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Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton (2010)

June 15, 2013

A vain, manipulative flirt, newly installed on the English throne, mincing around in a fancy coronation dress and supported by a sinister political operative, turns out to be fearsomely intelligent and ends up changing the face of England’s religion forever. But enough for now about James I, who co-stars with Anne Boleyn in a play which, when it was first staged, was hailed as a fresh take on Anne Boleyn: no longer the swooning victim or the scheming Scarlett O’Hara, she was now, for the first time, being depicted as a sincerely religious advocate for reform. Well, for the first time since The Seduction Of Anne Boleyn in 1998, anyway. But as much as I liked that play, I must say that this one really does have a fresher take in that it ties Anne’s efforts to promote the Tyndale Bible, and the instability that engendered, with James I and his efforts to create one standard, Protestant English Bible and so end that instability happily (from the monarchy’s perspective at least). And along the way we see Anne and James following an oddly similar path – both intelligent, apparently frivolous, given to flirting with inappropriate men, and as a result being severely underestimated by their opponents until it’s too late.

The device used is very clever – Anne and James are in different times, but they are in the same places and, occasionally, using the same pieces of furniture. Anne, except for the few scenes in which she appears post-mortem, has no inkling of the future James being there, but James, who has found several of Anne’s things and is preoccupied with his upcoming meeting with various quarreling prelates, has become very interested in “the witch”. He keeps trying to find out more about her – and if there was anyone who enjoyed tracking down witches, it was James – but never quite manages to glimpse her until the very end.

After a brief introduction in which a flirtatious Anne, wearing a bloodstained dress and holding a head-sized bag, asks if the audience would like to see “it” (and surprises them by producing her Tyndale Bible – “This killed me! This book!”) she informs us that “Now I’m with Jesus. I am! I’ll bring you all to Jesus.” As James I enters the scene, unconscious of her, she informs us that he’s “James the Sixth of Scotland. Now, James the First of England. But he won’t bring you to Jesus.” Given that our first look at James shows him alternately baby-talking and dirty-talking with Cecil while struggling into Anne’s coronation dress, we’re inclined to take her at her word, especially once he encounters the splendid George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and experiences, well, something at first sight. But James has a well-hidden intellectual side (no one’s quite sure who first named him “the wisest fool in Christendom” – here it’s Cecil). After discovering Anne’s old Tyndale Bible and The Obedience Of A Christian Man he begins to wonder even more about her. “Witches can fly. Do you think she can fly? Anne, you hussy! Where are you?” “A ghost hunt!” cries Buckingham, and off they run, just missing the Anne of 1522 who enters the room as they leave it.

This Anne gets off to a running start – literally – by playing catch with with some of the other ladies; they’re tossing oranges around instead of rehearsing for the masque of the Chateau Vert. When Henry VIII interrupts a few seconds later, Anne introduces herself as “Perseverance”, and not longer after the (offstage) masque, Henry is propositioning her and being turned down. “What have you?” he asks, baffled by her inexplicable refusal. “Perseverance,” she tells him again, and soon he’s writing her the love letters and Lady Rochford – an anxious sort whose main concern is keeping below the radar – is urging Anne to accede so as not to get in trouble. Anne, however, declares that she’ll have true love or nothing – “I am not going to be a mistress! No fiddling with womanly devices. No bathing in scents and rose water” – and that she’ll be happy to sleep with king when he marries her. “God’s will. This may be his purpose for me on earth. A Protestant Queen for England.”

Next we’re given several scenes from the next few years; the harassed Wolsey and Cromwell trying to get the divorce going while Anne teases them, jokes with Henry about them and plays and sings with him, and most importantly slips off for an illicit meeting with William Tyndale, temporarily back in England under a pseudonym and, though she doesn’t know it, under the long-distance guardianship of Cromwell. Tyndale, friendly but clearly not entirely at ease (when she tells him that “I have heard the True Word” he blurts back “You? The King’s … thing?”) finally gives her a copy of The Obedience Of A Christian Man, which is promptly grabbed by Wolsey while the other maids of honour are sneaking looks into it. Anne goes to Cromwell for help, and he decides to cast in his lot with her rather than with Wolsey and to give her advice on how to get it back while keeping her skin. Anne makes a long, artful lead-in so that Henry is thoroughly enraged about Wolsey’s theft of Anne’s book before she finally tells him what book it is precisely, and although he balks – “William Tyndale is … The man is close to Luther,” he’s so compelled by the abstract of it that Anne presents that he informs the enraged Wolsey that from the sound of it, this is a book for him and all kings to read and departs. As does Wolsey, who crumbles even while vowing to fight and is last seen being led offstage by Cromwell. Anne and Henry go to Calais, and the curtain drops for the intermission just in time.

