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Anne Of The Thousand Days by Maxwell Anderson (1948)

July 13, 2013

When this play premiered in 1948, it was considered so daring (Anne shamelessly admitted to having premarital sex!) that filming it would be impossible. Eventually, of course, a film did get made twenty-one years later – sadly, by then too much time had passed for Rex Harrison to act the part of Henry VIII, as he did in the play; a performance I wish to heaven I’d been able to see (and which must have influenced Mr. Harrison considerably, as he ended up having six wives himself). The play itself has a quality of dated daring to it which, when combined with the effective but unhistorical climax in which Anne actually has a More-like chance to escape her fate if she’ll only sign a certain document, makes it feel almost as remote as some of the plays from earlier centuries in which history takes so much of a back seat to drama that you occasionally wonder what exactly these characters have in common with any Boleyns and Tudors besides their names.

We open with the spotlight on Anne in prison, soliloquizing on her impending death, wondering just how long it’s been from “the first time / I gave myself, to that last day when he – / when he left me at the lists and I saw him no more?” and wondering if Henry could truly bring himself to kill her. The spotlight then switches to a solitary Henry, at his desk with (presumably) the order for execution before him. He hesitates over the difficulty of signing it, but tells himself that he must – “If I am to rule / And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks” and furthermore, he reminds himself “You’ve condemned men, nobles, and peasants / She’s struck down a few herself – / Or driven you to it.” Still though, he can’t help wondering just how he ended up here:

What were you like, Henry,
when she flashed her first anger at you
ten years ago in Spring?
How hopeful were you,
how mistaken, then,
how ridiculous,
how much in love?

The audience soon finds at as the scene promptly switches to Hever Castle, ten years earlier, where Henry, attended by Wolsey and wisecracking servant Mark Smeaton, has just arrived in pursuit of the luscious Anne, which is rather awkward since until then he’d been sleeping with her sister Mary. “I’m in a most difficult position here,” says Thomas Boleyn. “What am I to say to Mary? What am I to say to Anne?” An additional awkwardness lies in the fact that Anne and Henry Percy (here Earl of Northumberland before his time) are just on the brink of getting engaged. What can he do about that? Don’t worry, Wolsey reassures him, we’ll take care of it somehow. Thomas drops a few hints to the effect that Anne might be hard to persuade, but “She’s no fool, my lord,” and she’ll come round to the idea. We have our doubts once we see her and Percy flitting around the grounds of Hever by moonlight, flirting their hearts out, with Anne marveling that after the sophistication of the French court, she should have fallen for “A countryman from the North. With no graces at all. Can’t dance. Can’t sing. Can hardly speak English.” “Can put his arm around you,” responds Percy, and that’s about as witty as he’ll get during this scene, especially as Anne soon begins to quiz him about how many women he’s slept with and tells him candidly that he won’t be her first. Percy eventually cops to having known another woman or two in his life, but before we can hear much about this, Wolsey walks in on them to tell them that it’s all off, and Anne is to marry the Earl of Ormond. Exit Percy, after much Cavendish-derived protesting, and Anne learns that this was just a cover story for Henry wanting her instead.

She is, unsurprisingly, not amenable to any of this (she desperately quizzes her parents: “Do you remember what it’s like to be in love? Either of you?”) but although her mother at least is sympathetic, it’s clear that whatever power they have to intervene will not be taken advantage of. Anne decides that if she has to socialize with the King she doesn’t have to be polite about it, and takes the opportunity, when Henry tells her gallantly to “Ask for what you want,” to tell him that what she wants is “To be free / to marry where I love.” His generosity doesn’t go that far, and so she revenges herself by telling him the truth about himself.

The poetry they praise
so much is sour, and the music you write’s worse.
You dance like a hobbledehoy; you make love
as you eat – with a good deal of noise and no subtlety.

