Anne of the Thousand Days

by Maxwell Anderson

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The Play

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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 free to make Anne queen of England and her son heir to the throne. Anne closes act 1 from her prison cell, saying that that was the first night she gave herself to him and...

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the night she began to love him.

Act 2 is King Henry’s reminiscence, beginning with a prologue in which he considers Anne’s death warrant, tormenting himself by wondering whether she was ever unfaithful to him. In the first scene, Anne has prematurely assumed her place as queen at Henry’s court, making it a center of culture and learning with such figures as Sir Thomas More, the brilliant writer and statesman. Henry and Anne’s idyll is ruined when Cardinal Wolsey tells them that the pope has refused to annul the king’s marriage to Queen Katharine. Anne, who is already pregnant with Henry’s child, is furious and feels betrayed by Henry when Thomas Cromwell enters. Cromwell, Wolsey’s Machiavellian secretary, is well versed in English law; he tells Henry and Anne that it is the king’s right to break with Rome if the pope interferes with England’s internal government. Cromwell also intimates that Wolsey has always known this but has failed to inform the king because he has ambitions to be pope himself. Henry hesitates to take this radical step of defiance, knowing that there will be much bloodshed, but he does so anyway for the love of Anne, who holds sway over him.

Anne is crowned queen, and those who do not accept the new Church of England and the new queen, Thomas More among them, are put to death. Wolsey falls from power, Cromwell takes his place, and Henry gives the old cardinal’s magnificent palace of York to Anne. Now that he has given her everything he had promised her and more, Anne finally gives to Henry that for which he has done all of this: She tells him that she loves him. On that one day, out of the many that Anne is counting in prison, they loved each other equally; thereafter, Anne gradually lost Henry’s love, having at last given hers in full.

Anne gives birth, disappointingly, to a daughter, Elizabeth; Henry becomes increasingly disturbed by the guilty burden of his tyranny; and Anne finally bears him a son, but it is born dead. Act 2 ends ominously, as the king, disenchanted with Anne, looks to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, as a possible mother to his long-sought male heir.

With act 3, the action is restored to Anne’s recollection of events, opening with a monologue in which she says that she has finally calculated the span of her life with Henry: one thousand days. Sensing his master’s restlessness, Cromwell arranges with Henry to have Anne arrested on trumped-up charges of adultery. She is thrown into the Tower of London, and several young men of her court are tortured to extract confessions of complicity with the queen. Before her trial, Anne is offered a chance of life in exile if she will allow her marriage to be annulled; unwilling to compromise Elizabeth’s legitimacy, she refuses. Anne’s trial is a travesty of justice; her musician, under threat of more torture and promises of clemency, admits to having slept with her. This is too much for Henry to bear, and he stumbles out from where he has been hiding during the whole proceeding. Telling the musician that he will die anyway, Henry makes him recant his confession. Anne, seizing at this last opportunity to make Henry forever hers, strikes at the vulnerability of his masculine pride by declaring that she was often unfaithful to him with many men. This gives the court the evidence needed to sentence her to death and rid the king of her presence, but Henry’s injustice toward Anne now works against him, leaving him forever to wonder if she lied to torment him or if she was indeed unfaithful to him. The last scene of the play is Henry’s; Anne’s eternal hold on him is reaffirmed as he speaks of her on the day of her execution and her smiling ghost appears to haunt him.

Dramatic Devices

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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 understand why. That she ultimately achieves transcendence is confirmed by the dramatic device of her ghost coming to haunt Henry in the last scene.

Anne of the Thousand Days is a memory play with each act being a flashback, as established by Anne’s prologues for acts 1 and 3 and Henry’s prologue for act 2. By this device Anderson allowed himself the opportunity to give the audience vast perspectives and deep insights without compromising the believability of his work. The device of hindsight frees the playwright from the restraint of prosaic naturalism, permitting him to deliver a drama as rich and grandiloquent as the costumes and set pieces that its setting demands.

Also noteworthy is the play’s language: This is a play written not in prose but in verse. For Anderson, poetry is the language of emotion. The spoken lines of the play are deeply affecting and give the tragedy a lyricism that is complemented by the smooth transition from one scene to another: The lights slowly fade on the old scene as they gradually come up on the new. The methods Anderson uses to communicate his message smoothly blend with one another, lyrically making the piece whole.


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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.


Critical Essays