Anne Boleyn by Peter Albery (1956)
In his introduction, the playwright tells us that he had originally meant to write a play about Sir Thomas More, but found himself becoming fascinated, and eventually sidetracked, by the figure of Anne Boleyn. While many of the stories about her may be apocryphal, he says, “she was certainly not made of milk and water,” and he ended up deciding to explore her story on the stage instead, although of course Sir Thomas remains very much in evidence. A few years after the play premiered at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, (starring, among others, Bernard Hepton as More and a very young Albert Finney as George Boleyn) the playwright expanded it into a novel which I’ve already discussed: The Uncommon Marriage (1960). While the novel is an interesting book, I found that I much preferred the play; true, it has some loose ends which the novel tied up nicely, but the novel spent too much time wandering around with imaginary or almost-imaginary characters whose particular perversities added very little to the story. In the play, though, there’s no room for the excess fat, and what we get is a story that’s been told several times before, but which is still effective when done well: the story of a woman who through her quest for worldly greatness manages to destroy her better self in the process. As in Anne Boleyn (1932) the two men who symbolize, and who appeal to her dark side are Henry VIII and Mark Smeaton. George Boleyn is one of the men who stands for Anne’s better self, as in the earlier novel, but in this one Thomas More takes the place of the non-appearing Thomas Wyatt as the other man who tries to save her.
We open at Hever, watching the young George Boleyn strum his lute and look out the window.
This is a crazy, tatterdemalion time
When the leaves weep golden showers
And the wind blusters, bullyragging the hedgerows.
I hate it when the year sails like a blazing ship
Hull-down to the wind,
To lie buried beneath the watery voids of winter.
Anne, standing by, tells him “You are the one to complain! / You can go to court … Here I am like a puddled duck in June.” It transpires that while George is at home voluntarily, Anne has been sent back in disgrace thanks to her failed attempt to marry Lord Percy. Wolsey has decreed that she’ll marry James Butler, and George can’t see the big deal – who falls in love before they get married? “You’ve never been in love,” Anne informs him, and rages against her arranged marriage in language straight from Goblin Market.
A murrain of old men, scurvy with the meanness of age,
Dragging the limbs of youth on a hurdle
To filthy lustings,
The marriage market. Come buy!
Here’s a crimson lip and a white hip,
Here’s a tender thigh for a plucking hand,
Come buy! Come buy! And sell your land.
But I love and am loved.
She still has one hope: to appeal to the King. “He is kind and generous / In love with sister Mary.” Right on cue comes her unpleasant Aunt Maud Boleyn with a letter from sister Mary telling her that the King’s party is coming to visit Hever and Anne, having angered him because of the Percy affair, would be best advised to stay out of his way. Which she does, sulking in her room and wishing it were a different Henry arriving, when Henry the king bursts in, asking if she expected someone else. “I have to speak with you about a certain young man, / Whom the queen forbade you to see … But whom you had the audacity / To send to London to me.” It turns out that Henry is quite in agreement with everyone else – “Wolsey is my servant … You must marry Sir James Butler.” Just to make it absolutely clear, he shows Anne a letter from Percy renouncing her and promising to marry Mary Talbot. “Percy has neither your courage nor resolution,” says Henry, beginning to flirt, but Anne isn’t having it and asks him about her sister and Bessie Blount. “Come, Mistress Anne, you shall kiss me thrice / For penance,” he says, but when she bites him instead, he flies into a rage. “I’ll tame you for that! … Are you aware that I could cut your head off?” In the end, he manages to force a kiss on her, and Anne leaves angrily, telling him that she learned in France how “the way of the wanton is not wise … you can never be my husband.”