Henry storms out, Anne faints, and next thing we know it’s two years later, Northumberland is dead, and Henry is making his hesitant way back to Hever to have another shot at Anne, who’s now receiving advice on the subject from Mary: “If you ever go to him, lock up your heart, never surrender yourself, keep a cold reserve of hate and anger and laughter and unfaith. – For the moment you are won and conquered and a worshipper, he will give you back to yourself and walk away. He’ll want no more of you.” Anne takes this advice to heart and holds Henry off firmly during the ensuing scene in which he performs a song he wrote for her, then starts dropping hints about how they could have sons together, and finally badgers Anne into saying she’d marry him if he could make her queen of England. Wolsey is horrified – “She hates you! This will be a marriage of hate!” but Henry hasn’t been stewing over Anne’s remarks for two years to listen to this kind of advice, and soon Wolsey is trying and failing to secure the annulment. He’s tried his best – “till there’s blood dripping in my eyes and I’m worn out,” but the unfortunate political reality is that as long as Charles V has the Pope by the throat, he’s never handing out that annulment. Unfortunately for Wolsey, Anne is pregnant and they can’t wait. After a session of tantrum-throwing by Henry, in which he and Anne scream at each other about his infidelities and failure to come through on his promise, Thomas Cromwell fortuitously pokes his head in the door and mentions that there just so happens to be a way in which “At one stroke you could obtain your divorce and make yourself the wealthiest monarch in Europe.” The law of praemunire has come to Henry’s rescue, but he’s torn – his father’s advice to him was to take all liked, but “Always keep the church on your side,” and he fears to break with that. He realizes the implications – “I shall be opposed by many … They will be guilty of treason and I shall have to kill them.” But on the plus side, he would be able to make Anne queen, and although she’s never yet told him that she loves him, she would then, he’s sure of it. “Must so many die?” Anne wonders. Yes, Henry tells her.

She’s crowned shortly after, with an unenthusiastic crowd in attendance (it turns out Cromwell didn’t bribe the apprentices well enough for them to cheer very much) and More and Fisher stop by to express their regrets that they can’t acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the church. It’s all very civil and businesslike and the effect is nicely chilling – “Gentlemen, think again,” says Henry, “You move away from this world of your own will.” “No doubt it will go on without us,” says More, and leaves, along with Wolsey, who’s survived three years past his actual death date but isn’t long for this world now. “Some men die for their principles,” he observers, “Others because it’s the next thing to do.” Henry then agonizes over the harm he means to do for a woman who doesn’t love him, until Anne is broken down and tells him that she does, and furthermore asks for mercy for More and others. Henry, expansive, agrees – “They shall not die. We’ll lift the sentences.” Anne, in a rush of confidence, elaborates:

I’m deep in love.
With one I hated.
Who took me anyway. Took me from my first love.
With you.

Anne, in her prison cell later on, realizes her mistake; in the thousand days they were together, there was “Only one / When our loves met, and overlapped, and were both / mine and his.” Before then, she had hated him, and afterwards, he began to hate her. And quickly, too – after Elizabeth’s birth (which he reacts to well on the whole, but doesn’t quite remember to kiss the baby before he leaves) he’s busy composing songs for Jane Seymour and demanding that Anne retain her as maid of honour after Anne tries to send her away, and Anne agrees on condition that Henry fully establish his own church and make sure that Elizabeth is his official heiress. It transpires that Anne’s initial mercy towards her enemies was misplaced; the commons hate her, Henry is having trouble with the dissolution of the monasteries, and of course it’s all Anne’s fault because “You yourself cancelled the order for the deaths …. / It would cost twice as many lives/ now, as then, to set up our own church / And legalize what’s been done.” Anne frantically says that it should happen regardless of how many have to die: “I’d sign ten thousand to die / rather than disinherit my blood!” Henry tells her that while their marriage is dead and Elizabeth can’t be his heir, all of this may change if she gives him son, and Anne, now in a bloodthirsty rage, tells him that she’ll do that – if More, Fisher et al are executed and Elizabeth is established as the heir now. Henry does, and Anne does – for a while, but her son is “born dead” and Henry, disgusted and exhausted with the whole situation, decides that it’s time to pull the plug and has Anne arrested, with the assistance of Cromwell and Norfolk – the former of whom asks Anne if she’d consider leaving for Antwerp. “If you were to make it easy to annul your marriage, why, then I could be kind.” “I’d be a mistress – a discarded mistress. With a disinherited child. No!” cries Anne, and it’s off to the Tower with her and off to the torture chamber for Smeaton and Norris (who’s been in a few previous scenes, playing cards and flirting with Madge Shelton). After Cromwell has been playing cat and mouse with Smeaton for a bit, Henry turns up and questions him personally, rapidly becoming disgusted with the implausibility of the answers. “Do you convict on such testimony?” he asks Cromwell, but he desperately needs to believe that it’s somehow true, and confronts Anne, offering to be merciful towards her “sin” if she’ll just agree to an annulment. “You and I / We’ll not have a son now. / God has spoken there. / Go quietly. Sign the nullification.” He doesn’t help his case by then proceeding to blame her for the executions he’s committed and the breach with Rome, and Anne finally snaps and tells him that he’ll murder anyone to get what he wants, no assistance needed, and in addition:

Before you go, perhaps
You should hear one thing –
I lied to you.
I loved you, but I lied to you! I was untrue!
Untrue with many!

