The announcement that the West End rock musical SIX, about the wives of Henry VIII, will be transferring to Chicago for what is probably a stealth pre-Broadway tryout has finally nudged me to write a post I’ve been meaning to write since first listening to the album on Spotify. It is about how much I loathe the musical’s depiction of Catherine Howard.
Catherine Howard is, in my opinion, the saddest story of Henry’s wives– though this is the question that the musical asks the audience to adjudicate, because pitting women against each other is very feminist. Its ultimately-barely-subverted premise of the wives duking it out in a ‘who had it worst’ contest takes what could be an interesting and pointed historical and political critique of that whole Henry mess and our fascination with it, and reduces it down to a scale of individual experience and responsibility. Catherine Howard’s song exemplifies this, and why this is a framing that cannot escape becoming subtly but extremely sexist.
So, Catherine Howard: married Henry when she was 16 or 17, was executed for treason less than two years later, after a new law was introduced specifically to find her guilty of treason because she’d lost her virginity to another man but failed to tell Henry, and supposedly committed adultery with another courtier.
Howard’s historically dubious sexual past is exploded, in her solo in SIX, into the persona of a teenage coquette who preens about her superior beauty and proceeds to lay out, in an admittedly catchy song, the series of sexual liaisons that brought her to being beheaded by Henry. It’s the kind of set-up that one is tempted to describe as inappropriate in a ‘post-#MeToo’ world, but really it would have been terrible at any point, we just have no excuse to pretend otherwise now.
Howard gigglingly opens by telling us that “ever since I was a child / I’d make the boys go wild,” before launching into the tale of her first sexual encounter: she was “thirteen going on thirty” when she had a liaison with her 23-year-old (historically 36) music teacher. The lyrics take pains to insist that this encounter was consensual, if not actively instigated by Howard– who was, again, thirteen years old. In this context, the series of sexualized music puns about g-chords and “pluck[ing] strings … from C to D” become appalling.
Next up is Francis Dereham, whom the historical Howard appeared to have wanted to marry, and who was part of the pretense for her treason accusation. She was 15, he was around 25– though the song dispenses with specific ages from this point forward.
Arguably, Howard, comes to a realization in the final verse of the song, when her disappointment at being seduced by Thomas Culpeper– the courtier with whom she was accused of adultery, who the song frames as someone she saw as just a friend– transforms into frustration at always being a sexual object. But this is in direct contrast to the tone established the first three-quarters of the song, where the sex jokes, musical style, and performance establish Howard as a voracious pursuer despite her age.
The finale confirms that the creative team ultimately see Howard as a victim of her own bad decisions. A fantasy of happy endings for the wives, this song is like the musical version of counseling women not to get raped rather than telling men not to rape them. Each wife sings a verse about how her life, in this alternate universe, turned out differently– and in each case, it’s because she, not Henry, made a different choice. It’s agency, I guess, but in preposterous, victim-blaming terms. Katherine of Aragon chooses to leave Henry before he can leave her, Anne rejects his initial advances, and most appallingly, Catherine’s downfall is linked to her music teacher, and her happy ending comes by rejecting him. If only she’d had the presence of mind not to be molested! Then it all would have turned out fine.
I feel confident assuming that SIX’s creative team wanted to give their female leads agency, and think that they’ve done so. That’s the definition of Howard’s version of the story, after all: she’s not a victim! She chose to sleep with all those men twice her age! But as the fantasy finale reveals, the difficulty of telling the stories of the wives is finding a place for strength and agency in a culture within which they fundamentally have no power. The only thing that could have changed their stories is not being forced to marry Henry. But the creative team takes an exciting opportunity to use fantasy and anachronism to offer a serious subversion of the stories we have told about Henry’s wives, and of the patriarchal culture that both caused and is fascinated by their downfalls– and instead offers shallow girl-power posing that perpetuates harmful stereotypes rather than challenging them.