At this point, the play skips forward five years, and we see a succession of scenes in which several things are established: Cromwell and Wolsey are secretly working on the King’s annulment while under the impression that he’s going to marry the French princess Renee, Cromwell has a sinister minion named Dr. Strabolgius who’s employed in sneaking around gathering intelligence and supplying occasional potions when desired, and that Anne is becoming entirely too overconfident, bragging to George about how she’s kept Henry’s letters and on the strength of them is sure that she’ll soon become Queen. Another byproduct of Anne’s overconfidence is that she’s brought Mark Smeaton to court with her; having begun life as a tenant at Hever, Smeaton has turned out to be both supremely musically gifted and infatuated with Anne to a perverse degree. When Anne tells him he deserves whipping for singing a particularly off-colour song, he tells her “I’d take it as payment, coming from you.” Neither George nor the King are particularly thrilled to see Smeaton hanging around singing about how Anne will “tumble a king and steal a crown” but Anne is the one foremost in Henry’s mind, not Smeaton. And Anne is starting to get tired of the waiting game, angry at Wolsey for being so accommodating to the Pope, and angry at Henry for being so accommodating to Wolsey. “I must marry a French princess,” Henry whines to her at one point, “You must consider that I am not my own master; / That I cannot act for myself.” Whether he really means this or not isn’t clear – you get the impression that, buffeted between Anne and Wolsey, he keeps changing his mind depending on which one he’s with. But Anne is done playing this game. Denouncing Wolsey – “What has Wolsey ever garnered you / Save an empty treasury and a smattering of French towns?” Anne tells him that he’ll either dump Wolsey and marry her, or she’ll leave and go back to Vienna. (Yes, Vienna – the playwright seems to have been under the impression that Margaret of Austria actually lived there. Not a totally crazy conclusion, but not true in this instance).
“Wolsey shall kneel to you as queen!” Henry declares, and then tries to push his luck. “Must we wait? Tonight …” But Anne wisely keeps him at arm’s length and departs, leaving Henry to summon Wolsey again and tell him to start working faster on the annulment, and no worries if his wife finds out – “Katherine will do as I say. She always does.”
What Catherine is doing right now is consulting with Thomas More, who eases into an awkward conversation by telling a few light stories and then getting serious. Catherine is fearful, angry, and self-reproaching – “Still I cannot believe it … How have I failed then?” More tells her that she hasn’t failed anyone and has nothing to reproach herself with, and, more practically, that now that Rome has been sacked and the Pope imprisoned, it’s highly unlikely that the annulment will be fast-tracked as the Emperor is Catherine’s nephew. He then departs to leave Catherine to Henry, who tries to combine flattery and threats and, predictably, gets nowhere. “You had better surrender with honour / before you are forced to capitulate,” are his last words before he stomps off to break the news to Wolsey that he’ll be marrying an English courtier and not a French princess, and a distressed Wolsey tells More how much he regrets separating Anne and Percy – “would I had given her that creature Percy to devour.”
More takes over the play for next several scenes, cajoling, charming, and ultimately being defeated in his goal, which is to save Anne and Henry from destroying their better selves through their actions. “I would serve you, but not your purpose,” he tells Anne, “And that bleeds my heart, for there is much / That is lovely in you, could you humble your pride.” Anne’s response is that she’s only proud “because I am frightened / And insecure. If I were Queen, that would change. / Please, Sir Thomas, be my friend and help me.”
He tries to, but she doesn’t want the help he’s offering, which consists of a parable about a man who murders another, the victim being what the murderer could have been – his better self, in fact. “In the court of higher sessions / That is the sole capital offense.” Anne echoes the way Henry talked to her in an earlier scene by telling him “As you value your life, you are bold!” and then forgiving him. Henry, coming in later to tell More that he’d like to make him chancellor, fences with him on this issue as well, before they reach a tentative agreement that he’ll be chancellor if “we leave the queen’s matter aside.” Anne, hearing of this later, is furious until Henry tells her that More will be a great stalking horse while he and Cromwell organize their breakaway from the Papacy. Anne, striking while the anti-Papal iron is hot, hints that Henry might receive certain … favours … if he’d also decide to finally banish Catherine from court instead of letting her stick around doing wifely things like organizing banquets (oddly, shirt-sewing isn’t mentioned). And off Catherine goes, but not before she has a really impressive accidental confrontation with Anne, in which Catherine informs her:
Some men are dual by nature.
