Wolf Hall: Review

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The chief tool of the new tyranny, a dirty fellow named Thomas Cromwell, was specially singled out as the tyrant, and he was indeed turning all government into a nightmare. – G. K. Chesterton

When you choose an historic period as a backdrop for your story and you fill it with historical inaccuracies to bend the plot to a new view (and the audience’s craving for novelty), then its clear you have something about today that you want to say and want to be taken seriously and fairly about your view. In this case, the author wants you and I to take sides against the Catholic church by using one of its chief persecutors as the central voice and tries to make him a sympathetic player toward it in the beginning of his career .(so we can assume some balance in his actions later and thus the rightness of the author’s view) That sympathetic player is Thomas Cromwell, a Catholic butcher’s son turned lawyer/clark, Protestant, and eventually, Lord Chancellor and Lord Privy Seal to England’s Henry VIII.

If Henry VIII and his ancient-titled Catholic counselors represent the aristocracy, then the wiley, poker-faced Cromwell and his kind, symbolize the rising meritocracy (that same which would flower under his daughter Elizabeth’s reign where Protestantism and merchant capitalism bedded together and spread their seed throughout the Kingdom and beyond into our day). Neither group really likes the other, but they find each other useful to gain an end. And in this case, the end is a male heir for the English throne so that each side can keep enriching themselves at the other’s expense. The alternative is the expense of war. And no one, despite their different reasons, wants that. Throwing out the fact that there have been successful female rulers in Europe – Henry’s daughter, Mary’s own grandmother and even queens of England’s past – the men are intent on the chess game of moving heaven (the Catholic Church), at least for awhile, in order to get a Prince on earth. Indeed, most of the action surrounds the men and not the women except for a rather one dimensional portrait of Anne Boleyn as “Instigator of all men’s woes” in this uncertain time. And so, oddly, from this incarnation of Cromwell, the author leads us to believe these men, who feel the pain of family loss of those they favor, can be understood and forgiven their heinous and brutal actions against those they don’t favor. We are to forgive and understand these men driven as animals intent in the relentless search for power and monetary security, not the searching for God and the cleansing of souls that they pretend on the surface of things. Or so, it is suggested to us in the actions of this play…

Of course, the title of the piece, “Wolf Hall”, literally refers to the ancestral home (Wulfhall) of the Seymours, where Henry meets the woman, Jane, who does eventually give him a “legal” heir to the throne. Yet one can also see the corridor of time the author takes us through to get there from Catherine of Aragon’s abandonment to Anne Bolelyn’s unjust execution, is filled with the snarls and teeth-barring actions of vicious, ravenous wolvish souls, not men. They dwell for a certain period of time in a “wolf hall”.  They are indeed willing to be, for all their visible outward calm, aggressive as animals in pursuing their aim. Their lives in this pursuit step outside the stable abode of the Church as they have known it, and are willing to live in this wolvish hall way in-between what they have known as the power of the Church and God and what will come to be the first incarnation of a particular brand of Protestantism, Anglicanism, literally a State religion with Henry the earthly king as its tyrannical and supreme Head.

By the author creating a different slant of history from the view of a non-emotional clark with a skill for equanimity  who seems a likable husband and a loyal employee, we are entertainingly manipulated to forget he later persecuted thousands of decent, hard-working, god-fearing men, women and children, executing whole families by torturing some, then hanging most of them for believing differently than he did, fomenting a trial against an innocent, albeit power-hungry woman and executing her along with several other innocent men, helping break up the marriage of an anointed and crowned Queen through divorce while he persecuted her child, the true and legal heir of the kingdom, as well as taking bribes and enriching himself by corruption through the confiscated property of the monasteries, not all of which were steeped in the corruption of which they were accused.

I haven’t finished all of Wolf Hall yet, but its an entertaining ride so far into the land of historic make-believe and I’m hooked. Even if the actors seem a bit oddly cast, the costumes are some of the most authentic I’ve seen for the time period.  I can acknowledge the skill of someone who can take the truth and give it another spin to serve another crowd. That’s always interesting when it comes to entertainment.

But taken as reliable history? Not on the turning of a body in the grave.

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