When it rises, we’re back with James, who’s taken off Anne’s coronation dress and is ready for business, namely confronting Lancelot Andrewes, John Reynolds, and Henry Barrow (“A lunatic at a meeting can be an advantage. Everyone unites against him”) and getting them to agree on something. After telling each faction in turn that they are going to ease up on the denunciations of each other – “You will be moderate or I’ll damn well have you all strung up in chains in the Fleet Street Prison!” – the divines engage in some informative-the-audience wrangling over infant baptism and whether marriage is a sacrament, and Lancelot Andrewes gently leads Henry Barrow into a discussion of who has ultimate authority over the faithful. As soon as he answers, James strikes:

If you aim at a Scots presbytery, I tell you it agrees with a monarch as much as God agrees with the Devil! These Presbyterians want no bishops at all! Presbyterians would run all by committee, made up of themselves! They claim the King must be subject to the word of the Church. That is, to them. What, a king subject to a committee of fanatics? He could be removed! That is the path to anarchy and revolution. What stops it? The beauty of the Church of England, its great arch of bishops and archbishops, who accept the King is Head of the Church, appointed by God. I tell you: no bishops, no king!

Exeunt divines, all suddenly terrified and quite willing to cooperate. James’s thoughts turn once again to Anne, and he goes off for a solitary walk, unfortunately just missing the Anne of 1533, who’s just had Elizabeth and who is somewhat nervously endorsing Cromwell’s draft of the Act in Restraint of Appeals – “Taking the Pope’s money. He’ll excommunicate us all, won’t he.” Henry, though much pleased by the implications that all monastic wealth will soon be his (“New ships for Your Majesty’s Navy,”) is a bit more worried even than Anne is – “It must be argued, truly and justly. All the world must see its truth and justice … So, after the Fall of Troy, Prince Aeneas sails to Italy and founds Rome, and Roman Emperors found my throne. Therefore I am Imperial. Well, it will do, it will do.” He and Anne are clearly not quite as harmonious together as they once were – “the milch cow’s dropped the wrong kind of calf,” sniggers Cromwell’s servant, sotto voce of course. But Anne can still count on Cromwell’s support, or so she thinks anyway – “We are conspirators for Christ,” she tells him – and when he tells her that “a friend of ours” is back in England, she’s willing to go quietly with her ladies and meet him to make an offer of a place on the King’s council.

This is, of course, Tyndale, who shows Anne the perils of letting commoners rely on their own consciences when he tells her that his message for the King is “Oh King, take back your true wife, Catherine.” Anne protests: she’s helping England cut free from the Pope, if Catherine were to come back all of that would be undone. Tyndale is unmoved. “God will work his purpose out … we must be our own confessors. Best you look into your heart. Good day to you.” She’s left with his rejection, and leaves just ahead of James, who has decided to solidify his control of the state’s religion by commissioning a new, standard Bible; derived largely from Tyndale’s but with James-approved vocabulary in sensitive areas. The disputed translations of ecclesia, presbyteros, and agape all get an airing, with James concluding “In my Bible there will be: `church,’ `’priest’ and `charity’ … rewrite [Tyndale], Dean. Rewrite. Make him safe for good Anglicans to read.” After that he wanders off to St. Peter ad Vincula for a bit of ghost-hunting.

Anne, in an earlier time, has just miscarried a severely deformed boy – “It’s got gills. And flippers,” says a servant – and Henry has unfortunately seen it before the midwives could spirit it away. Henry takes it well – “If it is God’s will, we will bear it,” but alas, while Anne hasn’t lost Henry, she has lost Cromwell. She’s been showing a little too much interest in where the monastic monies are going, and he’s put together a pre-emptive strike. By the time she confronts him with “The houses you are building, gifts of monastery lands to your family, your favourites … you think you can pull me down? I will give the King all the evidence –” “It is already on its way to him,” Cromwell answers, and after a brief confrontation with the scared-witless Lady Rochford, who’ll admit to anything as long as she’s allowed to live, Anne is dragged off without being allowed to see Henry.

At the very end James, now in St. Peter ad Vincula, finally sees Anne – and she sees him. As it turned out, she saw him much earlier – in her vision of the future, in the moment between her beheading and loss of consciousness. She saw the audience, too – “You. The demons of the future.” James tells her of his new Bible – “I’m giving the future a new Bible! God’s Word!” “Not God’s, yours,” she responds, and when James wonders why God always seems to want the things that are most to our own advantage, Anne cuts him off, and bids the audience goodbye.

