Before Dawn Breaks
It’s May 19th and the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. I cannot stop thinking about her today and how her story has inspired my life, and my writing.
My ten minute play Before Dawn Breaks was performed as one of the ten finalists in the 2009 Eltham Little Theatre Quickie competition when, for three wonderful nights, I had the great privilege of seeing my play bought to life by a wonderful group of actors. Hoping my readers here might enjoy reading my play, too!
Before Dawn Breaks.
ANNE BOLEYN – about 30, Henry VIII’s second queen.
KATHERINE CAREY – about fourteen, niece of Anne Boleyn, rumoured throughout her life to be the base daughter of Henry VIII.
SETTING: While all else is dark, candlelight and flickering firelight casts an amber net over a central space in Anne Boleyn’s apartments at the Tower of London.
TIME – evening, May 18, 1536
Robert Cecil – late 30’s
James VI of Scotland (crowned as James I of England), late 30’s.
SETTING: While all else is dark, candlelight and flickering firelight casts an amber net over a central space in the Tower’s royal chamber.
Time – evening, end of March, 1603
On her stool, ANNE BOLEYN cries out the primeval sound of a mother torn from her child. She turns and weeps.
KATHERINE CAREY (On the floor, nestled into Anne): Forgive me, Aunt. I should never have spoken…
Anne lifts her chin.
ANNE BOLEYN: There’s nothing to forgive. It is only that I have been thinking of Bess, too. (Softly.) She’s not even three. How will she remember me…God help me, will she remember me at all?
KATHERINE CAREY: My poor Aunt… (She leans her cheek against Anne’s hand in misery.)
(MARGARET LEE enters the room. One look at Anne and Katherine stops Margaret in her tracks. She gives her head a little shake, her hands smoothing down the sides of her gown, before determinedly walking forward again.)
MARGARET LEE: Pray tell, my gossips, whatever’s this? Didn’t we agree to cast melancholy away tonight?
ANNE BOLEYN: Forgive us, Meg. Katherine asked a question about Bess. I’m afraid it quite undid us both.
Katherine gazes at Anne.
KATHERINE CAREY: I promise you, your kin will not let your daughter forget you. I vow to you, I will tell Bess all she needs to know about her mother.
Anne reaches down to touch Katherine’s cheek.
ANNE BOLEYN: Sweet, Kate. (She bitterly laughs.) Such an innocent you are.
(Margaret drags a stool to sit near them.)
MARGARET LEE: Now Nan, Kate maybe young, but she means what she says.
(Anne bounds up and looks wildly around.)
ANNE BOLEYN: Who’s to say that the King will not strip my child of all that reminds him of me?
MARGARET LEE: (standing to face Anne) For that to happen, he would need to destroy his Kingdom and build it over. England is a new country because of you; we are no longer puppets to the papacy. It was you who set us free.
ANNE BOLEYN: Politics, Meg? Do you think I care one jot about politics on this night of all nights? (She wrings her hands). But Elizabeth – what of Elizabeth? My child will be mother-less, and without my protection. (Anne laughs uncontrollably.) I’ll be well and truly dead, before the sun sets on the morrow. (She wraps her arms around herself.) He will not want you or anyone to speak my name, especially to Bess; he will want me forgotten…
Margaret embraces Anne, kissing her cheek.
MARGARET LEE: Dear heart, is that surprising? The King will spend the rest of his life trying to forget you, trying to forget until his last breath that his hands are stained with your blood. He knows you are innocent and does but murder here. Why else the mercy of the French executioner, so skilled with the sword? Believe me, the king has the wit to understand he goes far enough without stirring up more reason for hate. He cares for Bess, too. The King will tell himself that your daughter is compensated for loss of her mother by having the protection and nurture of her mother’s kin. And, never fear, we will speak of you….
(Anne sits, reaching out to take the hands of Margaret and Katherine.)
ANNE BOLEYN: Forgive me. I do not deserve you both. Thank you for wanting to be with me …and for not letting me go alone to my death. (She bends down to Katherine and lifts her face so they look at one another.) You’re young to witness a bloody death like mine will be. I would not blame you if you’d rather stay in this chamber. Meg and I have shared the good and bad from the beginnings of our lives. I love her as much as I love your mother. (Laughs a little.) Tell her, she had the right of it. Work not for the King’s love; just bed with him, wait until his passion is spent and then bow off the stage for a freer life. (Anne cradles her head between her hands.) She did not sink in the quicksand of ambition and pride, or cause our brother to be done so horribly to death. (She inhales a deep breath, holding her hands before her as if in prayer.) I digress. Kate, it is enough Meg is willing to see me to the end.
(Katherine shakes her head.)
KATHERINE CAREY: You will not make me change my mind. I am of your close blood; I will not fail you, or make you ashamed. (She laughs a little.) Forgive me, I cannot lie and say I’ll not weep tomorrow; I pray to God to be brave. (She knots her hands before her, staring out to space.) I pray God to honour you and promise to be a true witness to your unjust, cruel death.
ANNE BOLEYN: (She puts her hands around her throat.) Kate, my neck is so little; the king’s well paid headman will have an easy job of it. Think you what history will call me in years to come: Queen Anne-lack-a-head. (Peals with laughter.)
(Margaret gets up and pours water into a goblet. She puts her hand on Anne’s shoulder. Anne ceases laughing and looks up. Margaret puts the goblet into Anne’s hand.)
MARGARET LEE: Drink, dear fool. (Her voice is choked with emotion.) Pray stop this before you make yourself ill.
(Anne obediently sips. She stares down into the empty goblet.)
ANNE BOLEYN: I lost my courage when they told me my execution was postponed until tomorrow. Meg, I was tempted to beg you to bring me the escape of poison, rather than risk breaking down on the scaffold.