Henry panics, insisting that she wasn’t unfaithful after all, that she’s lying – but if that’s the case “let her die for lying!” Anne has a long aside which Henry obviously can’t hear.

I’ve never thought what it was like to die.
To become meat that rots. Then food for shrubs,
and the long roots of vines.
The grape could reach me.
I may make him drunk before many years….
Could I do it? Could I lay my head down –
And smile, and speak? Till the blow comes?
They say it’s subtle. It doesn’t hurt. There’s no time.
No time. That’s the end of time.

She then tells Henry to “Go your way, and I’ll go mine …. / For there is such a thing as expiation. / It involves dying to live.” Henry turns from her and shouts at the clerk to “Burn these records!” as he leaves, anticipating the Cottonian fire by two hundred years and explaining neatly why this conversation won’t be found in any history book.

At the very last, we see Henry alone at his desk, on the morning Anne is to die. “That would have shaken me ten years ago / Not now.” A cannon sounds – so much for Anne, she’s gone now. Except that she isn’t. She appears, silent, in the window, and Henry realizes that the rest of his life will be haunted by her.

I can hear you saying, “Nothing’s ever forgiven,
nothing’s ever forgotten or erased, –
nothing can ever be put back the way it was.
The limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft
to that tree again ….
It may be all other women will be shadows ….
It may be I shall seek you forever down the long corridors of air,
finding them empty, hearing only echoes.
It would have been easier to forget you living
than to forget you dead.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, no doubt. There’s a respectable helping of politics, but it’s only just enough to give the audience an idea of what’s going on. The complications of doctrine, the wrangle over the English translations of the Bible, and the spaghetti-like political entanglements of the various countries outside England don’t get much play. Anne’s holdout against Henry, and her doomed emotional surrender, are the real crux of the action.

WHEN BORN? Not clear. Mary seems to be older, but George isn’t mentioned at all.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy, who, unusually, predeceases Anne – by the time Henry comes a-wooing at Hever, a few years after the Anne/Percy engagement is broken, Percy has both married “the Shrewsbury horror” as Elizabeth Boleyn calls her, and died. “I think that marriage killed Northumberland,” says Elizabeth. “It came close to killing Anne.” It also inadvertently disposes of one of Henry’s potential grounds for divorce later on, not that it’s mentioned.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane Seymour and Madge Shelton, neither of whom get too many lines or much in the way of characterization. We see Jane early on, being seated in “the King’s chair” during a round of gambling, and after Elizabeth’s birth Henry writes a song for her, but her reaction is muted. “I don’t care for her,” says Anne of Jane after learning of this interlude. “She has the face of a sheep. And the manners. But not the morals.” Madge has little to do except be in the background and stand over Elizabeth’s cradle.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mark Smeaton is as close as it gets, though he divides his time between being Henry’s servant and Anne’s – at the beginning, he’s giving Henry saucy tips on how to attract a woman (tell her that he’s impotent with all women but her) and at the end he’s playing music for the baby Elizabeth in Anne’s rooms and, of course, being tortured by Cromwell.

THE PROPHECY: Spoken by Anne, in a passage that would later be slightly adapted and result in a very famous moment in the movie. When Henry says it will take “unlimited murder … tearing the world apart” to legitimize their marriage (and Elizabeth) in the eyes of the world, Anne points out that

You will demand it, Henry, and take it!
If it costs heads and blood and fires at Smithfield,
let the blood run and the fires burn!
It’s that, or else it’s my blood, and Cromwell’s –
And Elizabeth’s! ….
High or low, they will sign – or depart without entrails!
And you will keep your word to me, unloved
though I may be!
And so I shall be Queen of this island, and
Elizabeth shall be Queen.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry seems to take it well – “It’s no fault of anyone. There must be girls as well as boys … we’ll let this beauty grow a foot or two, and then we’ll have our son.” But when Anne asks him to kiss her, he begins to do so but gets distracted by some business for Norfolk. It’s clear that had Elizabeth been a boy, he probably wouldn’t have put the baby down for the first six weeks or so.


