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Anne Boleyn by Thomas Fielding (1838): A Lost Play

December 24, 2019

On December 27 1838, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a notice, nestled in amongst ship arrivals and the results of horse races. That evening at the St. Charles Theater, it announced, “will be performed a new historical play never acted, called ANNE BOLEYN, founded on a period of the reign of Henry 8th of England.” As for the author, the announcement said simply that it was “written by a gentleman of this city.” A few days later, the paper had identified the author as “Mr. T. Fielding” — a man who, despite the paper’s initial coyness about his name, could have had no reason to wish to remain anonymous; during the three previous years he had made numerous appearances in the columns of the Times-Picayune as Thomas Fielding, an actor affiliated with both the Camp Street and St. Charles Theaters. On December 29, the Times-Picayune, while reporting that Fielding’s “new and successful piece drew another good house last night and is to be repeated this evening,” also had a short review that was, in its own way, ominously prophetic.

After an extended commentary on plays that fail to hold the interest of audiences but find success later “in the closet [drama]” due to their beauty of language, the anonymous reviewer writes:

And this is the only fault we have to find with Ann Boleyn. As a literary production it has the strongest claim to our favorable notice. There is a degree of nerve, conception and arrangement in this new tragedy which lifts it above the great number of our modern plays; while the language is poetic, powerful, and vigorous. When we commenced this article it was our intention, notwithstanding the smallness of our sheet, to have made some extracts corroborative of our opinion; but not succeeded in procuring the MSS. we must content ourself with saying that Ann Boleyn is a composition exhibiting a power capable of a yet higher flight of dramatic authorship.

The anonymous reviewer’s failure to secure the MSS must have seemed like a small matter at the time, but closing in on two hundred years later one can only regret exceedingly that he was unlucky in his efforts, because nobody since then has found it either. Thomas Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, quite possibly the first Boleyn drama to be first written and performed in the United States, appears no longer to exist. It is a ghost play, its shade appearing in newspaper reviews, theater notes, and, most sadly of all, in the surviving probate documents for Thomas Fielding, who died less than a year after the premier of his first and only play.

So what was this American-born play like? New Orleans papers were the kindest to it, and especially praised the performance of Josephine Clifton, who played the role of Anne. Although the initial newspaper announcements made it appear that she was engaged through the beginning of the new year only, she evidently found enough success in the role to keep playing it into the spring in Louisiana and other points south such as Baltimore and Vicksburg, after which she and the play (though not the author) traveled to New York and the Park Theatre. Reviewers there were not as kind as southern papers had been — The Spirit Of The Times (May 18 1839) praised Miss Clifton’s beauty but said bluntly that “she has been playing Anne Boleyn, to much better houses, though small, than the play deserved. We cannot account for the selection of it in this hot weather. You may be sure that the time of the year has come when people will not be seduced to the playhouse by untried dramas, — they must be certain of their reward to be tempted from their homes. It seemed to us, from hearing Miss Clifton on Tuesday, that a mere clear and distinct enunciation would aid so materially the power of her acting, that it were worth while to make the attempt …. This distinctness of enunciation is a rare merit of PLACIDE and Mr. HIELD. When they speak, they mean to be heard, and heard easily and rightly, — and they are heard. And had neither of them any other excellence than this, we would rather trust our new tragedy to their hands, than all the fine actors and actresses in Christendom.”

The Knickerbocker of June 1839 similarly devoted most of its critique to the failings of Miss Clifton and her “personation of the character of `Anna Boleyn’ as it is drawn for her, in the new play of that name. It is well for Miss CLIFTON, that she is really a beautiful woman; otherwise, we fear critics would be less amiable in the display of their tender mercies toward her …. She wants the faculty of identifying herself, in the smallest degree, with the personage she would represent. She seems never to enter into the feelings of the character, and being herself unpossessed of the passion to be displayed, it is not strange that her audience should be unmoved by it … there is an affected prettiness at all her efforts at expression; as if to portray hate, anger, revenge, or any other unamiable feeling, would destroy the beautiful in her face, and distort those lineaments which enrapture the souls of her admirers.

