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Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Burlesque Extravaganza by Conway Edwardes (1872)

January 11, 2014

Robertson Davies once opined that Victorians couldn’t make sex jokes, so instead they made puns. The apotheosis of the pun (or nadir, depending on how you look it) may well have been the Victorian burlesques, where the puns were piled on to the point where I wonder if any of the audience could possibly have caught every single one of them. According to Richard Schoch’s Victorian Theatrical Burlesques, burlesques were usually full-act parodies or takeoffs on some popular “serious” production, featuring lots of now-mystifying topical references, songs set to pre-existing tunes, and many, many trouser roles for shapely actresses, not that trousers were necessarily part of the costume. Anne Boleyn follows the typical burlesque pattern closely, though what “serious” Anne Boleyn-related drama this burlesque was satirizing, if any, I don’t know – I can think of only two pre-1872 productions which feature Henry Percy as a heroic lover destined for the block, and those are Anna Bolena (1830) and Vertue Betray’d (1682). Of course, there may be another play which I haven’t yet found. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is another possibility, though I’m not inclined to think it is as that play ends with Elizabeth’s birth and has nothing in it about Percy or Anne’s downfall.

Incidentally, until I read this burlesque I would have imagined that Shakespeare’s play was the only one in which the part of Anne was played by a male. Not so; burlesque casting conventions meant not only that young women played the roles of young men, but that men often played the parts of older women. The cast list for the original production (it premiered at the New Royalty Theatre on September 7, 1872) featured only three men, who played Henry VIII, Thomas Boleyn, and Anne Boleyn. Anne’s actor was one Mr. E. Danvers, and the frequent jokes in the play about Anne’s height or shoe size make much more sense in that context. As for the puns … well, my favourite one was uttered by Lord Percy, in a speech decrying British liquor laws and the poor soul picked up by the police if he ran afoul of them – “for being screwed,, he’s nailed.” I doubt the author meant it the way it comes across now, but it still comes across. And if you want more strained wordplay, you’re in luck – read on!

We open with beefeaters (who are also the Dukes of Paddington, Shoreditch and Whitechapel) being pushed aside by a haughty Earl of Wiltshire – “The father of your queen behold! … Fine troops you are / Not to present arms to your queen’s papa!” They retort that they’ve been too busy “holding an indignation meeting / ‘Twas to protest against Australian meat, / Which we beefeaters now are forced to eat.” It’s just as well to say they mutton mind, says one of the Dukes, and another proposes that a meat-tin between friends helps make everything better, but even in a Victorian burlesque, Thomas Boleyn isn’t allowed to have a sense of humour. “Keep silence, silly fool!” he shouts, as the Duke of Suffolk enters stage right to let him know that Henry and Anne have been having the latest of a long series of fallings-out. “‘Twas only yesterday the King came to her / And bluffly taxed your child with an amour.” Said amour was supposedly with Sir Henry Norris, but Anne, angry at the accusation, “gave it to him amour and tongs!”

Says she, “I’m true,” says he, “There ma’am, you’re beaten –
How about Norris, Brereton, Weston, Smeaton?
smitten with them; (don’t avert your gaze!)
And Wyatt.”

PADDINGTON: Why att-end to what he says?

Thomas, still unaware of what kind of production he’s in, tells Paddington to shut up, just in time for Will Somers to caper on and give us his origin story, complete with a rhyme of “Hebrides” with “celebrities” and a really awful closing pun about how he returned to treading the boards after a failed attempt at being an editor. “The journal failed – it tottered – drew no pelf / And so I left the thing to right itself!” His story concluded, we now meet the Earl of Surrey, newly returned from the Grand Tour (he used a Cook’s Excursion ticket). “There’s nothing, sir, in travelling, I swear; / For everybody now goes everywhere,” and he regrets that British tourists are among the least presentable. Thomas Boleyn interrupts with a delicate question – has Surrey forgotten his fair Geraldine, whom he was forbidden to marry? The answer is no, which is good because Geraldine is waiting in the wings, anxious for puns, which she gets in Surrey’s story of how he talked her up to everyone he met abroad.

A Saracen once said
“Young man, you praise this European maid
In such high terms, she must indeed be pooty,
you’re a paean singing to her beauty
From morning to night.” Quoth I, “My lord,
Do me the favior [sic] to draw your sword.”
He brought a sketching book – I saw him do it
And with a pen and ink he coolly
drew it.
I thrust at him till he threw up the sponge,
For I’d not dined, so made a hearty
When he gave in I knocked him down a flop,
And at
the Saracen’s head I took a chop.

He also picked up a travelling companion, one Lord Percy, banished abroad for vague reasons by King Henry and now happy to be home again and anxious to see “my Anne Boleyn.” Informed sotto voce by Somers that she’s now married to Henry, Percy erupts. “False! Yes, she’s false! – false as the hair she wears / False as the tooth she once dropp’d on the stairs!” After being dissuaded by Surrey from hunting down the King to exact revenge, all the characters except Percy depart the stage, leaving him to mournful speculation about why Anne left him for Henry – “‘Cos he’s well dressed? (girls tastes are oft erratic / And Harry’s togs are most Harrys-tog-cratic.” Upon hearing someone approach, he hides, and a moment later in come all the aforementioned characters plus a smattering of lords and ladies and last but not least, King Henry, Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn.

