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Mistress Minx: An Episode In The Early Life Of Anne Boleyn by Kenneth Haynes (1940)

July 2, 2014

Unlike the other plays noted here, Mistress Minx was not written for commercial production, nor for that matter has it received one. It was written “in collaboration with the Drama Department of the Women’s Club of Woodbury, N.J.” and was one of a series of plays marketed for amateur groups (other titles advertised included Abigail Goes Haywire, The Little Madcap, Timber Line Trail, and Winning Winnie). While the stories varied — albeit they were heavy on the farces — one thing the plays all had in common was a minimal cast and even more minimal sets. Most of them call for generic “interior sets” which could be easily replicated by someone’s parlor. Mistress Minx is an exception to the interior-set rule, being set “in the private park of the Boleyn estate”, but as the directions note, “No stage setting is needed for it is done in the Shakespearean manner.” The cast list is in line with the other plays, though, calling for one page to speak the prologue and three main characters: “ANNE, tempestuous, gay and dominant, MARY, ineffectual and tearful,” and of course, “SIMONETTE, sly and sinister.” I don’t know if Haynes or any of the members of the Women’s Club had read E. Barrington’s Anne Boleyn (1932) but even if they didn’t, such is the power of zeitgeist that these three characters might have been ripped straight from its pages.

Since the setting is starkly Shakespearean, the play begins with a page who gives a bow to the audience before bringing them up to date on where and when exactly they are. It is “a bright May morn” in a wooded glade, and we are soon to meet the woman “whom cruel fate sweet life denied.” Enter Simonette and Anne, and the page retires, his part of the play completed.

Simonette and Anne are doing charades — or rather, Anne is honing her acting skills by pantomiming a story (a shepherdess seized by a satyr) and Simonette is doing the guessing. It quickly transpires that they’re doing this because they’re both bored out of their skulls. “Come, Simonette, you must tell me how my tale shall end,” says Anne. “We shall play it here and liven Hever’s dull shadows for a change …. If you think I am going to let my sister’s stupidity put me into the shade you are mistaken. Thomas is to write a ballad for my shepherdess and together we shall present our masque.” Mary Boleyn, it transpires, is also at Hever, having been thrown off by the king once she became pregnant. Simonette is happy to give advice about the masque, all of it highly applicable in the real world as well. “Surely you will not let the shepherdess be so easily taken. What man values a prize so lightly won? … ‘Twere better far your satyr wore a kingly crown and scattered gold in place of airy notes.” This last turns out to be the wrong thing to say. “Fie, Simonette!” cries Anne. “Do not remind me that the Boleyn name is a plaything of king and court — thanks to Mary!” Anne sees no reason why she, Anne, should be kept back from court just because Mary didn’t know how to play the king properly, but apparently Thomas Boleyn has gone overprotective and neither of his daughters is now allowed to leave Hever. Simonette sarcastically comforts Anne by pointing out the devotion of “True Thomas” Wyatt, but listening to Wyatt recite sonnets in a bucolic setting isn’t Anne’s idea of a lively time. After all, “in France, men bowed to the Queen, but they followed me … even the King!”

Very true, says Simonette, which is why she’s taken the liberty of writing to Thomas Boleyn to suggest that Anne would be better off for being closer to him, and he just so happens to be at court. “Your loving daughter, Anne, unused to the subdued life of the country, is fast declining of a melancholia that threatens her very life. She longs to be near you again. I beg you to send for her as speedily as possible …” Simonette is so sure of her powers of persuasion that she’s already planning for Anne’s trip, and of course her own presence as Anne’s attendant.

S: Let us not stand on false pride. I am an older woman, ambitious for you. Together we shall go far … you the beauty, the wit, the charmer … I the schemer.

A: I the charmer? … Simonette the schemer? Take care, wiseacre — schemers are apt to lose their heads.

S: And charmers, too. But we shall demand something more our heads than a jeweled cloak or a perfumed bed.

A: I should not like to lose my head. I have such a pretty neck …. You know I would give my head for one night at Court!

Anne has become so abandoned as to take off her shoes and stockings and start appraising her ankles in view of the fact that men at court “in the heart of things — in the light” will soon be able to see them. She comes to only when she hears a horrified cry of “Anne! And in your bare feet!”