My Henry is generous and brave and trusting,
But he harbours an alter ego
That I have learned to seal in slumber.
It is vicious, crafty and cruel.
As long as I am here at the palace
My love will control this spirit.
But if you tamper with the seal
And banish its guardian,
God help you, and God help all of us.
Catherine wants to see Henry one last time, but “learn to wait / It is all you will have to do in the future,” Anne tells her, and Catherine reacts with remarkable calm, because she can see that “fear already pickets your bones.”
It’s the last we see of Catherine, and the next we see of Anne, she’s secretly buying aphrodisiacs off the ever-obliging Strabolgius, despite George’s warnings to stay away from “that two-legged scorpion,” who’s far too close to Cromwell for George’s comfort. “That tubby little man! Who would fear him?” says Anne, before no-long-chancellor More walks in on the conversation to request better living conditions for Catherine, who’s not doing too well in her marshland castle. “What mercy has she shown me?” Anne asks. “Nine years she has kept me waiting / And still I walk uncrowned.” She’s impressed with More’s courage, though, and makes a last-ditch attempt to bring him over to her side. “Even rats desert a sinking ship,” she says, in what’s probably not the most flattering metaphor possible. More won’t do it, though, and after some tense discussion centering around whether More can lecture people about resisting temptation when he’s never had to resist much himself (or so Anne thinks; More contradicts her), Henry bloviates his way in for one last conversation. Why on earth can’t More just go along with things, enjoy his retirement, “be gracious to your king?” Will he have to smash him like glass to make him cooperate? “The Lord will gather my fragments / And blow me into a more profitable mould,” is More’s rejoinder, and an exasperated Henry finally throws him out.
We then have another substantial time skip, to January 1536 and the dance celebrating Catherine of Aragon’s death, at which Anne is having a miserable time. “It is my condition,” she tells a friendly Francis Weston, but Catherine’s death is clearly preying on her, as is Henry’s now-lively infatuation with Jane Seymour and the swirling rumours that Catherine actually died of poison. George, as ever, is there to warn her off being too hasty about Jane Seymour – “she is harmless compared to some” – but can’t prevent a nasty encounter with Cromwell, who drops a few hints that Catherine’s death could most certainly be blamed on Anne should it be necessary. George picks up the fragments of that conversation as well – “Dear George, you are such a comfort,” she tells him as he goes to get her some more wine. “Don’t ever leave me or get killed.” George’s absence gives Mark Smeaton a chance to ooze over and ask what Anne would give him if Jane Seymour were to meet with some sort of tragic, fatal accident. “Mark, you are evil,” says Anne, but then names her price: 200 sovereigns. Mark names his: “Give me your body … only for one night.” She drives him off but it’s not surprisingly that once George returns with the wine, she knocks it all back in about five seconds, calls for more, and before the night is up is mocking Jane Seymour openly to Henry’s face. Clearly, queenship has lost its appeal.
By that April, she’s miscarried, separated in all but name from Henry, and only wants to be able to leave and start over. Smeaton, of course, has somewhat grander plans – what about killing Jane Seymour before the worst happens? “They’re planning to plough you under / You won’t be alive come autumn / Unless you reap soon.” He has an herbal remedy which is just the ticket, but Anne has no interest in it – she doesn’t want to remain queen, she’ll let the marriage be annulled without a fight. Smeaton’s response to this is to cut to the chase and do what he’s been wanting all along, which is to grab her. “You’d have let me kiss you before / If I’d not been a common chap!” he shouts, and naturally this is the moment when Henry walks in and sees them grappling. Of course, he leaps to the worst possible conclusion, assisted by previous chats with Cromwell, who had been telling of Smeaton’s “boasting” about knowing Anne. They scream at each other for a few minutes, with Henry accusing Anne of adultery and Anne accusing Henry of being too impotent to know what the word means. Henry then proceeds to denounce Anne in a speech which is an absolute masterpiece of projection.