SEX OR POLITICS? A good lashing of both, in the persons of Anne and James I, who goes with startling swiftness from sauntering around in Anne’s coronation dress to telling off the clergymen in confident and well-educated terms.

WHEN BORN? Not stated. Neither of her siblings appears in the play, and their ages aren’t stated either.

THE EARLY LOVE: Not mentioned – not surprisingly, there’s enough going on as it is, what with the time shifts and all. The major illicit romance in this play is James’s pursuit of the taken-aback but nonetheless willing George Villiers. “Well, it’s something different,” Villiers tells the audience. “And if you’re going to advance, you find you have to swim in strange waters. Not unpleasant, really.”

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford, Jane Seymour, and a girl named Celia. Lady Rochford is, thankfully, more on the Julia Fox model; she’s well-meaning but weak, afraid to rock the boat but still prone to gossip which can rebound on her. “Lady Rochford is one of the world’s leakers,” says Cromwell, and once he’s threatened her to the point where she’s made her “revelation”, she vomits. “I just want to be alive,” she tells Anne pitiably afterwards. These ladies in waiting are notable for having one of the few discussions of birth control I’ve found in these works – it happens when Henry first propositions Anne and they’re all assuming she’ll accept and are giving her advice. It manages to walk the line between funny and overdone very nicely. (Really, what can’t vinegar do?)

It’s too bad that this play takes the currently-popular view of Thomas More as a one-dimensional sadistic (and thankfully offstage) fanatic, because this would have been the perfect place for Anne to remember his line about how this only means that “I will die today, and you will die tomorrow.” Nonetheless, I loved this Lady Rochford. Jane Seymour and Celia are less remarkable – the former is either naturally dim or has been frightened into acting as such. “A warning. When you are with him, do not discuss matters of religion or state,” Cromwell tells her. “Show him your bosoms, not your opinions.” She’s too terrified of him to do otherwise.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: A strongly discomfited Cecil to the sashaying, potty-mouthed James I – one of the great delights of reading this was seeing how completely off-balance James managed to keep both his advisors and his bishops. I had no problem believing that this “wisest fool in Christendom” was able to stay on top of a kingdom. “I put this man on the throne of England. What have I done?” Cecil asks himself at the beginning, but by the end he’s largely reconciled to it. Cecil himself has a servingman named Parrot. Earlier in time, Sloop and Simpkin are servants to Cromwell (the former starts off as Wolsey’s servant and switches to Cromwell later). Parrot, Sloop and Simpkin are largely interchangeable and exist mostly to provide partners for their masters’ conversations and engage in a bit of entertaining if sometimes a little too modern exposition. “That’s what happens when sex’n’politics gets mixed up,” says Simpkin when he hears of Anne’s fury at Catherine’s making shirts for Henry. “What is it about religion?” says Sloop after hearing Simpkin’s account of Thomas More’s Chamber Of Horrors in his basement. But seeing as the play is all about shifting times, and makes quite a few winks at the modern audience besides these, they don’t grate as much as one might expect.

THE PROPHECY: Not quite a prophecy, but Anne has a vision in the moment of her beheading, which she describes to James (and us) during the last scene, the only one in which they see each other.

While my head was in the straw. I saw my body. (Giggles.) No head! And I saw the people kneeling by the scaffold. And behind them, I saw you. (Aside, to the audience.) And you. The demons of the future.

IT’S A GIRL! By the time Henry makes it to the birthing chamber, Anne is feverish and hallucinating miserably that “they won’t let me be Queen anymore,” so his chivalrous instincts take over and he reassures her that Elizabeth is beautiful, that she has his eyes, and that “There is time, Anne. We are still young.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: In a way, this play is the negative of The Seduction Of Anne Boleyn (1998) – in that play, we saw only Henry, Anne, Catherine, and Anne’s family (without Lady Rochford). In this one we see Henry, Anne, and virtually everyone except Anne’s family, but we do see Lady Rochford. George Boleyn is hardly mentioned, except when Cromwell tells Lady Rochford not to think she can avoid talking to him just because she’s married to “that bitch’s brother.” Of her parents, we learn only that Mary had a brief affair with the King.”He ruined her,” Anne tells Lady Rochford, and when the latter protests that Mary is living very comfortably, Anne’s rejoinder is that she’s “married off to a man she hates and still in love with the King.” Of her parents, we hear only that Elizabeth also slept with the King – “only for a night”, says Cromwell – and that her father is “flexible” about his family’s activities if it helps him climb at court.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: This play is really hard to quote because it is all about the repartee between the characters. No old-school monologues here; James’s “No bishop, no king” speech is about as much continuous dialogue as anyone has at one time. The dialogue, while sometimes flatfooted (mostly when the servants are making snarky remarks which I think the audience is supposed to identify with) is usually a delight. James gets the best lines but there are more than enough good ones to go round. “Many do hold it be an heretical translation, Your Majesty,” Cecil tells James as he unearths the Tyndale Bible, to which James replies “Oh, it is. He translates `king’ as `tyrant’ a little too often.” “Are you Catholic, Steamy?” George Villiers shakes off any suggestion that he’s Catholic. “No no, Sire. Not theological at all. Church of England.” And Anne’s description of her own last weeks, when talking to James, is an oddly convincing distillation of the yards of verbiage so carefully transcribed by Kingston:

