Most people - and writers in particular - are drawn to stories about larger-than-life people, figures, and times. Moments and personalities that disrupted the status quo and changed the course of history. The extraordinary.
These are the stories that live on, passed down through facts and records (contemporary and non), as well as rumor, gossip, and anecdotes that may or may not include a kernel of truth.
The people at the center of these stories are some of the most compelling, and they have attracted the attention of people throughout generations.
And writers love them.
Historians and creative writers alike love to tackle these gigantic stories filled with change and drama, as well as mystery and intrigue, and put their own spins on them. But what they never tell you is just how difficult these people and stories are to write.
I too have fallen victim to this type of alluring narrative and - despite this post’s title - I am not speaking about the great historical mystery of Anastasia as adapted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
I’m talking about one of Western history’s most debated women from one of English history’s most infamous time periods:
483 Years and Still Going Strong
This Sunday, May 19th, will be the 483rd anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s beheading.
And 483 years after this woman’s death, she is perhaps more popular, talked about, portrayed, and debated than ever. That’s insane!
I think most people would be happy if they were talked about for a full generation or two following their deaths.
But 483 years? Why? What is so compelling about this woman and her story?
…lol. Yeah. I deeeeefinitely don’t have enough time to spell that out in a singular blog post, but there are now tons of brilliant, wonderful, and well-researched books, websites, and podcasts on the topic!
But if I were to give a (sinfully) short list of her notable accomplishments alone, they would be:
Acquired information and skills from multiple continental European courts as a young woman.
Finagled a betrothal to a high English noble.
Captured King Henry VIII’s attention - and then kept it for ~7 years.
Served as a catalyst for English Church reform - including the break with Rome.
Successfully helped Henry acquire a divorce - unprecedented in how it was accomplished.
Married the King of England.
Gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.
Was the first English Queen ever to be put to death…not so much an accomplishment, but certainly an important and notable historical point.
And these are just bullet point specifics. It’s clear from this list of actions that Anne had a large role in altering the course of early Renaissance English history, but this list also tells us very little about who she actually was as a person…
…Which leads to the next question. Who was Anne Boleyn?
This is something that historians, writers, and intrigued lovers of history have been obsessed with trying to figure out throughout the past almost 5 centuries. It’s a complicated question to answer due to the lack of surviving materials from Anne herself, as well as the heavily biased nature of the contemporary sources.
There just isn’t as much information as we want.
“So, how the heck do you wade through this mire of complexity to write an entire musical centered around such a well-known yet mysterious figure?”
I’m glad you asked!
The first large complication for me was that Anne Boleyn tends to be seen one of two ways. Either:
The helpless pawn of her father, uncle, brother, and Henry. (‘cause, ya know, men)
The ambitious, cunning, manipulative, power-hungry seductress. (‘cause, ya know, MEN)
Thanks to the delightful-and-not-at-all-destructive patriarchy, basically every piece of information about - and opinion on - Anne that we have was written by men entrenched in the patriarchal ideas. And of course these ideas include the classic Virgin/Whore dichotomy.
***For those of you unfamiliar, it basically says that all women are either hapless virgins or seductive whores and that, no matter which the case may be, everything bad that has ever happened is a woman’s fault.
So - besides the obvious problems with these two views - we are left with an Anne Boleyn whose actions were speculated about within these two mindsets. Therefore, rumors and unconfirmed stories began to circulate and grow into myths that have been taken and studied as facts over the years (ie, Anne’s sixth finger, Boleyn incest, witchcraft, and many more) Even to the point where the new Netflix Sabrina reboot has invoked Anne Boleyn’s name twice as a powerful witch of old.
*Insert facepalm here*
Not only are we left with these two images of Anne, but both are incredibly bland and two-dimensional. She sounds more like the heroine or villain of a melodrama than an actual human being.
And Anne Boleyn was a real, living, breathing, thinking, desiring, woman. Not a cardboard cutout painted in whatever image some person desires.
All of this combined with my research provided me with my marching orders for her creation as the main character for my musical: Make her a person.
My Own Tomorrow
Folks, this was the hardest part of all.
People are complex. People are both good and bad. People do both good and bad things.
Likable humans can make gigantic mistakes and commit terrible atrocities. Despicable humans can create long-lasting charities and perform incredible acts of kindness.