It is you who have taught me to be cruel.
Before I married you the people loved their king.
Now there’s a ceaseless web of intrigue against me,
The North is riddled with rebellion.
As for gratitude, you taught me to estrange a wife,
The loyal companion of many years;
You made me kill Thomas More, my oldest adviser and my noblest friend.
It was your wisdom that forced me to defy the Pope,
To break with Emperor Charles and King Francis,
All to keep my word and make you queen.
I have kept it. What more do you want?
Smeaton has long since left the room by this point, but Cromwell is dispatched to go and give him a little supper invitation, while Henry is left fuming at the impotence accusation. “I’ll have Jane Seymour’s maidenhead the moment Anne’s head is off.” Lucky Jane, the audience doesn’t think.
Finally, in a scene which is a gloomy parallel to the opening, Anne and Meg Shelton light candles in a dusky room, waiting for George Boleyn to turn up with the latest news, which turns out to be very bad indeed. Smeaton has been arrested, and confessed – worse, Francis Weston has been arrested as well, and George, ever sensible, knows that it’s time to hit the road and furthermore already has a plan in place for getting abroad secretly. But Anne, by this point, has given up – she can see what’s going to happen, and furthermore she can see that anyone too closely associated with her has a strong chance of being dragged down. She’s even considering “confessing” to adultery with Smeaton if that means there’s a slight chance that Weston will be freed. But her real goal now is to keep George from being caught up with her – as she tells him:
Of all those I have loved
You alone are unharmed and free.
Cromwell spins his webs too fine,
I will not ride with you into his mesh.
In other words, George can’t be accused of adultery with her (or so she thinks) and if he tries to help her flee, all he’ll have done is give Henry grounds to arrest and execute him as well. By refusing his offer of help, she’s sacrificing her life to ensure that he’s safe. And there in the twilight, sure that soldiers are coming for her at any moment, they talk over the past – Anne wonders gloomily why nobody was there to tell her to forswear the king, George points out that Thomas More did, in fact, do this and was ultimately executed for his pains. The talk wanders, with Anne veering between speculating about the past and trying to encourage George to keep going without her so that he can redeem her memory. “How do you know that I shall not be your Eurydice? / That if you struggle on you will not redeem me from the Shades?”
That’s when Cromwell arrives, accompanied by soldiers – not for Anne (not yet) but for George, charged with incest. He tries to fight them, but is subdued quickly and Cromwell bows his way out with an ironic “Your servant, Madam,” and leaves. Meg Shelton enters at a run, asking what’s happened, but Anne can only laugh hysterically – and with that, the play ends.
SEX OR POLITICS? About a 50/50 split – of course, the two are often very closely related. Neither are the main focus – the real story here is the ruination of Anne’s better self, as personified by her brother.
WHEN BORN? Strabolgius describes her as “A Sagittarian of unusual potentialities,” so her birthday presumably falls between mid-November and mid-December of some unstated year. Mary Boleyn is implied to be the eldest sibling, but it’s hard to tell whether Anne is the middle or the youngest sibling – she and George seem to very close in age.
THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy – we never see him, and he’s never alluded to after the opening scene, but in that scene it’s clear that Anne loves him and expects to pull the match off despite opposition. “I shall run away and marry Percy,” she tells George, and when the king arrives at Hever and brandishes the letter in which Percy says he’ll do whatever Wolsey tells him, Anne mourns “How you have made him crawl!” and wishes he could have been stronger. James Butler is mentioned very briefly as the person she’s officially intended to marry, but “I didn’t learn French and music and dancing / To empty swill-tubs in Ulster,” says Anne. She says nothing about Butler himself and, like Percy, he’s not heard of again.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Mary Boleyn is mentioned and sends messages, and “Betty Blount” is also alluded to briefly as a cause of grief for Catherine, but not seen. Meg Shelton appears as a lighthearted type who flirts with both George Boleyn and Francis Weston, and gets engaged to the latter, and Jane Seymour is seen but says almost nothing. Lady Rochford is nonexistent here, not even referred to.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Thomas More to Henry VIII, as long as he’s allowed to be, and Mark Smeaton to Anne Boleyn – in his own repellent way, he does try to help her, albeit via ugly methods and for an ugly price. He’s very much the negative of Thomas More – willing to assist her, but only if he gets his percentage, and using Anne’s unhappiness and fear to try and gouge her. Strabolgius is also implied to be this to Thomas Cromwell, though just how much he helps is made clearer in the novel. Here he mostly lurks in a sinister manner and sells Anne an aphrodisiac to help the begetting process.
THE PROPHECY Early on, Anne’s aunt says that “One day he will disillusion you” when Anne insists that Mark is a “sweet boy.” “Bless him for an innocent.” Several years later, when Thomas More is making a last-ditch effort to keep Henry in the fold, Henry assures him that “My chief physician and my astrologer / Predict a boy child. Therefore it is imperative, / Not for us, but for the good of our beloved nation, / That he should be acclaimed / As the legitimate heir to the throne.” There’s also an amusing one early on when Anne threatens to take the veil rather than marry James Butler, and Henry says that “you’d force me to dissolve the nunneries; / Though there’d be small harm in that!”
IT’S A GIRL! Since the play skips straight from early 1533 to early 1536, we don’t see Elizabeth’s birth. Anne does tell Francis Weston that “Though the king loves Elizabeth, my first born, / It must be a boy child this time.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: “Father billows half-seas over at every puff,” Anne tells George in January 1536, “And Aunt Boleyn hates me.” Aunt Boleyn is their Aunt Maud Boleyn (nonexistent as far as I know) who appears in the early scenes as a prying, nosy spinster who’s always ready with a spiteful comment and who’s constantly warning Anne to hold her tongue. She also dislikes Smeaton intensely for being low-class and warns Anne that “one day he will disillusion you.” Anne, not liking to believe anything her aunt says, insists that “Mark is a sweet boy”. Of course, Aunt Boleyn was quite right here, as Anne learns to her cost later on. Unusually, Aunt Boleyn is the only senior Boleyn we actually see – Anne’s mother is never referred to, either as living or dead (although in the novel, she’s mentioned as alive) and the sole reference to her father is the one previously quoted. Mary Boleyn is never seen either, though she’s mentioned several times, first as Henry’s mistress, considerately sending a letter to Anne warning her that Henry is still angry with her over the Percy affair and that she should be careful to avoid him during his visit to Hever. The last reference to her comes when Anne is agonizing over the perils of possibly giving up her shot at the crown and becoming Henry’s mistress: “I shall be like Mary, / Married to some incubus knight.”
George is Anne’s only strong family relationship; she teases him, confides in him, jokes with him, asks him for help, and in the end she watches as he’s destroyed through her errors, although she had turned down his planned escape for her in order to let him stay free. It’s a cruel last scene. And this is the only thing that brings George down in this version, as his wife doesn’t seem to exist in this version – she’s not alluded to at all, nor is George ever described as married.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, though at the end she’s ready to confess falsely to sleeping with Smeaton if it means possibly saving Weston. The logic behind how this would work is a little fuzzy but you can’t doubt her courage.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Is it just me, or were roughly 50% of mid-century plays written in verse? You never seem to see that nowadays. Anyway, I enjoyed the style here; ornate, but not excessively so, and the prose-speaking intervals weren’t given solely to the stupid characters, which has a tendency to happen in a lot of other plays. Even the slightly gaudy bits were appropriate in context – here’s Anne’s opening speech in her final scene, when she desperately wants to get away and is fantasizing about starting over in some pastoral retreat.