The last three weeks I was alive, I couldn’t speak to Henry, couldn’t send a message. Cromwell cut me off. While he told his lies. Oh, how I begged. Beg beg beg, funny how you do that, when you’re going to die, you say you won’t, but you do. Beg beg beg. But Henry was a good husband.

ERRATA: There’s a fair amount of compression, which the playwright himself notes along with the fact that Anne Boleyn and William Tyndale never actually met each other. He thinks (and I agree) that the scene was good enough to justify its inclusion – much like the plays which depict Mary Queen of Scots meeting Queen Elizabeth, it’s one of those things that should have happened, and since this story is all about bending time and impossible conversations, Anne meeting with Tyndale blends right in. Less justifiable is the fact that during Anne and Tyndale’s second meeting, fear of the Lord Chancellor Thomas More is cited as one reason of several why he won’t return to England. First of all, More was long gone from the chancellorship by the time Elizabeth was born, and secondly, what on earth would Cromwell be doing offering Tyndale a place on the King’s Council if More was still in power? Regardless of factuality, it makes no internal sense here. (I don’t know why it is, but people really want More to have personally set Tyndale’s stake alight. Sorry, everyone – doubtless he would have if he could, but Tyndale outlived More’s chancellorship by four years. That death was all on Henry). And, once again, there’s no evidence that Anne miscarried a deformed fetus, though as the play is already pitched in a fantastical key, it worked pretty well here. “Protestant” is Anne’s word for herself, which it wouldn’t have been since it hadn’t yet been coined. And while James I’s letters to Buckingham, in which calls him “Steany” and signs himself as “your Dade and Husband” are accurately reflected in his dialogue, their affair didn’t get started until about ten years after James became king. In the play, it’s more like ten minutes. They were supposed to have cross-dressed, though since that information was splashed about by anti-James sources there are all the usual caveats surrounding that.

WORTH A READ? I had read the synopsis before I got the play and expected to dislike it, but I ended up being enchanted by it and wishing there were some performance I could attend which was less than three thousand miles away. I liked the parallels between Anne and James, and their treatment of the religious question, very much, and while James is a flashier character Anne still comes across as very real, very lively company (and quite bitchy, on occasion) and, for once, someone whom I could easily picture choosing the motto “The Most Happy.” I don’t mean to say that I think they spoke and acted exactly like their real counterparts, probably they weren’t even close, but considering that the play is somewhat fantastical anyway they needed to be just a bit on the light side to keep it from becoming unintentionally ridiculous. (On a side note: considering the umpteen novels in existence about Elizabeth and her Traumatic Childhood teaching her to Trust No Man, where the hell are the novels about James I? When you look at his Traumatic Childhood, Elizabeth might as well have grown up in Mayberry).

I liked the depictions of Tyndale and Lady Rochford very much as well, and how Anne assumes that she has some sort of natural authority over them – until she discovers that that authority means nothing in the face of Tyndale’s extreme courage and Lady Rochford’s extreme fear. Cromwell was nicely done; clever, funny, sincere in his avowals to Anne of secret Protestantism – “You have my life in your hands, Lady Anne” – and happy to stick a shiv in her back when her religious sensibilities began to outweigh her political ones too much. The author cites Ives in his introduction and adheres to the Ives hypothesis about Anne’s downfall, which leads us to the weak link among the characters – Henry VIII himself. The Ives hypothesis has a lot to recommend it, but its problem in fiction and drama is that Henry himself is in danger of becoming a sort of spectator in the drama that should be centered at least partially around him. He’s not exactly a cipher here – his self-pity and need to be really, truly morally justified are well aired, and his angry and puzzled wrestlings with God’s will are nicely done. He has some good moments in the early days of their relationship, when we get to see him and Anne singing together (a song that’s reprised when they’re trying to comfort each other after the last miscarriage) but in the end, his lack of awareness of what’s really going on means he’s pretty much shunted off to the side while James, Anne, and Cromwell steal the show.

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