This has been the season of “Wolf Hall.” Hilary Mantel’s take on Henry VIII and the first three of his six wives — Divorced, Beheaded and Died — is everywhere in New York: in the few bookstores we have left, on Broadway, on television. There are ads online, in The New Yorker, on the sides of buses.
It’s far from the first time this story has been told. Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” chronicled the transition from Divorced (Katherine of Aragon) to Beheaded (Anne Boleyn) while stopping short of the actual beheading. Donizetti composed an opera about Anne. Charles Laughton played Henry in a 1933 film. I grew up on “Anne of the Thousand Days” and “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” the 1970s BBC version starring Keith Michell, on PBS.
“The Tudors” on Showtime gave the story a 21st-century spin, with more pretty people, bloody beheadings and nasty sex than ever before. A couple of seasons’ worth on Chinese DVDs was my late-night recreation on a teaching trip to Poland. “I finished ‘The Tudors’ last night,” I remarked to Ula, my program coordinator. Her eyes grew wide, and she gasped.”Henry died?” I hated to break the news, but Henry has been dead for going on 500 years.
Yet the story of his quest for a male heir continues to be told and told again. Why? I can’t explain why I’m so entranced by the Tudor period, when my Cornish ancestors were probably scraping for a living. Perhaps it’s the romance of history when it’s well told, or maybe it’s the romance of romance. For Tudor aficionados, it’s like Charles and Diana, or Will and Kate a generation later. When I walked through the Tudor section of the National Portrait Gallery in London a few years ago, I didn’t need to look at the labels; I knew who everyone was.
Mantel’s protagonist is neither king nor queen, but low-born Thomas Cromwell, who as Henry’s secretary and Master of the Rolls was essentially his chief minister in the 1530s. Elsewhere Cromwell is portrayed as what Robertson Davies called “fifth business” — in drama and opera, “those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement,” he wrote in the preface to his novel of that name. Though Mantel writes in third person rather than in his voice, Cromwell is her focal point.
I’ve worked my way through Mantel from books to stage to television. Seeking comfort in an alien environment, I read “Wolf Hall” while teaching in China five years ago and caught up with its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” on vacation in Puerto Rico this March. (“Doesn’t it bother you to be reading something so different from where you are?” I’ve often been asked. No.) Mantel isn’t the easiest to follow; her way of referring to Cromwell as “he” when there are many other “he’s” present often causes confusion with unclear antecedents. Though I find the books rather cold, their intelligence and perspective make them well worth the effort.
I spent April Fool’s Day wallowing in “Wolf Hall” on Broadway, seeing both parts in a single day. Its eight Tony Award nominations notwithstanding, I found the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation oddly uninvolving. The starkness of the design and its dark palette – grays and black and browns, occasionally relieved by a red or cream-colored gown – lack the color in the court of someone who surely must have thought himself a Sun King a century before Louis XIV invented the genre. One of the glories of live theater is that it makes the audience fill in the details through imagination; my definitive “King Lear” is the 2011 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Derek Jacobi, which used about three props in the entire show. But “Wolf Hall” was too stark and entirely dreary. Ben Miles struck me as too young for Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker a Henry without swagger, and Lydia Leonard unappealing as Anne. (More on her later.) I feel sorry for any theatergoer who doesn’t know the characters as well as I do; it takes no small effort to keep Harry Percy straight from Thomas Weston from George Boleyn.
That Sunday, “Wolf Hall” came to PBS. Being television, it not only can but must fill in all the details – the colors, the candlesticks, the drapery around the beds — to fill out the Tudor world visually. Its Cromwell is Mark Rylance, who in my opinion deserves an award for just about anything he does, and this role is no exception. Cromwell was nothing if not an operator, and while Rylance is less jowly than the Holbein portrait suggests, his impassive face perfectly conceals a constantly whirling mind. As Henry, Damian Lewis is getting warmer. But Claire Foy’s Anne? As with Leonard’s Tony-nominated Anne, I can’t quite grasp what Henry sees in her. Neither has the bewitching sparkle and sex appeal of Dorothy Tutin in the ‘70s and Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors”; both come off simply as shrews, and that’s the kind word. Today’s New York Times describes Anne as “cunning and manipulative,” which is certainly accurate. Since Mantel sees her through Cromwell’s eyes and he was considerably less charmed than the king, perhaps these performances makes sense. For once, Died (Jane Seymour) has refreshing flashes of sharpness and wit, and Thomas More is hardly a saint. (As a companion piece, PBS has shown “Inside the Court of Henry VIII,” a sort of CliffsNotes for those who don’t know all the players. It describes Henry with words like “brutal” and “tyrant”; its Cromwell is the homeliest ever, and Anne is no great shakes, either.)
Despite my quibbles with Mantel, I can’t help looking forward to the final book in her Cromwell trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light.” Spoiler alert: Cromwell himself was beheaded in 1540 after his misstep in promoting wife No. 4, Annulled (Anne of Cleves). But I was expecting that by the end of “Bring Up the Bodies.”
If only Henry had been satisfied with his girls! But then we would have none of these stories to tell and tell again. Eventually they do end happily, if not ever after. As Thomas Cranmer tells Henry in “Wolf Hall” after Anne’s disappointing first child is born: “Perhaps God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess.” They named the baby Elizabeth.