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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell

Djelloul Marbrook: “Wolf Hall”and the Grandeur of Anonymity


Silence plays a greater role in poetry and music than sound, its grandeur being its anonymity.


Let me introduce living proof. He is the prince of silence and his silence has as much to teach us about silence as Max Picard has with words in his famous meditation, The World of Silence.


The British actor, Mark Rylance, not well known to American audiences, plays Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” now running at The Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan and on Masterpiece Theater on PBS television. He plays him as a man who values silence over words.


As Rylance plays Henry VIII’s counselor and friend, silence is not the absence of words or sound, it’s the context in which decisions are made. Rylance’s Cromwell is not just a judicious man who knows when to hold his tongue, he’s a man who knows that everything is meaningless without silence. He achieves high drama by simply breaking silence, and he instinctively knows silence’s permission must be obtained, something all too many poets fail to grasp.


Musical notes, punctuation, intonation, body language, demeanor are all meaningless if not in the context of silence, as a dancer’s grace is unidentifiable without stillness. We sometimes read about the uses of silence, but that’s an insolent, pretentious idea; we must be willing to allow silence to use us.


Anne Boleyn, attempting to recruit Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, to her side, is greeted not just with his silence but with an unfathomable stare in which a less confident aristocrat might have lost her composure. This Cromwell is not to be drawn into anything, and yet his silence is that of the blank page. It conveys only a space and time in which something might or might not happen. It’s not stingy, it’s not daunting, it’s just there.


And it’s this thereness that the mercurial Henry comes to prize. It’s this thereness that makes Rylance’s Cromwell indispensable. The world can no longer be imagined without him, and part of Henry’s ultimate descent into darkness is his decision to execute Cromwell. Cromwell’s death is part of the curtain of darkness descending on Henry. But this thereness is unimaginable without his contagious quietude. He says nothing for effect because he is in fact the effect. And Henry grasps this. Henry is sick of sycophants, however much he needs them, because he gets nothing from them but a sense of what they want from him.


Any poets or musicians or singers seeking today to understand the nature of their art in an increasingly loud world owes it to themselves to study Rylance’s Cromwell. The world is the accompaniment of silence, and Rylance conveys this even more memorably than Picard wrote about it.


The question belongs to the questioner, the answer to the answerer, and the would-be answerer is under no obligation to answer. But not of course in Henry’s dangerous court, where silence could be construed as insult or conspiracy. And this very diciness makes Rylance’s performance all the more compelling. He is always asking himself what the moment requires, but his face betrays none of it, lest it come across as wiliness. He’s merely listening, and what comes across, if his interlocutor is willing, is a kind of respect. Rylance’s Cromwell is not hankering to say something, to be heard, to up the ante. He’s taking in what he’s been told, and if you suspect him of an agenda then you have to consider how obvious your own agenda is.


This is superb acting, and the critics agree, but it’s his silence that writers and musicians should savor. We’ve all experienced a face that doesn’t comport with the words that issue from it. It’s disconcerting, misleading. Rylance’s face is in perfect harmony with what he does and doesn’t say. He’s like Renoir’s women looking at you across time from the painting. There is the famous Renoir Dance at Bougival painting in which a young woman is looking over her partner’s shoulder straight at you, the viewer. She is looking over time and space and a sea of happenstance at you. Rylance’s Cromwell similarly is looking not only at his theatrical interlocutor but at the onlooker, and we are setting sail on this fathomless sea of his gaze. Everything that will happen and is happening happens in the context of this silent gaze.


It’s impossible for what he then says not to sink in, and that’s exactly what punctuation and meter and foot and musical notes want from the blank page and its silence. You can’t watch his Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” without learning something about your art.


copyright © 2015 Djelloul Marbrook

first published in Vox Populi


Djelloul Marbrook (Del in the newspaper business) worked for The Providence Journal as a reporter and bureau manager (five years) and as an editor for The Elmira Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal (under former New York Times man Wallace Carroll), The National Journal, The Washington Star, and The Washington Times, and as executive editor of a chain of dailies in northeastern Ohio and northern New Jersey. 

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