Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII's Discarded Bride by Elizabeth Norton

This is one of the better books by the prolific Ms. Norton.   It is rare to have a stand-alone biography of Henry VIII's fourth Queen, and Ms. Norton does a good job of illuminating Anne of Cleves life from its beginnings in the Duchy of Cleves through the major struggles, most of them financial,she suffered following the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII after only six months of marriage.

Anne of Cleves is stereotypically the Flanders' Mare.    This is a title that is not contemporary having been bestowed on her in the 18th century.    It is true that upon first meeting her Henry VIII's famously said "I like her not."   However, she is not the comically ugly bride that she is frequently portrayed in film (thanks, Elsa Lancaster).   Nor does she simply live happily ever after as the divorced, beheaded, survived rhyme would lead you to believe.  

Anne of Cleves was the wife who survived Henry VIII the longest, living until 1557.   It is that part of the book, from her annulment to her death that is the most fascinating part of Ms. Norton's biography to read.   For she suffered heartache and financial problems for most of the rest of her life.

Anne of Cleves was born in 1515 the second child of John III of Cleves and Maria of Juliers.  Her elder sister, Sybilla would marry John Frederick of Saxony and her sole brother, William, would become Duke of Cleves and end up in a disasterous war with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V during the 1540's.

Anne was proposed as a bride for Francis of Lorraine, but the betrothal was legally dissolved.   This would become an issue when Henry VIII decided he did not want to marry Anne.  Unfortunately for him, the Cleves ambassadors were able to supply proof of the dissolution, thus the King had to fulfill his marriage contract.

How did Anne of Cleves become Queen of England?  Following the death of Queen Jane Seymour, the King and his council looked to a foreign alliance.    There were French candidates, including Marie de Guise who would marry King James V of Scotland and become the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.   There were Imperial candidates, most famously Christina of Milan whose Holbein portrait reveals a charming young woman.     However, France and the Emperor signed a peace treaty in 1539 providing a possible threat to English security.   Thus a possible alliance with a member of the Schmalkaldic League.   While Cleves was not a member of the league, Anne's brother in law, John Frederick of Saxony was, so an alliance with Cleves meant a tie to the League.

While Anne and her younger sister, Amelia were both considered as brides for Henry VIII,  Anne was always the leading candidate as she had inheritance rights if her brother died without issue.   Once the marriage treaty was signed Anne received very favorable dower rights which included payments to her if she wished to return to Cleves as a widow.    This becomes very important to her story.

Most people familiar with Anne's marriage know that the first meeting between Anne and Henry was a complete disaster and that the King failed to consummate the marriage.    Then, once he took Katherine Howard as a mistress in the spring of 1540 getting out of the marriage with Anne became an urgent priority.   Also, the peace between France and the Emperor  did not last and the strategic importance of the alliance with Cleves was no longer valid.    The marriage was annulled on the grounds of nonconsummation, Henry's lack of consent to the marriage and on the basis of the pre-contract with the Duke of  Lorraine.   The document provided by the Ambassadors from Cleves was found to be dubious because it was signed with a seal in the shape of a beer pot.  (seriously)   Anne was not the willing divorcee that she is portrayed in many fictional portrayals.  There are accounts of her fainting when told the news that her marriage might not be valid and that she was terrified that she was going to be arrested.  

However, unlike her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves did not prolong the proceedings and agreed to a generous settlement with the title of the King's Sister, and was granted precedence at court over everyone except the current Queen, and the King's two daughters.  She was granted Richmond Palace, Bletchingley, Hever Castle, and several other manors including the property in Lewes that is called today the Anne of Cleves house.   She was also forced to write to her brother, William and inform him of the annulment.  

So what happened next?    Anne went through immediate changes to her household, the dismissal of officers appointed to serve her as Queen exchanged for other appointed to serve her as the King's sister.    She attended court at New Year's 1541 exchanging gifts with Henry and Queen Katherine Howard.  Following the arrest and execution she firmly believed that she would become Queen again and it is interesting that a pamphlet, The Remonstrance of Anne of Cleves was published in France claiming that Anne was in despair from the loss of her marriage and contemplating suicide.   Through diplomatic channels the pamphlet was suppressed on the orders of King Francis I, who hinted that he wanted Henry to remarry Anne.    Why?    Francis was in alliance with Anne's brother, William, and they disastrously declared war on the Emperor in 1542.  If Henry had remarried Anne he might have been drawn into that war on the French side.    Guilders was lost, Juliers was destroyed and William was forced to annul his marriage and marry the Emperor's niece, Maria of Austria.

