Culture and Zeitgeist Watch: Everywhere you look, it's Cromwellmania! (Or, what makes Thomas C a man for our time?)
 Peter Kosminsky and Mark Rylance on Wolf Hall
 Mark Rylance on creating his Thomas Cromwell
In the longish first clip Mark Rylance, who plays Thomas Cromwell, and director Peter Kosminsky talk about their TV miniseries Wolf Hall, in an interview in the Tower of London which was aired on BBC the night before the series' final episode. In the shorter second clip, Mark talks about creating his Cromwell.
"To all the qualities that make him such a remarkable actor, we must now add that Mark Rylance is a great lurker. . . . [As Cromwell] Rylance can watch proceedings in so many ways -- anxiously, quizzically, with an air of quiet satisfaction or wry amusement or detached contempt -- that shots of him looking are often as intensely dramatic and as informative as any scene of scripted dialogue. They tell us who Cromwell is -- a man who makes his way in a vicious world by observing more sharply, scrutinizing more carefully, creating scenarios and watching how those he must please or destroy will act them out. The cliché is vindicated: Rylance’s eyes are windows through which we catch glimpses of Cromwell’s soul."
-- Fintan O'Toole, in "The Explosions from Wolf Hall,"
in the May 21 New York Review of Books
in the May 21 New York Review of Books
I guess it was only to be expected: the Cromwell T-shirts, mugs, and tote bags; the bobble-head dolls, and action figures; the lunchboxes, video games, and theme parks. Everywhere you go it's Cromwell, Cromwell, Cromwell.
Personally, I hadn't paid much attention to Wolf Hall either in book form, onstage, or on-screen. I had in fact read a couple of glowing reviews of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the historical novels Hilary Mantel has completed to date chronicling the world of Henry VIII up to the execution of Queen No. 2, Anne Boleyn -- the first of Henry's queens who didn't have the sense to go quietly. I guess by now I'd been Tudor-ed out by Showtime's The Tudors, which seemed to be the Henry VIII story if it had been written by Jacqueline "Valley of the Dolls" Susann, except much tackier -- and I suspect much faster and looser with the facts than Ms. Susann would have been if she'd written it. And The Tudors itself was just the latest in a long line of film and TV retellings of various parts of the Henry VIII story, which Fintan O'Toole, literary editor of the Irish Times, recaps in the above-referenced NYRB piece. The story, he says,
has always been too rich to let lie between the covers of history books. It has everything: sex, violence, and religion; the lurid, the tragic, and the grotesque.At least I knew about the Hilary Mantel books. Beyond that, though, I was fairly confused by the arrivals of a two-part six-hour stage version by the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose landing on Broadway was being announced even as a six-part TV adaptation came on PBS. I kind of guessed that they weren't the same thing, but I didn't care to find out more about them -- until I got around to reading the amazing Fintan O'Toole piece -- just in time to catch the last two episodes of the series. On the basis of which I can tell you that O'Toole's perspective on Mark Rylance's performance is as brilliant as the performance itself.
An immediate point O'Toole makes is that what Rylance is able to be seen doing on-screen isn't possible onstage, no matter how fine the actor -- and he allows that the RSC's Ben Miles is a "fine" one.
The stage has no place for lurking. There is no camera to draw us away from the main action and toward the drab figure standing almost in the wings. We are the watchers -- we are not interested in having someone do our looking for us. If sumptuously dressed couples are dancing a gavotte, our eyes feast on them and miss the still man on the margins. If a queen is about to be beheaded, we are not interested in the bureaucrat half-hidden in the curious crowd. If we are ever to know what is going on in that figure’s mind, he must, at some point, tell us directly or else we must be allowed to overhear him confiding in someone else.O'Toole quotes a note provided by Mantel for Ben Miles, included in the published version of Mike Poulton's script:
But neither of these strategies would really work for a stage version of Cromwell. Having him address the audience would make a man whose essence is discretion and self-containment far too up-front.
No one knows where you have been, or who you know, or what you can do, and these areas of mystery, on which you cast no light, are the source of your power…. People open their hearts to you. They tell you all sorts of things. But you tell them nothing."Some of the most memorable images in the books," O'Toole writes, "are formed in Cromwell’s head: his reflections, his plotting, his private anguish, and, most of all, his barely contained laughter." In the screen version, he says, adapted by Peter Straughan, "we can get "some notion of what is in Cromwell’s head by tracing the flickers of fear or triumph or humor that the camera catches on Rylance’s long, melancholic, and otherwise impassive face." But you can't do that onstage.
So Cromwell doesn’t have confidants. His beloved wife Liz dies of the “sweating sickness” early in the story, along with his two daughters, and he does not replace her. He will not be exposed by personal intimacy and he knows all too well that he lives in a world where confidences are betrayed. He spends too much time filching other people’s privacies to risk exposing his own. He trusts his ward Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory but his attitude toward them is paternal and protective. He does not burden them with his doubts or his yearnings, which means that we are not allowed much access to them either.
O'Toole examines differences between all aspects of the TV and stage versions, then tells us that the difference can encompass "the way they are written, acted, and directed," and offers the example of "a superbly conceived scene that is, on paper, very similar in both adaptations."
