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The Big Gay Episode

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***


TERRIBLE TUDORS

The scene: a crowded market street. Hawkers hawk and gawkers gawk and a white typeface scripts itself across the television screen to inform us of the place and time:

London, it reads in Courier New, 1592.

A band of minstrels pipe a somewhat jaunty tune on fife and drum, as at the apex of the street a man struts out. We only see him from the shoes up, dodging the dinge and dung of the London streets as he half-dances, flirting with everyone who passes. The camera pans up his boots and hose to the generous codpiece of his tunic, which is parted all the way down his chest to reveal his ruffled shift. Around his neck, he wears the occult symbol for Mars, God and Planet of War, but one knows from his demeanor and the drawl of “Verily, baby, verily,” from his goatee-framed lips that he is a lover, not a fighter--

--or that, pray, is the deception he wishes you to purport.

When we at last see his eyes, and his abundance of Elizabethan hair, the pipers pipe and we are graced with five pelvic thrusts and a pose that emphasizes this man’s virility as the title screen rolls in:

CHRIFTOFER MARLOWE, Internatyonal Man of Myfterie

“Do I make thy loins quicken, baby?” he asks the camera, knowing full well the answer. “Do I arouse thine ardor?”

He dances through the streets of Swinging 1590s London, swiveling his hips and buttocks in the latest galliard. No passing youth is spared the magnanimous attention of Kit Marlowe, avowed sodomite, atheist, and probable spy for the English crown. Considering that the minstrels seem to be following him everywhere, so too does the dancing, and soon Kit is bumping and grinding with the lads of the land, even in the sight of uppity, black-clad puritans.

Said uppity puritans glower, and give Kit and his entourage enough pause to stop dancing.

They stare.

And then they join in, as Kit froogs off down the street.

“Come live with me, baby, and be my love!” he says as he scribbles. On paper the next line reads and we will all the pleafuref prowe, without a single baby in sight. (We shall forgive him some performance practice.) The verse gathers him a close retinue of reveling Elizabethans, including a strapping man who eyes Kit up and down with obviously pricked intent.

“Oh, fie,” Kit says, with a solicitous little growl.

The coterie dances up the street to find Sir Francis Bacon, thronged with a half-dozen Ganymedes of just-recently-viripotent bearing. Kit’s entourage merges with his, and the men greet each other with knowing quips.

“I say, Sir Francis,” quoth Kit, “dost thou care to share thy Method?”

“Aye, Kit,” says Sir Francis, “I call it Inductive Reasoning. I reason that this strapping youth wants for a place in my service, and so I induct him!”

One of the drumming minstrels provides a rimshot. But Kit laughs, and so does the combined throng, and they proceed down the street commingled in their dancing.

The motley coterie continues swinging from inroad to inn-road, when a group of students spills out of a nearby tavern. Among them is aspiring poet and Elizabethan jailbait Richard Barnfield, whose twinkling eyes and short doublet don’t escape Kit’s or Sir Francis’s notice.

“Master Marlowe!” Richard cheers. He doesn’t quite dance, but that doesn’t mean Sir Francis isn’t watching his behind twitch with obvious interest. “Master Marlowe, I have a new poem in the works.”

“Most wondrous, baby, aye,” Kit says. “Let us attend.”

Richard clears his throat, and begins, over the piping of the pipers. “If it be sin to love a sweet-faced boy,
Whose amber locks trust up in golden trammels
Dangle adown his lovely cheek with joy
When pearl and flowers his faire hair enamels;
If it be sin to love a lovely lad
Oh then sin I, for whom my soul is sad.”

“So sin we all,” says Sir Francis. “Boy, pray tell me thy name, for if thou sinnest, I must share in the same.”

“Richard Barnfield, if it please you, sir.”

Sir Francis drapes his arm across Richard’s shoulders and leans in. “How dost thou take Inductive Reasoning?”

Before we can hear Richard’s answer, the minstrels redouble their efforts, for they seem to have come to a snag at the side of the road. Kit, hips thrusting with aplomb, struts over to where William Shakespeare (played by Mathew Baynton, as usual) is watching this display with some bemusement. When a reveler jostles him, Will slips, limping into Kit’s arms.