Everyone is both good and bad and, normally in character creation, this isn’t an issue - it’s exciting! But where Anne Boleyn is concerned, her male-written legacy means that most people already have a strong opinion about her - positive or negative - and whether or not they even know they do.
For instance, whenever I ask most people what they know about Anne Boleyn, they can tell me that she was Henry VIII’s second wife and was beheaded. Well, we as a society have created general opinions about both second wives and people who are put to death, so even that bare bones information colors how we see this woman, even before the curtain rises.
So what to do?
The question I kept asking myself was: Why do we want to care?
There is an odd intersection between the aforementioned two versions of Anne that really isn’t all that strange if you think about it:
In one version Anne has no control.
In the other version Anne has all of the control.
So it made sense to me that the truth was somewhere between, which sounded a lot like the constant, everyday struggle of basically every person I know: We all want the freedom to have control over our own lives and destinies, but are constantly struggling against the forces that hold us back.
There it is. Now that is something we can all connect to.
All Anne Boleyn wanted was to be able to control her own destiny, whatever that would end up being and whatever the consequences of the actions she took to get there.
She wanted her own tomorrow.
A Tudor Rose
From there it was suddenly much easier to write Anne as a character.
She is an ambitious person who is highly educated, strong-willed, cunning, and witty, and she wants all of the freedoms that her current situations will not provide her. How would this person act and react?
We can identify with this person, which immediately makes her likable. Always a good thing.
Then again, we may find her extremely abrasive at times. Which only makes us want to like her more.
Occasionally she does terrible things. So we anguish as we wish she made a better choice.
Sometimes she makes the perfect choice. And we relish in her triumphs.
She struggles. We root for her.
She fails. We hurt for her.
She succeeds. We cheer for her.
One of the best things I have learned in the process of writing Anne Boleyn is that we love stories that remind us of our own humanity. The good/bad dichotomy is not the way of the world and it’s therefore far less interesting. We are all a mixture of both, and to see that reflected on the stage is extremely engaging.
At least, I hope that’s who my Anne Boleyn has become.
The other element of Anne that is rarely discussed is her motherhood. By all (lack of) accounts, Anne was not terribly involved in Elizabeth’s upbringing, but we have no information that confirms this. And Elizabeth grew up to be very much like both her mother and her father, and it’s clear from the sources that Anne had a large influence on Elizabeth.
It was incredibly important to me that we see Anne as a mother.
Every mother I’ve ever spoken with has told me about this incredible bond that one has upon giving birth. A special, indescribable bond that cannot be broken. A pure kind of love.
And we can all identify with some sort of feeling of love.
Whether or not this moment in the show endears you toward Anne, if this idea doesn’t humanize her for you, I’m not sure what will.
A Queen Of England
Alright, let’s talk about it. I knew we would have to.
The biggest argument I hear from people when discussing Anne as a positive entity, or as the neutral entity that most real human beings are, is: “But Henry beheaded her! She had to have been bad in some way!”
But is this true? Does she have to have been a bad person in some way? Meaning, more so than any of us, that is.
I don’t think this has to be true. I mean, bad things are done to good people all the time.
But beyond that, Henry wanted something and Anne was in his way. And he didn’t have a decade to waste on fighting her as he did with his first wife - he was getting on in age and still had need of acquiring a son. If Anne had said “no, never” to the idea of divorce, couldn’t this be enough?
The charges against her were clearly fabricated - history has shown that. So why was she killed?
It’s one of my favorite mysteries of all time and, I think, one of the main reasons we revisit her story over and over again.
What’s my opinion on the matter?
Ehn, that’s unimportant. I’m more interested in what my audience’s opinion will be once they’ve sat through two hours of a complex and human Anne Boleyn’s journey. When we reach that final moment, what will you think? Did she earn her death?
Historical people are difficult to write. Famous people are difficult to write. When it’s a combination of both, it’s even harder.
But as we move closer to the premiere production of The King’s Legacy this summer, I’m proud of the Anne Boleyn who has appeared on the pages in front of me. She’s complicated and filled with contradictions, just like all of us.
I hope you can make it to our show this summer so you can see and judge for yourself. If you do come, I cannot wait to hear what you think of Anne and I certainly hope that you will share your opinion with me!
Tickets available here: www.bvtnaples.org
See you in August!