This is the tenor of the surviving reviews, of which there are relatively few, and if a surviving lithograph of Miss Clifton as Anne is at all like the original, they were at least correct that she was beautiful in the role. (Information on her early life is sketchy, but despite her southern career, she appears to have been a native of New York or Philadelphia, so at least theoretically her accent should not have hindered her with northern reviewers.) But what was the plot? Thanks to the reviewers’ failures to either secure the MSS, hear was going on, or make inquiries as to the finer points of the plot, we can deduce very little, but we can make at least a few educated guesses. The first is that the episode with Henry Percy plays an essential part, possibly even is the essence of the play, as not he but also his father makes an appearance in the basic cast-list printed in the New Orleans True American on February 19 1839. The chief male roles are Percy (played by a Mr. Scott) Henry 8th (played by Fielding himself, though he did not do so when the play premiered) the Earl of Northumberland, and Cardinal Wolsey. The two chief female roles are Anne herself and “Selina” — possibly a fictionalized lady-in-waiting or maid. The fact that the Earl of Northumberland actually has a role large enough to rank with Cardinal Wolsey in the cast list is intriguing — seldom has the senior Henry Percy played any role other than offstage menace. The Knickerbocker’s mention of “hate, anger, revenge,” suggests an Anne bent upon revenge for her early broken engagement, following Cavendish’s story. It seems more likely than not that a Protestant audience would have found her sympathetic, since after Fielding’s death his estate paid out a handsome total of $150 for, among other things, “vault No. 72 in the Protestant Cimetery [sic] for the inhumation of the deceased.”

The Times-Picayune, by far the best newspaper for theatrical gossip, did not begin publication until early 1837, so although Fielding had been in New Orleans for well over a decade by the time of his death (his brief death notice in that paper on November 20 1839 said he was “so well known on our boards for the last fifteen years”) there is virtually no information about his activities before the last three. There is an intriguing early item in the Baton Rouge Gazette from July 18 1829, nine years before Anne Boleyn premiered — a “negro man … who calls himself ISAAC ROWEN” was sent to jail, presumed to be an escaped slave, despite that fact that Rowen himself “says he is free and lives with a Mr. Fielding living in New Orleans.” Rowen’s further fate is unknown, as is the exact identity of the Mr. Fielding he lived with. The surname is not especially common but, with the European influx into Louisiana, it would be rash to assume that the author of Anne Boleyn was the same man. The first mention in the papers that can be safely assumed to be our Mr. Fielding appears in the Times-Picayune of March 1 1837, when a presumably male correspondent wrote in (he used the name “Coelebs In Search Of A Wife”) to “that Fielding came on the stage the other evenings with vile, dirty small clothes, and hair unkempt, making love to the neatly dressed, and pretty Miss Russell.” What role he was playing wasn’t mentioned, but Fielding’s dress would come in for censure on at least one other occasion — on November 15 1838 the paper noted that “we shall be compelled to quarrel with Fielding if he does not dress better and more in character. Its [sic] all carelessness, for Thomas really knows better how to dress. Last night he might have passed muster at a “drift wood” training, but he would hardly have been allowed to go on in such a dress even in the western company of “Garrick Indefatigables.” Still, Fielding’s benefits were warmly recommended to the public — “Tom Fielding, who is meritorious both as an actor and a man”, said the paper on April 18 1838, urging its public to attend one of his benefit performances, and most of the notices about him convey the impression of good, if sometimes exasperated, humor.

What parts did he act? Henry VIII in his own play was one, though he did not act it at the premier but several months later. Between early 1837 and the middle of 1839, by which time Anne Boleyn had gone to New York, Fielding acted any number of parts, both in the main attractions and the comic numbers which followed them; Macduff in Macbeth, Richmond in Richard III, Freeman in George Barnwell, “Hassarn” in The Forty Thieves..

Late in the summer of 1839, his theater activity was curtailed — possibly he was required for fewer parts, or there may simply have been fewer plays; it was summer in New Orleans, prime season for heat and illness. The riskiest time for yellow fever had almost come to an end when, around November 9 or 10 1839, Fielding fell ill with that disease. According to probate documents — which may not be entirely trustworthy — his last illness was both a wretched and expensive one; among the listed expenditures are $95 total for two doctors, $90 to his landlady Mrs. Irvin “for nine days wages as a nurse”, $30 for “Medicines and nourishment”, and $6 for “3 bottles Port-wine.” He died early in the morning of November 19 1839, and the next day, his landlady and her husband appeared in court to swear to his death and, by all appearances, to profit by it. In the probate documents is her declaration:

Mrs. Phebe Ann Irvin, a native of New London in the state of Connecticut, one of the United States of America, aged about thirty seven years, residing in this city at No. 110 on Poydras Street, Suburb St. Mary in the Second Municipality, who by there presents doth declare that Mr. Thomas Fielding a native of Ireland aged about forty five years, an Artist attached to the Camp American Theater, departed this life yesterday in the morning at about one o’clock at the above mentioned residence. The said late Mr. Fielding was a bachelor, leaving no relation in this State.