Cromwell has been sent by Henry to tell Katherine that the king is to be declared head of the church in England, giving him the power to annul their marriage. Katherine is seated but her frail daughter Mary, who is to be made a bastard, is standing beside her chair. Cromwell sees that Mary is ill and suggests that she sit on a stool. Katherine, wishing to show their resolve, insists that Mary stand. After some bitter dialogue, Mary faints. Cromwell is ready for this -- he reacts instantly and gets her safely onto the stool.I don't think this PBS preview will really give you a full idea of what O'Toole is talking about, because at minimum you would need to see how he builds and sustains a scene, but it gives us something.
What is going on in this small scene? The story is progressing, of course -- we are learning of Katherine’s unflinching determination to insist on her royal rights and of the problem of what to do with Mary. But we are also learning about Cromwell. The underlying dramatic question is how much we are learning. On stage, we are learning two things -- that Cromwell is essentially kind and that he anticipates what is about to happen. Ben Miles takes hold of Leah Brotherhead’s tiny, fragile Mary and sets her gently onto the stool. It is a straightforward act of decency.
On screen, the scene tells us many other things. Yes, Cromwell is being kind to Mary. But he is also in a battle of political wills with her mother, who is still a queen and who still expects to be obeyed. On stage, Cromwell asks Mary gently, “Won’t you sit, Lady?” On screen, he addresses not Mary but his adversary, her mother: “Madam, your daughter should sit.” Before Mary actually faints, he moves decisively to grab the heavy stool and places it next to her. He more or less commands her: “Will you not sit down, Princess Mary?” And then, to allay her embarrassment, he says gently, “It’s just the heat.”
In the way Rylance plays this scene, we see not just that Cromwell’s instincts are kind, but that his kindness has come to be wrapped up in political strategy. He is controlling the room, asserting himself against the queen, and he is being nice to a princess who may be down today but who, in this topsy-turvy world, may have power over him someday. On screen, this one small scene has layers of motivation and psychological drama that it lacks on stage.
BUT WHY THOMAS CROMWELL, AND WHY NOW?
Contrary to the impression created by columnist Jim Dwyer in a NYT piece ("Suddenly, after 500 years of infamy and obscurity, here comes Thomas Cromwell"), says O'Toole, Thomas Cromwell is hardly new to us. He has figured, after all, in all those film and TV adaptations of the part of the story where he is ascendant, and generally considered the second most powerful man in England, behind the king -- and effectively the man who is running the country, subject of course to overruling by the king, overruling that is all to apt to take the form of extinction, as Cromwell has seen happen to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey (a reality that seems always in the consciousness of Rylance's Cromwell).
Cromwell has certainly been a hate figure for Catholics -- the schemer who took England away from the true faith and the killer of the saintly Thomas More. In the protest culture of the 1960s, it was easy to see More as the brave dissident and Cromwell as the evil apparatchik: Cromwell is More’s persecutor in A Man for All Seasons and an utterly unscrupulous upstart in Anne of a Thousand Days.And he tracks us through some of the pro-Cromwell treatments of the story, reminding us how much the view of all of these characters depends on the viewpoint of the person doing the looking. The sainted Thomas More, for example, is a heroic martyr to Catholics, his "relentless pursuit of heretics" made him far from a universally loved figure. This too seems to me a terrific takeaway, the way in which the sympathies of the chronicler affect the shape and manner of the chronicle.
But precisely because he was a villain to Catholics, he has also long been a hero to Protestants. . .&. .
There's no question that Hilary Mantel likes Cromwell -- and again, both the RSC stage version and the Masterpiece TV version are retelling her story of these events. But this, O'Toole argues, surely isn't a matter of religious sympathies. "There is no religious shortcut to engagement with these dramas," O'Tooole says, "no assumption that Catholics will hiss Cromwell and cheer More and that Protestants will do the opposite. Some other connection must be forged."
THIS CROMWELL IS, MORE OR LESS, ONE OF US
This is the part I really wanted you to read.
What makes Mantel’s Cromwell appealing to readers, audiences, and TV viewers is that he is rather like most of them. He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell would have been of limited interest. His virtues -- hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else -- would have been dismissed as mere bourgeois orthodoxies. If they were not so boring they would have been contemptible. They were, in a damning word, safe.
But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell -- he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s weakness but in his extraordinary strength. He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. He is a survivor of an abusive childhood, a teenage tearaway made good, a self-made man solely reliant on his own talents and entrepreneurial energies. He could be the hero of a sentimental American story of the follow-your-dreams genre. Except for the twist -- meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?
STILL TO COME: THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF?
Of course, as we all know (don't we?), Cromwell's streak didn't last forever. And as director Peter Kosminsky and Rylance note in the first clip up top, Hilary Mantel is still at work on a third volume in her series. O'Toole notes that The Mirror and the Light "will take Cromwell to his own execution." In the clip, we can see Kosminsky all but salivating over the prospect of directing an extension of the story which culminates in that dramatic event. I'm guessing that Rylance would make himself available for such an enterprise -- and we can have one further burst of Cromwellmania.