Anne is unhappy – in a long aside, filled with puns, she tells us that “Again he slights me! Bubbling heart, be still!” and concludes that she’ll have to hold her tongue for the moment, which is difficult because Henry is telling Jane things like “By cock and pye, Mistress Jane, I vow / You’re looking scrumptious” and Jane is encouraging him. Anne holds her tongue for about eight lines, then wades into Henry for flirting before the whole court, and when he shrugs her off, Anne swoons “My smelling salts – wherever can they be?” Jane Seymour brings the salts, which turn out to actually be pepper, and Anne inhales. Not surprisingly, immediately afterwards she’s telling Jane to “Leave my sight, hussy, without hussy-tation!

Percy, much encouraged by all this marital discord, emerges from hiding to plead with Anne for an interview, but she rebuffs him “What hint have you seen in my conduct, pray / That leads you to suppose I will?” Surrey drags him away, but Henry and Jane Seymour have, of course, both noticed, and they, along with Anne, Somers, and Wiltshire, all begin a song – the tune, the book informs me is “Billy Johnson’s Ball.” “This wretched indiwidle / Has notions sui-ciddle,” sings Anne, and everyone else repeats it in chorus. She feels “my hair with worry / Turning prematurely grey,” and Henry responds by urging “my dearest Jane” away, with the help of a nonsense chorus. “We’ll lar de dar, and doodle doodle diddle, / Yes, up and down the middle.” Everyone then goes off to lar de dar.

The next scene begins with Henry monologuing to the audience. “I love Miss Seymour,” he says, and wrestles with the question of what to do with his current spouse. “Well, I have before / Divorced one wife – why not divorce one more?” His first wife Catherine “of arrogance had her full share,” but even she wasn’t as bad as Anne, and he concludes self-pityingly that he is “as sad a dog as e’er was whelped / But like pork underdone, it can’t be helped.” He then goes on to sing the song I mentioned in this entry, and when he concludes is walked in on by Thomas Boleyn, George Boleyn, the Earl of Essex and the Duke of Norfolk, who proceed to reel off a lively series of puns about drinking, though none of them are as good as Henry Percy’s immortal line about being nailed for being screwed. Soon enough Surrey and Geraldine return with the news that the Queen has swooned out of grief, and although “her temper once was mild,” Surrey says, that’s obviously no longer the case, and Jane’s supplanting of her is looked for virtually hourly. Still, they cheer up enough to run off for supper once the gong sounds.

We now see Jane Seymour herself, reading a billet-doux from Henry. “Herewith I send a miniature, my sweet / For which I paid ten bob in Regent Street,” it begins, and after it concludes Jane is overjoyed:

He loves me! Ah! I shall be England’s queen!
Harry’s the nicest looking man I’ve seen!
Though I once fancied (there’s the fact no blinking),
He was a
fat king – that’s what I was thin-king.

Anne enters. “Extremely nice! You tremble, artful jade!” She taxes Jane about the locket around her neck, then “So you’re the minx he slights me for, you cat!” she screams, and rushes at Jane. More puns ensue during the course of which Anne discovers Henry’s portrait in the locket and Jane flounces out. Anne stays, “advancing a la Constance” as the stage directions say.

“I am not mad – this hair I tear’s my own,”
Because I bought it – Agony! Despair!

She then sings a song, beginning:

I can scarcely contain myself, I vow,
For I feel so awfully riled;
To think my false husband should slight me now
My beauty’s a little bit
“She’s heavily damaged,” rude folks say of me –
But not so much damaged as Jenny will be,
When I’ve scratched the eyes out of that artful she;
Oh, I’ll have my nails sharpened and filed.

Enter Percy, announcing that as he is not “Percy-llanimous” he’s taken it upon himself to seek Anne out and induce her to fly with him – though only after finding out why she left him to begin with. “Some lady of the Court said you were married,” says Anne, “So, half out of pique / And half, p’raps from ambition, I was weak / And spliced him.” Percy invites her to join him in eloping from the country, preferably to South Africa, where they can drink “black coffee ‘mongst the Caffres – Caffre noir,” all while making throat-catchingly terrible puns. Anne is unsure about the idea, but before they can argue much about it, they hear Jane Seymour and the king approaching, so they hide behind an arras in the classic manner to hear what’s going on.

It turns out that Jane has been talking about them, and in no flattering manner; she has a case to propose to him, one of “Rex versus Regina and another.” “Another” is Percy, and Henry is thrilled to learn that Anne might have been compromised, but what to do? He doesn’t want to divorce again. “Put her on board a ship,” suggests the ever-helpful Jane, “And send it out – say round the world to run; / Most probably ‘twould sink.” No, says Henry, he has a better plan: “She played for high stakes, she shall have a chop.

