The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Anne of the Thousand Days begins as the curtain rises to reveal a dark stage in the prologue of act 1. The lights come up on a young woman sitting in a room with a barred window. It is Anne Boleyn on the eve of her execution in May, 1536. She speaks, ruminating on her imminent death as the just end of her bloody career as Henry VIII’s second wife and queen. Anne wonders out loud how many days there were from the day she first gave herself to Henry to the last day she saw him at her trial; she falls into a reverie as she begins to remember and count the days. The lights fade, momentarily leaving a spot on her as act 1, scene 1 begins.

It is the spring of 1526, and King Henry VIII is coming to Hever Castle, the home of his treasurer, Thomas Boleyn. Boleyn owes his wealth and his station to the fact that for the past four years his eldest daughter Mary has been the king’s mistress. Pregnant with Henry’s child, Mary knows that she is losing the king and bitterly regrets having given herself completely instead of holding something back to keep his interest. Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s powerful chief administrator, enters, revealing that Henry comes to Hever because he has had his eye on Mary’s younger sister, Anne. The king makes his entrance soon thereafter. Henry VIII, who after many years of marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon is still without a male heir, is a powerful man who justifies his personal excesses by invoking the divine right of his kingship. He sends Boleyn off to get Anne, staying to talk with some gallants of the court; he has never been refused by a woman, Henry boasts, and once he has her he loses interest.

The lights fade on this scene and come up on the next to reveal a young Anne in the arms of her lover. They are both very much in love and wish to be married. Wolsey interrupts them, sends the lad off, and tells Anne of the king’s intentions. Indignant and mindful of her sister’s sad situation, Anne defies the cardinal. He is joined by her parents, who plead with her to forget her fiancé and give in to the king’s will. Anne’s arch criticism of the “royal bull” is interrupted by Henry himself, who has come for her. He finds wooing rough going as Anne quickly asserts herself, displaying a courage and independence the likes of which the shocked and angered Henry has probably never before experienced. Challenging the king, she defies him to destroy her, her family, and her lover; Henry storms off in an impotent rage.

The rest of the act passes quickly, with Anne staying at Hever as Henry resumes his relations with her sister; meanwhile, Anne’s lover is married off to another woman and dies soon thereafter. Henry remains obsessed with Anne, the only woman who has ever refused him. He returns to Hever and dances with her, trying to win her again, only to be countered by her assertion that she would never suffer to be merely his mistress and bear him bastards. In a fever to have her, Henry promises that the pope will annul his marriage on the grounds that the queen had previously been married to his brother, leaving him...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The dominating device that informs the action of Anne of the Thousand Days is Maxwell Anderson’s use of certain facts and personalities of Tudor England of 1526 to 1536. Taking the famous Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the world they created, he fictionalizes generally accepted historical truth to create a setting that communicates his ideas. The lyricism of his language and stage directions is made believable by the fact that the action takes place in the memory of the two protagonists, with the metaphorical consciousness of their speech reinforcing the idea that they are themselves metaphors serving the play’s deeper meaning.

Anderson himself described Henry as a “sexual Everyman” in that he loses interest in a woman he can have and is obsessed with the woman who refuses him. This sexual conflict conveniently results in political conflict, giving the play a theatrically worthy plot with which to entertain audiences while making them think. The playwright did, however, create a Henry who is more complex than a “sexual Everyman,” endowing him with a degree of conscience and awareness of his actions. His own deeds haunt him; in act 2, scene 4 he says, “There is a load every man lugs behind him,” lamenting his criminal responsibility. Anne, the heroine, goes beyond this recognition, surpassing Henry morally. At her trial, facing certain death and with nothing left to lose, she not only sees what she has done but also comes to...

(The entire section is 436 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Anderson, Maxwell. Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958. Edited by Laurence G. Avery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Anderson, Maxwell. “How a Play Gets Written: Diary Retraces Steps.” New York Herald Tribune 5 (August 21, 1949): 1.

Atkinson, Brooks. “At the Theatre.” New York Times, December 9, 1949, p. 49.

Clurman, Harold. Lies Like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Engle, Ron. Maxwell Anderson on the European Stage, 1929-1992. Monroe, N.Y.: Library Research, 1996.

Hazelton, Nancy J., and Kenneth Kraus, eds. Maxwell Anderson and the New York Stage. Monroe, N.Y.: Library Research, 1991.

Horn, Barbara L. Maxwell Anderson: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Shivers, Alfred S. Maxwell Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Shivers, Alfred S. Maxwell Anderson: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Works. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985.