FAMILY AFFAIRS: Elizabeth Boleyn is a nice mix of mother-hen and worldly-wise courtier, and Thomas appears only briefly at the beginning, mostly to establish that he’s complaisant and political enough not to mind that the king is dropping one of his daughters to pursue the other, though he does drop the occasional cautious observation to the effect that one’s conscience might occasionally adapt itself to what one wants rather than the opposite. Mary gives Anne her good advice about never giving in to the king emotionally, and it’s also hinted that she’s pregnant by him; however, we never see her again after Act I, so that storyline is unresolved.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – albeit “it” in this play is plain adultery and not incest, since George has been written out.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I’ve seen the verse criticized as a little turgid, but the really flat-footed moments turn up in the prose passages. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry!” Henry tells Anne at one point – well, it was probably less of a cliché then. He also describes their “dead marriage” which sounded off-key considering the era they were supposed to be living in, when marriages didn’t die until one of the participants did (unless you could conveniently discover that it was null, but in that case the marriage wasn’t dead so much as nonexistent from the beginning). Anne’s and Percy’s early flirtations sound very naughty for the 1940s – “We don’t come out of a rainbow at seventeen and there’s no use pretending we did,” Anne tells Percy when asking how many women he’s slept with, and Percy will later on tell her that “I’ll be the man of the house when we have a house, and if any game’s to be played I’ll lead in that game and not follow. The game I like now is to put my arms about you and say nothing.” Some of it’s quite entertaining, though – Henry’s lighthearted concurrence when Anne accuses Wolsey of stealing money from his various interests, for example: “Doubtless he stole more than I knew. Though I’m not exactly innocent in the matter. We sometimes went halves.” “Are you also a pupil of the Cardinal’s?” Anne asks, to which Henry merely has to reply “I am a son of Henry the Seventh.” And I did like some of the verse – most particularly the one in which Anne is imagining the ultimate fate of her severed head and finding it almost impossible to do so. The imagery was simple and effective:

But if my head were on the Bridge he wouldn’t climb to take it down.
Nobody’d climb for me. I could stay and face up the river,
and my long hair blow out and tangle round
the spikes – and my small neck:
Till the sea birds took me,
and there was nothing but a wisp of hair
and a cup of bone.

ERRATA: It’s a play; inevitably, the timeline had to be collapsed severely, which results in oddities like Anne becoming pregnant while Wolsey is alive and Wolsey’s survival past Anne’s coronation. Henry Percy dies two years after the broken engagement instead of surviving into 1537, and Mark Smeaton appears as an experienced seducer of maids at a time when historically he would have been roughly eleven years old. And while it makes an extremely effective dramatic device, there was never any question about Henry acknowledging Elizabeth as his heir, however unpopular Anne may have been – he did so from the first, making sure she was styled as a princess (as opposed to her unfortunate half-sister, who was demoted to being the Lady Mary). Henry does not appear to have been present at any torture sessions – nor does he seem to have spoken with any of the condemned after they were arrested. (Although, interestingly, George Boleyn seems to have made a strong effort to reach Henry and speak with him personally before being arrested – but he certainly didn’t speak to him afterward, and George doesn’t appear in the play anyway). And most importantly, Anne had no real control whatsoever over the annulment process; she may have held out and refused to give grounds (although she does seem to have told Cranmer something which he ended up using to grant the annulment) but there was never a choice between giving Henry an annulment and living, and refusing an annulment and dying for her principles and her daughter’s place in the succession. While it’s always possible that Henry flirted with the idea of simply divorcing Anne, by the time she was in the Tower the handwriting was on the wall; absent a miracle, she was going to die, and nothing she could do before her death could magically protect Elizabeth’s status afterwards – as evidenced by the fact that an annulment was granted, and Elizabeth was, in fact, disinherited after Anne died.

WORTH A READ? It’s a good play and I enjoyed reading it – which surprised me, because I’d seen the movie and found it weirdly lackluster. But it feels weirdly dated, possibly because it’s trying so hard to make Anne into a daring, modern young woman and ends up turning out a character who was indeed daring and modern – nay, scandalous! – by the standards of 1948. Anne’s talks with Percy and Henry about sex were reminiscent less of sixteenth-century England than of Helen Gurley Brown, and her refusal to sign the annulment, thereby binding Henry legally to Elizabeth, was effective but again – it had more to do with an era when spouses could legally refuse to grant divorces and expect that refusal to have some effect. You almost expect someone to have the authority to walk in and slap cuffs on Henry in the end. Nonetheless, it’s a good play, not just a “good period play” and I’ll happily attend a performance if anyone decides to revive it.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Jennifer L. Schillig permalink

    I’d love to see you review the movie as its own entity, since you’ve reviewed the play and the movie’s novelization. (It’s interesting that the novelization restores some of the more verse-like dialogue from the play, when the movie smoothed that out and made it more naturalistic.)

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