Susan Bordo’s Exclusive Interview with Howard Brenton, Author of “Anne Boleyn”

In the summer of 2010, just a few days after Howard Brenton’s play Anne Boleyn opened to rave reviews at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Brenton met with me in the coffee shop of the theatre to talk about the play, what inspired him to write it, his conception of Anne, Henry, and Cromwell, and the difference between polemic and art:


SB:            So little exists in terms of actual documentation about what Anne was like; it makes tremendous sense that she would have a very active fictional life, in novels and plays, but also in popular history. Some of the most influential narratives have been based on little more than court gossip, some of them have reflected various political agendas and religious agendas, some are purely the product of over-active imaginations. Your play, however, is really the first, among modern fictionalized narratives anyway, to emphasize Anne’s reformist activities. How did that come about?


Brenton:            I wanted to write a play about the Tudors for a long time, but couldn’t find a way of doing it, and then this occurred to me when the Globe wanted a play celebrating the King James Bible for the 400th anniversary. I first said I don’t think can do that, how do you dramatize that?  And then I remembered that Anne Boleyn had a testament, a Tyndale testament–and of course the King James Bible is largely based on Tyndale–so I thought that was interesting, and then the play spun itself from that. In getting the details right, Eric Ives’ Life and Death of Anne Boleyn was a big help.


SB:            Ives is one of the most responsible and thorough historians of Anne.


Brenton:            Yes, very much so. Then I began to think a lot about Henry.  In my view, what makes the Boleyn story work, in the play at least if not in reality, is my view of Henry that he wasn’t exactly weak, but he would let people run him.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually take the country over, run everything on his behalf and then when something went wrong or a different wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  This happened for good reason to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, and then it happened to Cromwell five years after she was executed.  It wasn’t that Henry was weak. But his attention span was probably not the greatest, and although he was an intellectual like any trained prince would be, he wasn’t a great intellectual. He worked hard to be the Renaissance prince when he was young, but basically he was out hunting a lot.


SB:            That’s a very interesting answer to what remains a real mystery, which is how could someone who had so much affection and warmth and attachment to various people could turn so ruthlessly against them. One day he has his arm around Wolsey, telling him “don’t be afraid, my friend” and then Wolsey never sees him again. He tells Anne, when she has a fit over Jane, to calm down, that “all will be well, Sweetheart”, and the next thing you know her head is in the sawdust.


Brenton:            Yes, that’s what happens when people don’t succeed in doing the big thing that he wants, And it’s very sudden, unlike Elizabeth, where there is a gradual easing in and out of her favorites. Also, there were checks and counterpoints between people in Elizabeth’s court.  With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.


SB:            Exactly. His capriciousness wasn’t just a function of being king, was it?  Because not all monarchs behaved that way. And of course, there are all these hypotheses as to why Henry did. A  popular one, which partly comes from David Starkey, is that he was overly pampered by his mother. He expected everyone, in a sense, to breastfeed him, metaphorically speaking, and when the milk stopped flowing, so did his attachment and protection.


Brenton:            Yes, he was brought up by women, but he wasn’t brought up as the king.  Arthur was, so Henry was always number two, and farmed out to be looked after by women.  I think he was always at ease with women, and of course, they would all defer to him.  The adoration was enormous around the young prince, and then when he was elevated and they tried to try give him a more kingly kind of spine, it had to be bolted together. And then, too, the regime was still really young.  With his father, there were virtual bankers taking over the country, so they had to sort of nail the Tudor dynasty down very hard, and they did that with pomp and centralization. Everyone had to come to court and then travel around with you.  And he got rid of those people who were getting too powerful, building too much, building more than he was, both metaphorically and literally, because he was a manic builder.  No one builds higher skyscrapers than the monarchy.  Don’t put up a taller building than mine or you’d find it knocked down!


SB: There was something that you said once in an interview that really interested me.  You said we all live in this world of cardboard, fantasy creations, but life is of course much messier and more chaotic, and that your job, as an artist, is finding the fault lines, the instability. I was wondering how this play fits in to that idea of finding the fault lines, whether in terms of history or in terms of our own, current situation.


Brenton:            Perhaps because it’s about the instability of regimes.  But I don’t think you can know whether something you’re working on is going to resonate for an audience.  And often later, if it does, you realize “oh, that’s why I was so obsessed with that at that time!” In my view, you can’t ever have a message-stricken play that tries to disrupt accepted ideas, and so on. You just follow an instinct, something that you’re obsessed with at the moment, and then only later do you realize why.  It’s very dangerous for writers to suddenly begin to think about their “whys”. You can go bonkers; you turn into the label that you’ve created.  We can’t be moralists or ideologues.  It’s a different kind of truth we should be after. Dostoevsky was a great novelist, but if you read his political and religious tracts, they are awful.  They’re one dimensional, ranting, very little human feeling or insight to the human condition in them.