MARGARET LEE: Nan!
ANNE BOLEYN: Like our Kate here, I will speak no falsehoods, not so close to meeting my maker and owning to all my sins. At least I know my innocence will not be questioned there. And, truly, Meg, it was only for a moment. The last thing I can give my daughter is the knowledge her mother made a good death. As long as I remember that, I will have no trouble dying well. (She laughs.) The King, my dear husband, has been ever been constant in his career of advancing me, from private gentlewoman he made me Marchioness, from Marchioness a Queen and now he honours me by giving my innocency the crown of martyrdom. No other Queen of England could say the same.
(Katherine gets up and brings to Anne a lute.)
KATHERINE CAREY: Will you not play, Aunt?
Anne stares at the lute.
ANNE BOLEYN: Do you really wish it?
KATHERINE CAREY: I love it when you sing. I beg you, please sing for us tonight.
(Taking the lute, Anne laughs.)
ANNE BOLEYN: My husband once said my voice belonged to an angel. Little did I realise that he believed it so well that he would ensure a place for me in the Heavenly choir.
MARGARET LEE: Don’t think of the king. My brother Tom and you played so many songs together. Why not play and sing one of those tonight?
(Anne swings around to Margaret.)
ANNE BOLEYN: You told the truth before – Tom’s safe?
MARGARET LEE: I heard the news from Father’s own lips. He worked every day to secure Tom’s release. (She laughs.) You know my brother; all he has to do is write a poem for the world to love him. Even Cromwell likes him too much to feed his fine head to the ravens.
ANNE BOLEYN: I am glad of it. Tom has shared enough of my woes without sharing my enemies, too. He warned me I’d find myself bailed up by the hunting dogs one day. I always thought I could dance myself out of any trap set for me. But when I miscarried my son I lost all heart to dance. By the time I looked around myself, the time for dancing was well over. (She bends her head in grief.) I wish my brother had never taken it upon himself to dance this dance with me, or the four good men who died so bravely because they were my friends.
MARGARET LEE: Cromwell knew their loyalty to you. Leave any of them alive with you dead and Cromwell would have been murdered in his bed before the month is out. Tom could have easily drawn the same short straw. Father said he had a bad time convincing him not to seek out his own death, or for vengeance. Father reminded him that his son is the same age as our Kate – old enough to wield a sword, old enough to dance at the end of a rope. My brother mouthed the words of gratitude that Cromwell wanted to hear. He’ll be released after your execution. Father says Thomas is broken hearted.
ANNE BOLEYN: I’ve always made your brother heartsore. When you give Tom my hour book, make certain he reads my message straight away. I do not want him to grieve for me. And my child…Tell her not to cry. Tell her she was the greatest consolation and joy of my life. Nothing else matters but her. I would do it all again, aye, even face another dawn break knowing death waits for me before the new day is old, for my Elizabeth. Oh – to hold my child in my arms once more…
(CHURCH BELLS TOLL. The women huddle closer together, listening to the bells striking out of the twelfth hour. The bells become silent, as if sharing the women’s silence. Anne moves, preparing to play her lute.)
ANNE BOLEYN: Kate asked for a song…Forgive me, I can sing no happy song while I wait for morning…
Oh death rock me asleep,
Bring me on my quiet rest,
Let pass my very guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Ring out the doleful knell,
Let its sound my death tell;
For I must die,
There is no remedy,
For now I die…
Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell to joy, adieu comfort.
For wrongfully you judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it may not be,
Ye seek for that shall not be found
(FADING SONG OVERLAPS THIS SCENE BLACKING OUT AND THE GROWING LIGHT OF THE EPILOGUE.)
Growing AMBER LIGHT, as from candles lighting, one by one, reveals two men. One bends over a ring he holds between two fingers.
James I: Ye canna know how long I have waited for this. The auld queen took her time a-dying.
Robert Cecil: Your majesty – Queen Elizabeth was always one to choose her own time and place. I have no doubt that Queen Bess could have lived longer, except she chose not to. She was the last remaining relic of a golden age.
James I: Away with ye, man. Are ye doubting that I can do no better than that auld biddy? You English have given me a warm enough welcome this night. Seems to me you have missed having a true King – one who does not wear petticoats and has the dogs at it, sniffing to see if they can get a leg up and make a lie of one who wears virginity as a too cold armour.
Robert Cecil: Majesty, if I could be so bold, it might be wisest to speak carefully about our departed monarch. While it was well passed the time for change – still, we English are sentimental. We’ll remember our virgin Queen fondly for a good time yet.
James I (looking at the ring again): It looks worse for wear. Ach, I am in two minds whether I should be accepting such damaged goods.
Robert Cecil: I am afraid we had to saw it off the queen’s finger. She never took it off in all the forty-four years of her reign. It was embedded into her flesh when she died.
James I: Ach, man, did you know the ring top opens?
Robert Cecil: Does it, Your Grace?
James I: Why, this is a wonderment; there are two portraits inside. Here’s our Bessie. What a nose she had! Fit for a ship’s prow. Who’s this young woman?
Robert Cecil approaches the King and peers at the ring.
Robert Cecil: Why…it’s the queen’s mother, your Grace.
James I: Anne Boleyn, the whore? Are you certain?
Robert Cecil: My father pointed out her portrait to me as a boy; I remember it well because my father spoke about the woman in glowing terms. He rarely gave praise, and only when it was deserved. He said England owed a great debt to her. (He gazes at the ring). The queen rarely spoke of her.
James I: Why then, in God’s name would she wear a ring with her mother’s portrait everyday of her life?
Robert Cecil (shrugging): My King, we can only guess.
Copyright © 2013 by Wendy J. Dunn
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