Anne of the Thousand Days

by Maxwell Anderson

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

Anne of the Thousand Days is chronologically the first of what has come to be known as Maxwell Anderson’s Tudor Trilogy, although it was the last to be written. The other two are Elizabeth the Queen (pr., pb. 1930), a play about Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, and Mary of Scotland (pr., pb. 1933), which centers on Mary, Queen of Scots. Of the three, Anne of the Thousand Days is the most assured and least contrived, with its blank verse allowing the actor a more natural delivery than in Anderson’s other verse plays of the two previous decades.

Anne of the Thousand Days also comes closest to fulfilling the eight rules of serious drama that Anderson himself set down as a guideline for dramatic (especially tragic) playwriting. He included these rules in his book Off Broadway Essays About the Theatre (1947) one year before Anne of the Thousand Days was first produced and published. They are as follows:1. The play deals with the heart or mind of a person, not mainly with external events. 2. The story must consist of a conflict inside a single human being between good and evil, and such categories are defined according to the audience’s judgment. 3. The protagonist, representative of the forces of good, must win; if he has represented evil, he must be defeated by the good and realize that fact. 4. The protagonist, who must emerge at the end of the play as more admirable than at the beginning, must not be perfect. 5. The protagonist has to be exceptional; or, if he is a man from the street, he must epitomize qualities of excellence that the audience is able to admire. 6. Excellence on the stage must ever be moral excellence. 7. A healthy moral atmosphere must prevail in the play; evil must not triumph. 8. The theater audience admires these human qualities on the stage: woman’s passionate faith and fidelity, man’s strength of conviction and positive character; the audience especially resents these qualities: woman’s infidelity, man’s cowardice and refusal to fight for a belief.

The play violates rule number seven. As the play progresses, the atmosphere becomes increasingly more poisonous, as a world where a Sir Thomas More can be killed and a Thomas Cromwell can prosper is created. As for rule number eight, if Anne’s fidelity is questioned, she certainly makes up for it by taking up the man’s responsibility of fighting for a belief, for she sacrifices herself for her daughter’s legitimacy.

Anne of the Thousand Days, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1948, enjoyed both critical and popular success, running for 226 performances with Joyce Redman and Rex Harrison in the leading roles. Anderson’s huge success as a playwright allowed him the privilege of a sumptuous production that was much praised by most critics, although some felt that the production values were overblown and gave the staging a stylish, glib tone that undermined the seriousness of the piece.

Maxwell Anderson was arguably the most successful playwright of his day, but after his death in 1959 his contribution became obscured by the avant-garde movement of the following decade and his plays were only infrequently produced. Seemingly most at odds with later theatrical trends were his lavish historical dramas, so it is ironic that it is by Anne of the Thousand Days that Anderson is best known to contemporary audiences. Film made this possible; a decade after Anderson’s death, Hollywood produced Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). While the film version takes liberties with the original, the central poetic drama of Anne and Henry is still that of Anderson. Richard Burton played Henry VIII, and Genevieve Bujold gave a performance of an amazing emotional depth and complexity that does justice to the Anne Boleyn created by Maxwell Anderson.

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