Anne is so furious at this news that she rushes out to shriek “Your plans I’ve overheard!” But when they overhear Percy, Anne begs the newly-summoned guards not to arrest him, and Henry suddenly gives in and lets him go, but only, as he tells Jane that he only did it because he’s laying a trap.
Tomorrow, I may state, we hold high wassail,
Revels and jousts, et cetera, at the castle …
If she but flirts in public, an excuse
‘Twill be for me to cut her head off.

The joust goes off pretty much going to schedule, though there aren’t as many puns in this scene – flagging enthusiasm on the part of the writer, one suspects. Anne and Percy both help the plan splendidly, Percy by winning everything and Anne by insisting on giving him her glove (“Its size is twenty-three” her father informs him snottily) as well as letting him kiss her hand when pinning a flower on him. “This is exciting!” cries Anne. “May I ask / Has anybody seen my brandy flask?”
Alas, there’s no time to drink, as the various Dukes and soldiers rush in to arrest her.

A few hours later, Henry is in good spirits.

Within an hour
My spouse will be a pris’ner in the Tower.
There wait her trial, which will not, I trust,
Last like the Tichborne Trial, or I shall bust.

However, Anne has managed talk Surrey into getting her a “surreyp-titious “interview with Henry, and reminds him of when she was young and just back from France, but “Harry’d much rather not be further harried,” the king tells her, just before Percy bursts in to tell him that Anne is innocent. “In an hour / I shall consign you both into the Tower,” the king tells him, umoved. The assembled company all sing a song, punctuated by Henry’s exhortations to “Take ’em up, take ’em up, take ’em up!” Finally Anne and Percy are taken up, and leave the stage, after which Thomas and George Boleyn slouch onto it. They’re disguised as tumblers, trying to keep their real identities hidden as they’ll be next for arrest. Next Surrey and Geraldine arrive, waiting for Anne’s barge to pass by on the way to the Tower. Next Percy enters, having escaped from his jailor and also anxious to see Anne before fleeing abroad. And finally, enter everyone else in the cast (except Anne) including King Henry, who wants to “see my once loved Anne pass by.” In order to get a better view, he’ll take a boat out into the water, but it turns out that the only thing left is a washtub, so into that he climbs. And then, well, the stage directions let us know what happens next. “The steamer, the steamer!” the assembled throng cries, and then:

Music – HENRY appears in a washing tub, with umbrella, from L. 3 E. – business – as the tub moves towards R., a modern river steamer (painted “Citizen – 1d.”) with ANNE BOLEYN standing at the bow, rushes through arch of bridge, R.U.E., and knocks over the King and his tub – intense excitement.

Percy, at the back of the crowd, doesn’t realize that the king is the one who’s fallen into the water, and promptly pulls off his jacket and jumps in to save the drowning man. Which he does, although Will Somers can’t help noting “Hulloa! They don’t seem wet.” “No, but we’re dusty,” grumbles Henry, who is not in a giving vein today even towards the guy who saved his life. “Off with his head!” he shouts, but then Anne objects, as does Surrey. He also insists that Anne should be killed, but is stopped cold when Will Somers points out that “If she’s beheaded – you’ll confess I’m right – / How ’bout the piece, you know, to-morrow night?”

After that all is forgiven, and the company bands together; first to apologize – “‘Tis true with history we’ve played strange pranks,” and then to urge the audience to bring their friends and relatives to “Our wild perversion of / Anne Boleyn’s historee.” Exeunt omnes, singing.

From → Book Overviews

  1. Annalucia permalink

    This sounds like the bargain-basement version of Gilbert & Sullivan.

    That said, I’m not sure which is more painful to look at – the wheezy humor, or the photos of those ferociously corseted ladies of the 19th century burlesque. How on earth did they breathe?

  2. sonetka permalink

    This was the sort of thing that probably inspired Richard D’Oyly Carte when he announced that he was going to put on higher-quality light opera than had been seen previously. (My guess is he was also aiming for, if you’ll forgive the anachronistic word, a more family-friendly kind of entertainment). Of course, people didn’t go to the burlesque because they felt like a highbrow evening any more than people now watch The Bachelor because they want a dark, gritty drama of the human condition. Still, I did find it interesting just how many references there were (Thomas Wyatt, Surrey and Geraldine, Smeaton, several classics-related jokes) which weren’t explained otherwise and which at least some of the audience must have been expected to catch on the fly. The only modern equivalent which comes to mind is the character of young John Webster in Shakespeare In Love.

  3. They HAD to name a character (the Duke of) Paddington. All I can see is this adorable three-foot-tall talking bear mingling with Henry’s court.

    • sonetka permalink

      Fortunately, burlesques always ended happily, so Paddington wouldn’t need to worry about ending up as the star attraction in a bear-baiting! (The character Paddington doesn’t do much, truth be told — mostly just participate in crowd scenes with a few topical jokes, and presumably show off her, I mean his, legs).

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