Follow the 2014 English Literature and Theater in London program as they review theater productions, produce art, and experience London.

I Believe in Cromwell

March 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm
By Jeremy Fisher

Reading Wolf Hall, I was unconvinced that anyone could enjoy the book. Sure, there were charming moments, some pretty imagery. On the whole, though, it was a slog of endless details, and no character development, despite an army of characters. Whereas some people ‘got used’ to the writing style, for me, none of the details seemed to fall into a larger narrative. I abhorred the present tense – and varying tense could have been an effective way to indicate pro- and analepsis; I hated the ambiguous ‘he’; and I was incensed at the grammar. (Though, to be fair, I only noticed a few outright mistakes; she mistakes ‘who’ with ‘whom’ occasionally. I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t already biased against her. E.g.: “…any well-connected princess whom he thinks might give him a son.” pg 19) Above all, the most frustrating part of this novel was the lack of overview.  Mantell writes with details, eschewing overviews. I often lost track of characters, of locations, and chronology. I did an immense amount of backtracking, and the nonlinear chronology didn’t help. 

With its dramatization at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, none of this criticism applies. I don’t think it could apply, since you can’t directly translate ambiguous or poor writing to the stage. The jumping chronology was stabilized: flashbacks to Cromwell’s childhood come from dialog and flashbacks to Wolsey and Liz were changed into conversations with their ghosts, which was clearly indicated by lighting. Extraneous characters were eliminated, as it would be impossible to find enough actors to play all the characters in the book (or fit them on the stage).

The production allowed me to place the multitude of details I had picked up from the novel into a cohesive narrative. I don’t think I’ll reread the novels; I’m reminded too much of the times I threw the book in frustration for introducing yet another character or detail whose significance I couldn’t determine. But I’m convinced by the production that there is a story to be enjoyed somewhere in these 1,000 odd pages, for those who figure out how to read it. Adaptations will make good use of the book, but I won’t recommend the book itself unless they’ve seen the play – or read some good overview.

Cromwell’s story is flawed, but this dramatic adaptation sheds the extraneous literary weight. I am convinced: I believe in Cromwell.