Meanwhile, Anne's household expenses were consistently in arrears.   While he lived, King Henry frequently paid her debts.   This changed in 1547.    With the accession of King Edward VI, Anne's life became one of financial hardship.    Rampant inflation devalued her income.   Her debts went years in arrears despite many pleas to the council for help in paying them.   And she was pressured into exchanging several properties.    She lost Bletchingley to a member of her household, in exchange she received Penthurst which was not advantageous as she already owned the nearby Hever Castle.   Then she surrendered her favorite residence of Richmond to the crown.  She had let the palace fall into such disrepair that the King's council needed to spend more than 2000 pounds to repair it.    And, in 1552 she was required to exchange her lands and manor at Bisham for the property at Westthorpe.

Her fortunes briefly changed when Mary became Queen.   She was given a prominent place in the coronation procession and at the coronation banquet.   But, her return to royal favor only lasted until Wyatt's rebellion when she was suspected of colluding with those who wished to place Elizabeth on the throne.   While Anne was innocent she did not return to court again.    When she died at Chelsea in 1557, Mary gave her a royal funeral and she is the only one of Henry VIII's wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Ms. Norton provides a well-written and researched biography of Anne of Cleves.   It may be difficult for some readers as the 16th century letters and documents do not have their spelling modernized.   This book was published by Amberley Press in 2009.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Every Tongue Confess at Arena Stage

It is Sunday, August 4, 1996 and we are witnessing the Sunday service of Winged Elm Baptist Church in Boligee, Alabama.    Three parishioners, Missionary, Brother and Elder are enraptured in their love of God when they realize that the church is burning and they are trapped.   To while away the time they spin the tale of how this fire came to be, but it is not the physical fires that burned hundreds of churches, most of them historically black in the mid-1990's that Every Tongue Confess seeks to present on the stage.    It is the burning fires in the people of Boligee and how the world is connected in a tightly wound web.    It is how the mercy and forgiveness not shown to one individual infects and spreads and burns through the entire community until at last the fire blazes to an unsettling conclusion.    A conclusion in which every one must confess their role in the conflagration and only then seek redemption.

Acclaimed playwright Marcus Gardley, known for his works On the Levee and ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, has had his latest work chosen for a world premiere production as the first work to be produced in the brand-new Kogod Cradle space at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater.   The play is a strong beginning for a theater that will be dedicated to first, second and third productions of emerging new work by American playwrights.    For a first production, Every Tongue Confess, is a strong, well-crafted play.   It is The Thespian's belief that there is very little that needs to be refocused and revised for its next production.

This is a lyrical play.   Do not attend expecting a straightforward realistic drama to unfold upon the stage.   Many magical and spiritual elements occur in the course of the work that one must simply embrace.   In some respects, Mr. Garvey's language brings to mind that of the great August Wilson.   He provides a sense of poetry within the strong dramatic monologues recited by the characters.   And he spins such a tale that, while the audience may deem it obvious who is responsible for burning the church, he finds a way to redeem that character and provide ways for the rest of the cast to see their own faults and find their own ways to redemption.

Act two is stronger dramatically than act one.   We spend a lot of time weaving the elements of the story together and while, act one ends on a dramatic merge of the story lines, it feels like it could use a bit more tweaking.    And one character's story does not lead to a completely satisfactory conclusion.   Perhaps her ending could be rethought so that she can also be redeemed and laid to rest.

Our stories of the fires that burn within are threefold.   First we meet Bernadette (Leslie Kritzer) and her daughter Benny (Autumn Hurlbert).   Benny frustrated by her mother's smoking has flushed her cigarettes not realizing that they masked a large amount of cocaine which Bernadette's boyfriend, Bobby (E. Roger Mitchell who also plays Brother) had intended to sell.    This leads to an accidental shooting in which Bernadette is placed in a coma.    Benny, traumatized by this loses her voice when a metaphorical swallow literally swallows her voice box.    The second fire comes from Benny's father, Stoker Pride (Jim Ireland), an apparent stereotypical redneck who is a bitter drunk.   Bernadette left him for a black man while pregnant with Benny.    Due to the circumstances, Benny is forced by social services represented by the efficient Tender Meeks (Crystal Fox who also plays the Missionary) to live with her father.     And thirdly, we are introduced to Mother Sister (Phylicia Rashad) a pillar of the community known for her ability to heal the spiritually wounded, unless the moon is blocked causing her to become literally and figuratively blind.   Mother Sister is a single parent to Shadrack (Jason Dirden) a teenager with dreams of Nashville.    Seeking her healing is Jeremiah (Eugene Lee who also plays Elder) the church's gravedigger and the mysterious Blacksmith (Jonathan Peck) who arrives on her doorstep demanding a meal and a bath.

How these characters are actually interrelated by the flaws of mankind is the real fire upon this stage.    All of the actors are excellent in their roles, but outstanding performances are given by Ms. Rashad, who is more than the saintly healer, a true commanding leader of the community, Mr. Peck who seems both threatening and intriguing, Mr. Ireland who takes the most difficult role in the play and finds ways to use the playwright's words to make him sympathetic, and Ms. Hurlbert who holds a powerful gospel voice in a tiny white girl's body.

The play contains strongly adult themes and is appropriate for mature teenagers.    The production should be seen by those interested in the emergence of a great American playwrighting voice.  