Let him go. Let them all go. So old and young …
Let me be like a river
Rinsed and ringing with rainfall
That shuns the silted and stagnant delta
Of centuries, and bursts new paths to the sea ….
Let me be free of the red king
And the golden crown, the hatred of the people
And the black shadow of the Tower,
And I will live and love humbly
Honeysuckled in a hedgerow,
Queen of ragged robins and sweet cecilies.
But there were one or two gaudy bits that were just overwritten:
All Katherine’s still-born children haunt my fevered womb
And with tiny midget fingers paralyze my blood.
Those lines survived the transition to the novel, where if anything they seemed worse.
ERRATA: Anne repeatedly threatens to go back to Austria if Henry doesn’t shape up and get the annulment rolling, but though Anne lived at the court of Margaret of Austria, that court was nowhere near Austria. Anne does not seem to have had an aunt named Maud, although she did have a hostile aunt who was one of her ladies-in-waiting when she was imprisoned. Modern terms slip through disconcertingly on occasion: “The king has a queen and for good value a Queen Mother in one and the same person,” says Cromwell at one point, although “Queen Mother” isn’t an official title and wouldn’t have been used then. Catherine of Aragon refers to Henry’s “alter ego” which sounds very post-Freudian, although of course Catherine did know Latin. The playwright has pretty clearly been hitting the books, though – there’s a lot that’s invented but not a lot that’s absolutely counterfactual. I was pleased to see the Privy Purse Expences make another appearance when Anne asks Henry,
“Darling, shall I show you my new nightgown / The one of Flanders golden arras and Bruges satin?” (Especially since Edgar Lee Masters used that Flanders golden arras in his own play written a few decades earlier).
WORTH A READ? This is one of those odd plays which was a real struggle to read – I can’t even say why, precisely, since the verse was better than most verse plays and even the over-the-top Smeaton and Strabolgius never succeeded in breaking the pace completely. It’s a bleak piece, though, and probably even bleaker to see performed, because during the course of it we watch Anne gradually allowing herself to be taken over by Henry – not just physically commandeered, but her personality begins to crumble as well. The Anne who, in the first act, bites Henry when he tries to force her into kissing him gradually becomes the Anne who tells Thomas More – reminiscing about a girl he knew in youth who turned him down – that “You should have compelled her love – women are made to be conquered.” Henry has conquered her mentally; watching her ape his arguments and try to justify herself by arguing that nobody similarly tempted could have done better than her is depressingly convincing. She tells herself constantly that she’ll stop being afraid once she’s queen, then she says she’ll stop being afraid once she has a son. She only stops being afraid once she realizes that she’s going to die – but even then, she’s still clinging to a hope of posthumous redemption from George, until even that is taken away from her. This is an Anne who looks to an outsider like a bold, adventuring, unconventional woman – but who is in fact clinging to the king and absorbing his personality as her own to preserve herself. It’s hard to blame her, but at the same time, it’s clear to us that she’s given up all the best parts of herself and ultimately received nothing in return. Henry’s final speech to her, in which he accuses her of everything which he, in fact, taught her to be, is cruel to read; well-acted, it must be something to watch.
It’s not hard to see why this play sank quickly whereas Anne Of The Thousand Days flourished and eventually achieved Technicolor immortality. The story of the latter was ultimately one of triumph; courageous Anne confronting Henry and refusing him a divorce in order to give Elizabeth her shot at the crown. That that particular plotline is hogwash isn’t material; it was a great climax and left the audience feeling that Anne had died for a worthy cause. “Triumphant” is not an adjective I’d use for this one; this Anne begins as a sharp and intelligent girl, but in the end her soul is destroyed, and the bitterest thing of all is that she knows that it could have been otherwise.