extra finger. She holds out her hands, and he then realizes that she doesn’t have one. “Don’t ever say such a thing, even in joke,” Anne tells him, alive to the implications of being called a witch. Smeaton, however, is a slow learner.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Thomas Boleyn, while still the ambitious and ultimately cowardly type, gets more depth – and more lines – than he usually does. His repeated concern for his family, and how his family’s well-being is tied up with its position at court, makes him understandable and human, and his disputes with George over religion and George’s failure to give him another heir for the Wiltshire line ring true enough. He’s also anxious that Anne may be reaching too high. Elizabeth Boleyn is, rather unusually, portrayed as extremely religious and Anne is, for a while, her golden child in that respect. She also fears that Anne may be overreaching herself in marrying the king, and she fears the social and religious upheaval that’s going along with it. Mary Boleyn is, as usual, the practical, sympathetic one, the one concerned that Anne will be left with nothing and who leaves court to find her own happiness. George himself is a familiar enough type to lovers of Boleyn fiction; hardworking, witty, loving of his sister but feeling just a little bit in the shade. “I am transmogrifying,” he tells Smeaton, “turning into a button on my sister’s dress.” He gets a lot of the good lines, as when a desperate Henry tries to reassure himself. “You aren’t completely sycophantic?” Henry asks him at one point, to which George responds “I am, but not completely.”

He also gets Mark Smeaton, who’s a cynical but loyal type – when Mary Boleyn tells him of her plans to elope and marry a second time, Smeaton tells her that he feels he would be safer leaving as well but that he owes it to George to stay. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford is mentioned, but not seen – Mary Boleyn describes unflatteringly: “Jane’s all scraggy and she titters like a sick cat … she looks like duty and obligation.” Later on, Thomas rebukes George for not begetting any heirs and passes on stories of Jane’s anger that she doesn’t see George enough – “Jane says – I won’t even repeat what Jane says,” Thomas Boleyn tells us. Curiously, Lady Rochford drops out of the story after these complaints – her supposed accusation of incest is never mentioned.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The play is written in a modern style, but not exactly in the vernacular; Anne and Henry especially often talk in a rich, image-heavy manner which suggests that they both attend poetry workshops in the off season, but it is compelling, especially as Henry very rarely gets to show us the arts-intensive side of his character. At one point, when talking to George Boleyn, trying to explain his own love of beauty and its struggle with his love of domination, Henry tries to illustrate:

A butterfly lands on my hand. Visualise its trembling wings, imagine the beauty of them, the colours – rich reds, purples, browns, a flash of blue. It rests, as I said, its wings trembling about to open, to trust – and I, instead of letting it be – close my hand, flatten, squash, squeeze into a pulp its poor fragile frame – mush in my palm.

“Only a butterfly,” says George, and Henry snaps. “The butterfly stands for … you think it’s only a butterfly!” George, for all the slick lines he gets off in the play, doesn’t ever talk like this.

There are downsides – Henry sometimes goes overboard when he’s comparing Anne to various lovely natural phenomena, but it seems in character for him to do so. One jarring effect of the modern-ish speech is when Henry tells her that he’ll make her “a jewelled mermaid.” That was not a complimentary comparison in the sixteenth century, as anyone who’s seen that old poster featuring Mary Queen of Scots as a mermaid can attest.

ERRATA The main source for the story was plainly Retha Warnicke, and the most unlikely elements of the story came directly from her interpretation – the homosexual ring (although the other three men who died are mentioned only in Elizabeth Boleyn’s last speech, it’s implied that they were well known “libertines”), and the deformed fetus. In addition, Catherine is referred to by Henry as the “Dowager Queen” when of course the whole point of his theological adventuring was to make sure she was the Dowager Princess.

WORTH A READ? Despite the Warnicke material, which is starting to look very dated, I would like to see a production of this play. Language which seems overblown on reading (Henry’s butterfly metaphor, for one) would, I think, seem quite appropriate when spoken by a good actor playing an extravagant personality, and while I didn’t like the Henry on exhibit particularly, I did like that he appeared to have real depth of character – aggressive, nasty, childish, but also with a real ability for introspection (sadly underused) and a strong intellect. I just wish that the playwright had kept the rape direction out of it — it just seemed like too much. Yes, we get it, he’s a selfish monster, we don’t need to be hammered over the head with it. The portrayal of Catherine of Aragon was also good – she’s toughened up after several long, hard, decades. She can be unpleasant and unfair, but when Anne tells her in misery and confusion that she wants to go into a convent, Catherine tells her that a convent is for those who have a vocation “Not for escaping a man.” True, she follows that shortly afterwards with a remark that Anne’s family seems to have a vocation for sleeping with Henry, but you can’t say that would never have occurred to her under the circumstances.

Anne herself is something of a throwback to older, nineteenth century Annes (though I think she may be the only one I’ve seen who sincerely wanted to take the veil at any time). She does have quite a few modern traits – she declares that she only wants to marry for love, and her ideal man could have mixed in comfortably with a lot of modern ones – but her tendency to take refuge in religion when she’s distressed, and her extended spell of fleeing from Henry harken back to the older style. This is a very brittle Anne, who keeps up a good front to hide the fear that rules her life. And considering the mortality rate at Henry’s court, who can say that she isn’t as realistic as any of the others?

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