Every Tongue Confess will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage through January 2, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Rock of Ages National Tour at The Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland

I wanna rock!!!

Rock of Ages, a so-called jukebox musical featuring the music of several metal/glam/hair rock bands of the 1980's is an evening of theater that is just too much fun to properly analyze and review.    So, The Thespian will take her own advice to her companion that evening, "sit back, turn off your brain, and prepare to have your face melted off."

We have entered the world of the 1980's Sunset Strip.    Sex, drugs and rock and roll have ruled supreme, but are now threatened by the evil forces of developers who want to tear down the strip and replace it with the homogenous family friendly forces of Foot Locker and their ilk.   Through a very silly love story, book by Chris D'Arienzo,  set to the music of Poison, Journey and White Snake, among many others, Rock of Ages embraces the musical fun of the mid-1980's.     So, put on your spandex, spray that mullet, grab a beer from the vendor selling it in the aisle and let the show hit you with its best shot for a truly entertaining evening.

Your basic plot involves Drew, young clean-up guy at the Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip, who yearns to be a rock star.   He meets Sherrie, fresh off the bus from the land thousands of waffle houses away, who dreams of becoming an actress.    Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon Room, is threatened with closure as the Strip does not produce adequate tax revenue.   With the help of his able partner and our evening's narrator, Lonny, he persuades Stacee Jaxx and his band, Arsenal, to play their farewell concert at the Bourbon Room where they started their careers, in hopes of changing the city's mind about the closing.   Young Regina, fired from the mayor's office for believing that developing the strip is wrong, fights on the outside against the German developer, Hertz and his flamboyantly conflicted son, Fritz.    Will Drew and Sherrie find fame, fortune and true love?   Will Regina die believing in the power of the proletariat?  Will Dennis and Lonny save their beloved Fogmaster 5000?     Find the show on its National Tour or on Broadway and find out for yourselves.

The National Tour contains strong performances that are equal to those The Thespian saw on Broadway.
As Lonny,  Patrick Lewallen, is our outrageously fun-loving host to the proceedings.  The script calls for Lonny to be a part of just about every single musical number in the show, an exhausting challenge that he rises to with ease.   His counterpart, Dennis, is ably presented as the aging rock bar legend that still has a fight in him by Nick Cordero.    A giant of a man he has a very strong voice and immense stage presence that serve the roll well.    As Justice, the proprietor of the Venus Club for gentlemen, Teresa Stanley provides a gentle motherly vibe to what could be a very sleazy character.   She has a great voice, but could be crisper in her enunciation.

The German developer, Hertz is played with hissable intensity by Bret Tuomi.  His son, Fritz, actually manages to be more outrageous than the actor who originated the role on Broadway, and that is saying something.   Travis Walker just blazes on the stage every time he appears and brings down the house with his act two show-stopper.   The Thespian will not spoil that moment with the title of the song or how  it is staged, it should be viewed blindly for the strongest impact.    His fervent foe and soul mate, Regina, is played with the extreme intensity of what would happen if Sheila from Hair had protested in the 1980's rather than the 1960's by Casey Tuma, although she too could benefit from stronger elocution.

The evil Stacie Jaxx sleazes his way from baby llama incident to love story foil perfectly embodied by MiG Ayesa.    He'll seduce you and repulse you at the same time, but it is clear he's having a great time doing it.

Our heroine, Sherrie, is played by Rebecca Faulkenberry.   Sherrie is a challenging role as she is an ingenue that is naive about the ways of life, but must transform herself to a woman who gets a hard lesson in life and ends up in some very unpleasant circumstances.   Yet she can't lose the audience's sympathy as her initial downfall is partially caused by her own actions.    Ms. Faulkenberry handles the duality of this keeping Sherrie's sparkling personality front and center during her journey to "rock" bottom and back.

Now for our boy, Drew.   Or as he prefers it, his stage name Wolfgang Von Colt.  Constantine Maroulis has played this role since the show debuted off-Broadway, transferred with it to Broadway and earned a Tony Nomination for his efforts.    The world knows him best as an American Idol contestant, but he has many theatrical credits to his name and has succeeded in such shows as The Wedding Singer, Jacques Brel and Rent.    He has a wonderful rock tenor and can by turns sway you with a tender ballad or tear the walls down with a proper rock wail.    He's also a pretty terrific actor.    There is no fatigue in his performance given that he's played the part for so long.   There is no star turn mugging to the audience.   He simply truly embodies the enthusiasm inherent in the role and clearly loves the show.    I'm sure his replacement on Broadway is wonderful, but if you have a chance to see Mr. Maroulis while he is with the National Tour do so.  It is a marvelous performance.

Rock of Ages played at The Hippodrome Theatre,The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in Baltimore, Maryland from November 30-December 5, 2010.   The show continues its National Tour into 2011.   For information on upcoming performance dates and ticket information visit or