Her husband, John Irvin, prayed that he might be appointed “curator of the vacant succession of Thomas Fielding, deceased.” His wish was granted, and he and his wife set about drawing up a list of expenses owed by the vacant estate of Thomas Fielding, the Irishman with no will and no family. At the time of his death, he had just a little under $1,000 in the bank (a substantial amount — the benefit performances must have paid off) and Mr. and Mrs. Irvin promptly began finding debts to be paid with it, not least to themselves. In fairness to the Irvins, yellow fever was much feared and it would understandable if they charged extra for the risk they thought they had incurred in looking after Fielding, but the list of expenses was high enough to attract the unfavorable notice of the court. Alfred Hennen, the well-known Louisiana jurist, wrote a sharp letter complaining of the “tableau of expenses”, saying that the $150 charge for the funeral was too high, “the same has not been and should not be paid …. the sum of seventy-five dollars to Doctor Cary — that the same is not due, the charge is too high for any services rendered …. That he opposes the [nursing] charge of Mrs. Irvin, who is the wife of the curator … and says the services too high and not due to her, that she is not separated in estate from her husband and has no right to claim the same, and nothing is due to her nor to the curator.”

A trial date was affixed for January 25 1840, but whether the trial was ever held is unclear; the Irvins appear to have settled for a smaller sum, and where the rest of the estate went is never specified; as Fielding had no heirs and there appears to have been no attempt to trace connections in Ireland or elsewhere, it may well have gone to the state of Louisiana. Unmentioned in Fielding’s probate are personal effects, which isn’t surprising; they may have been sold, or distributed among his friends. The Times-Picayune, which said on his death that “Every body knew Tom Fielding … every body mourns his loss” had nothing to add about the quarrel over his estate. What happened to his papers is unknown — Anne Boleyn would have been unlikely to make him any additional profit after its initial sale, so the manuscript would not have had the importance to either him or the Irvins that it might have had in a later era. Josephine Clifton does not appear to have acted the part again after her unsuccessful run in the Park Theater in the summer of 1839; she moved on to other productions and other cities, dying in 1847. As for how long the manuscript of Anne Boleyn survived, that is unknowable. Either the Camp Street or the St. Charles Theaters would likely have had copies, but both theaters vanished long ago and inquiries from local libraries and archives could not find anything related to this particular play. Fielding’s own copies, if he had any at his death, are unlikely to have survived the plundering of his landlords, and I was unable to find any collection of personal papers for Josephine Clifton. Even the Girod Street Protestant Cemetery where Fielding was interred no longer exists; it became increasingly dilapidated and foul and in 1957 it was deconsecrated and unclaimed remains (of which it’s safe to assume Fielding was one) were reinterred in common crypts elsewhere.

Fielding’s theater, his play, and his grave are no longer to be found, and another thing that also cannot be found is any earlier American play telling Anne Boleyn’s story. Although Fielding was born in Ireland, by the time of his death he had been in America fifteen years at least and possibly longer — there is always the possibility that New Orleans was not his first American port of call. By any reasonable standard, his play, which is almost certain to have been written in the country by one who had long been living there, and which was directed at a southern American audience, must qualify as American. It’s possible, although not likely, that it survives somewhere, unnoticed or at least uncatalogued — but for now, like Fielding himself, it survives only as a faint memory in ancient newspapers.

The newspaper articles were found in the newspapers.com database. The source for Thomas Fielding’s probate is: “Louisiana, Orleans Parish Estate Files, 1804-1846,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JJZZ-H3Y : 4 December 2014), Thomas Fielding, 1839; citing probate place Orleans Parish, Louisiana, Probate Court, New Orleans City Archives.

4 Comments
  1. Jennifer L. Schillig permalink

    Planning on covering the musical Six anytime soon? (I got the CD for Christmas, and I rather like it.)

    • sonetka permalink

      I’d love to but am so backlogged that I can’t guarantee it will still be running by the time I do it — really, I’d love to *see* and review it, since unlike most of the plays I write about, it’s still possible!

      • Jennifer L. Schillig permalink

        Cool! I’d also love to see you cover Fatal Throne, a unique YA novel that’s written from the POV of each of the wives–each chapter by a different YA author.

  2. sonetka permalink

    I’ve read that and am going to get into it soon! Though it will be a briefer review since it’s less Anne-centric. Not surprisingly I enjoyed it but also found uneven — I think the Anne of Cleves chapter was my favorite.

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