Enter Mary, stage left, and exit Simonette, who plans to “wait by the lake until this storm is passed.” She barely has time to get off the stage before Mary is ripping into Anne. “Mistress Anne! Mistress Anne! Rather are you Mistress Minx. A lady would not truss up her dress and show her legs in public.” Anne, understandably enough, feels that the pregnant, jilted ex-mistress of the king is hardly in a position to be lecturing. “You, the laughingstock of Europe? … you, who evoked even Queen Catherine’s reprimand!” Part of Mary’s failure, of course, is her failure to make good. “The whole French Court is snickering at you: `A royal lover with gold and jewels pouring through his hands like wine from a hogshead and she has not the wit to ask even a new gem for her finger.'”

“I do not ask wages for my kisses,” says Mary. “That’s your scheme … and Simonette’s.” Nonetheless, Mary appears shocked when Anne announces that even if Mary has blown her chance of success at court, another Boleyn sister may manage things rather better. And who knows but that Anne’s success may help Mary? If Anne does well, Mary could easily get a fine husband and everything that goes with one. “I don’t want a fine husband,” says Mary, “I want to be left alone.” She also wants to be a dog in the manger — Anne can’t be allowed to go to court to prejudice people there against Mary, and if Anne insists, then Mary will tell everyone the real reason Anne returned from France single. “Did your lovers never ask why you always wear that large pendant at your neck … and why your sleeves are always cut so long?” … Did you not tell them you were marked of the devil?”

The climax of this scene takes place not in words but in action.

ANNE has gone rigid. Now she slowly faces MARY and her eyes are so terrifying that MARY backs involuntarily away. After a long moment ANNE suddenly raises her arms cat-like and springs at Mary. MARY shrieks and runs into the woods L. ANNE pauses, staring. Slowly her hand goes to her neck and clutches at the pendant. Then she looks at her left hand and quickly puts it behind her.

At this moment, Simonette returns — presumably she didn’t go so far that she couldn’t hear the end of the conversation. Anne engages in a brief round of theatrical self-pity — “Perhaps I shall go into a convent … and pray to save my soul … Mary has all the charm and beauty of the Boleyns. She should be at court, not I.” Before she’s finished half a sentence, though, she’s more interested in the effect she’s having on Simonette than actual upset by what Mary said, and Simonette is clever enough to know it. “Your father should have broken a rod across your back long ago. You stand there and drool such false phrases just to play on my sympathy.” Besides, why is Anne wasting time feeling dramatically sorry for herself when Thomas Boleyn’s reply to Simonette’s letter has just arrived? As Simonette opens it, Anne’s supposed grief is forgotten, and she’s excitedly speculating as to which would produce a better effect; dazzling costume jewelry from Paris (“none here will be wiser,” Anne remarks with a truly French disdain for the English courtiers) or should she be a “demure maid” with fashionably simple clothing? The answer to that question, according to Thomas Boleyn’s reply, is neither. He thinks “the time is not yet ripe” and Anne will stay at Hever for the present.

“The time is not yet ripe!” says Anne, now not even pretending to have doubts about herself. “The time is always ripe for a woman of charm and wit. We shall hold Court here, Simonette. There shall be gay parties at Hever and my brother shall bring the best gentlemen from London to visit us. I shall have many lovers — not just one or two. And everyone shall see that Anne Boleyn is the most popular one of all. Perhaps even the king shall see me and ask.”

Simonette approves — “Now do I see the Anne Boleyn who captured the Court of France,” and points out that the whistle they’ve just heard means that Thomas Wyatt is approaching, “with yet another sonnet to your charms.” She helps hurry Anne back into her shoes and stockings, pinches her cheeks to pink them up, and after Anne teases her as a “schemer” one last time, tells her “You are a better schemer than I. My schemes are only fit to feed the swans.” She leaves with Thomas Boleyn’s letter of refusal, presumably to drop it in the lake nearby, and Anne arranges herself in artless modesty, waiting for Thomas Wyatt.