SB:            Yes, it’s as though when one stays on the level of theoretical or political abstraction, you’re in a whole different world than our own, contradictory, always-changing one– but when you move to the concrete, the way art (as opposed to polemic) does, the concrete tells you what it has to be.  It tells you that this character must do this whether or not you like it or not –


Brenton:            Yes, whether you like it or not.



SB:            Which bring us to Anne.  How did your Anne come about?


Brenton:            I really admire Anne. What was extraordinary to me about her was her recklessness. The Tudor court was unbelievably dangerous and yet she got to the very center of it, and the only way out was either bear a male child or death.  There was no other way out.  There was no retreat, and that I thought was an extraordinary existential place to end up, and I thought the recklessness of it, the courage that took, was amazing.




SB:            Something else about your Anne that really struck me is the way in which you allow her to be both playful and spiritual at the same time.  The typical way the characters are written has Anne equal sex and Catherine equal piety. But in fact Anne, having spent her formative years at the French court, where women could be both playful and have strong religious commitments—Francis’s sister Marguerite is the best example—put it together differently than the English.


Brenton:              Yes.  I thought a lot about this. I do think that even in England, the mind/ body split, or the soul / body split, the fallen body, all that, which came out of Calvin, really, was only beginning to make its way into the reformist faction at this kind.  Come the turn of the century, it had taken hold, and it was warfare between the different sections of Puritans, really.  But I thought, well, maybe it hadn’t really got hold by the time of this play.  And that’s reflected in Anne’s version of Protestantism.


SB:            It could be speculated that both Anne and Henry get caught, so to speak, by a shift that they don’t quite know is happening.  The new ideas about the “base, physical” body change ideas about courtly love, too, so that things that Anne did that just 10 years before would have been seen as entirely innocent—the provocative talk with the men she was accused of sleeping with, and so on–now begin to be seen as signaling that something more is going on.  I’m not saying that Cromwell didn’t cook up the charges, but perhaps this cultural change is one reason why others were so ready to believe them. In a certain way, Anne and Henry are caught in the grip of historical changes that they can’t control, and that makes it possible for Cromwell to exploit certain things about her.


Brenton:            Yes. Cromwell was out to get her, certainly. Originally, he was in league with her and the collaboration was perfect for his purposes, with her access to the royal pillow.  Absolutely wonderful, brilliant arrangement! He was thrilled to realize the extent of her religious fervor.  But then of course, it all went wrong. I took it from the Eric Ives that she was going to tell the king that she was horrified at what was happening, the misuse of the money from the dissolution of monasteries. I found it entirely credible that Cromwell then moved against her.  It was so sudden.  It took him three weeks!  In three weeks, you’ve got all the witnesses, the trial. and she was gone.



SB:           It’s certainly disturbing, then, to see a book like the Bernard book, Fatal Attractions, which seems so retrograde, arguing that she likely actually slept with at least one of the men.


Brenton:            Yes. It’s trying to establish the old story. And Bernard forgets that those aristocratic women who reported to Cromwell were Anne’s enemies. Her only protection was Henry, and the possibility that she was going to give him a male heir.  That’s her only protection.  People hated her family.  So nothing that anyone said about her and her sexual behavior was to be trusted.



SB:            We know what that led to. But your play, despite what happened to Anne, does end on a curiously hopeful note.



Brenton:            Yes.  It’s as though she’s saying, “Over to you out there, here’s the mess.  How are you doing with the mess?  Bye bye!”


SB:            “I had fun…fun, despite it all!”


Bremtpm:            Oddly, that’s what she’s saying here isn’t she? She blows everyone a kiss. And there we are, having been handed the reformation, Puritanism, the whole heritage…



SB:            Are you aware, by the way, of the huge new interest in Anne, especially on the internet?  I call it “viral Anne.” I think that she appeals to contemporary girls because of her complexity, and they “get” her in a way that many of the official historians don’t.  She says to them: You can be smart.  You can be dedicated.  You can fight for a cause.  But you also can like beautiful clothes and jewelry and don’t think for a minute that just because I flirt with you that you can’t take me seriously. And don’t think I’m anyone’s victim! They want heroines who stand up for themselves, who fight for what they believe, but who also have a sexual, playful, ironic side.  And I think Anne works that way for them.  In a sense, she’s a “third-wave” heroine.



Brenton:            Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director of the Globe] actually pointed this out to me.  I wasn’t aware of it you see, and he said you do know about this, he’s got daughters who had been through their Anne Boleyn experience when they were 12-13, very young. He said you do know what may happen… you may have an audience of 13-year-olds becoming hysterical in the aisles.


SB:            I think they would love the play because your Anne is much closer to the Anne they admire than the Anne of the old stereotypes.  Fascinating, isn’t it? Henry tried to destroy all evidence of her queenship—her letters, her portraits, her emblems.  But she got her revenge, not just through Elizabeth, but by remaining the most endlessly fascinating of all the wives. She’s still a work in progress isn’t she?  Always has been and perhaps always will be.


Susan Bordo is a professor of the humanities who is currently writing a book about Anne Boleyn, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn begins its second run at the Globe Theatre on July 8th.





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Filed under Anne and Gender, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

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