COMMENT: This play was performed in April of 1940 for the One-Act Play Tournament of the Southern District of the New Jersey Woman’s Clubs, and, the introduction tells us, received a rating of 100%. After a look at the dreary farces advertised in the back of the book, you can see why. Instead of endless, allegedly comic misunderstandings and romances, here was something with a little more dramatic meat on it — three women all attempting to manipulate each other in a very high-stakes game and two of them succeeding. The resemblance to E. Barrington’s Anne Boleyn is strong — that book also has Anne described as a minx, Anne as a dancer in a harvest dance, a Simonette who uses Anne as a tool for her own gain (and an Anne who happily takes advantage of that), and describes Thomas Wyatt as “True Thomas”, implying that he’s much more in love with Anne than Anne is with him. “It’s May, Simonette … my glorious month,” says Anne in Mistress Minx, where eight years earlier in Anne Boleyn she said “May, my lucky month!”

But however strong the flavour of E. Barrington’s book, there’s a notable difference, and that’s Mary. Very, very seldom is Mary Boleyn anything other than the downtrodden, ironically more innocent older sister of Anne, and at first glance that’s what she seems to be here. Uninterested in an advantageous (and face-saving) marriage, not mercenary when she was with the king, she seems ready to be another forgettable incarnation of Mary Boleyn, The Girl Who Can’t Say No.

And then the claws come out. Mary has been sent from court, and doesn’t want to go back — therefore, as she sees it, her sister shouldn’t be allowed to go either. She thinks Anne may gossip about her, she says, but clearly this is just a cover for the fact that Mary hates and fears Anne’s aggressiveness, her acquisitiveness, and of course her “devil’s mark.” While Anne doesn’t come across sympathetically, she at least is clear about what she wants — and furthermore, she’s done no actual harm to Mary at any point; Mary’s concern is what she might do, and that Anne will somehow manage to damage whatever’s left of Mary’s reputation at court. The fact that Mary threatens to petition “the king himself” to keep Anne from court shows that whatever she might say otherwise, Mary still has a very inflated idea of her own position at court. “You would be lucky if the slops boy would listen to you,” says Anne, and it’s clear to the audience, if not to Mary, that Anne is right. Mary attempts to use other people as weapons — first Henry, then the Frenchmen who wouldn’t marry Anne, and finally she tries to use Anne as a weapon against herself by humiliating her about her mole and extra finger. It’s at that moment that Anne turns the tables and transforms herself into a physical weapon, one aimed at Mary. She tries to leap on Mary wordlessly, like a cat, and Mary runs. (It’s significant that the two women compare each other to different animals as they quarrel; Anne calls Mary a weasel, sneaky and sly, and Mary calls an adder, beautiful and deadly, as well as a minx). Mary is, essentially, a destructive type; she can tear down, but seems to have no idea how to build something up. “Everyone is against me,” she tells Anne, but she has no idea what to do about this state of affairs other than to make sure that nobody else gets what she doesn’t have.

Anne and Simonette, however unsympathetic, are constructive; the early incarnations of the Scarlett O’Hara Annes who would dominate the mid-twentieth century. Possibly the only moment of actual unguarded emotion in the play is when Anne tries to leap on Mary; it’s clear that her deformities are a genuinely sensitive subject. Even then, though, she recovers quickly, and by the time she’s telling Simonette about it’s already been transformed from an emotional gut-punch to a good excuse for Anne to practice her dramatic talents on the governess, as she was at the beginning of the play. Her rejection of her father’s letter and her decision to make her own court if she can’t see the real one underline the differences between hers and Mary’s characters — and the advantage isn’t all on Mary’s side by a long shot.

I don’t think this play will ever be performed again — the social scene which encouraged amateur dramatic productions like this has virtually ceased to exist, and overtly, dramatically bitchy Scarlett O’Hara Annes aren’t in fashion now. Of course, there are the new plays based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, but that Anne, however cold, is also twitchy and nervous, always aware of what could go wrong — not exactly an adventuress type. But I would have liked nonetheless to see the play when it was performed, and its Anne was new and daring.

From → Book Overviews

  1. Jennifer permalink

    How about that…Woodbury isn’t that far from where I live.

    • sonetka permalink

      Do you know if it still has a Women’s Club? I couldn’t find anything online. I did look for the names of the members who acted in the play — “Anne” only died about six years ago.

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