Kit laughs, “Prithee, sweet William, dost thou swing?”

“Dost thou jest?” Will strikes a gallant pose. “I swing both ways!”

Will and Kit lead the dance (though Will is a little slow in the leg, his enthusiasm makes up for any lack of skill), which has started to seem rather choreographed, considering that the amateur scientists, students, playwrights, and puritans are doing more or less the same steps, and some are waving brightly-colored banners. In fact, there seems to be a parade.

Or a procession.

And a procession, in the streets of Swinging London, can mean one of three things: plague, a funeral, or royalty.

An enormous carriage rolls by, scattering the dancers. Indeed, the horses nearly run over Will and Kit, who just barely make their escape to find themselves nudged compromisingly against the nearest wall.

James VI of Scotland (and the future James I of England, not that he can get his hopes up for another few years) sticks his head out the carriage door.

Everyone kneels. The minstrels cease their playing. Indeed, the very dirt of the street is still in the monarch’s presence.

“Ha-ha!” King James laughs. “I havenae seen this many fine young men on their knees for me since Edinburgh. Carry on!”

“Verily, baby,” says Kit, who starts the music up again with a grin and a snap of his hips. “Verily.”

The carriage rolls on down the road, swaying to the beat, and London, as ever, swings.

***

Rattus Rattus, sitting on a carriage wheel, surveys the scene, does a few dance moves, and then addresses the audience:

Oh, sorry. Just doing my new favorite dance: the Flea. He scratches himself behind the ear. That’s better. Hallo! And welcome to a not-so-special-after-all edition of Horrible Histories: the Big Gay Episode! I say ‘gay’, but I don’t mean happy--I mean ‘concerned with people who enjoy relationships with others of the same sex’. But the term’s an anachronism. Even if you hear it an awful lot on the street, ‘gay’ wasn’t used to describe homosexuality until the early twentieth century. There are plenty of people throughout history who we, today, would describe as gay, but they didn’t think of themselves that way at all. Like Marlowe and Shakespeare! While Marlowe almost definitely cavorted with boys, and Shakespeare may have written a lot of his sonnets to another man, you’d be hard-pressed to make them think of the things they want as the things they are. It usually went a little more like this:

***


FABULOUS FRENCH

We find ourselves in the unspeakably ornate palaces of Versailles, in the year 1671. The white and gold walls are hung with an immeasurable wealth of tapestries, and blocked by an immeasurable worthiness of folding screens, hiding behind them an incalculable redolence of filth. The people in this chamber are much the same: powdered and befripperied men and women of station, the wittiest and loveliest in all of France. And loveliest among them (save King Louis XIV, the Sun King, who is not in this room, thank god, for he would outshine it up to the brightest sapphire shoe-buckle) is Philippe d’Orleans.

“Duke Philippe!” a chamberlain cries as he flings open the double doors with a grand gesture, “Your bride approaches.”

Duke Philippe turns from one of the tapestries, laughing gaily into a handkerchief. Behind the handkerchief, and beneath his prodigious black wig, he is festooned with the finest brocades and laces, beslippered in heeled shoes of gold and ruby, and besmacked with a layer of white lead paint that, years later, would inspire Marcel Marceu.

“Whatever,” he says. “She is the ugly one, no?”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“And please, call me Monsieur, everyone does!” He laughs, as if this is the funniest thing ever.

The courtiers join him, eerily reminiscent of cultists chiming in for the greater good.

“Well, everyone except me, mon petit picklekins,” one daring Chevalier (played by Mathew Baynton) says, ingratiating himself beside Philippe and groping him resoundingly on the ruches of his sash, if you know what I mean.

“Ooh!” Philippe chides, and swats at the Chevalier’s hand. “Later, darling, later.”

Again, everyone laughs obligingly.

The chamberlain coughs. “Shall I show her in, your G--Monsieur?

“Please, please, quickly!” Philippe shoos him out, and says, half-aside to his Chevalier, “I do hope you will not poison this one.”

“Tsk! That was only a rumor, mon snuggly-wuggly pufflegumps.”

“Oh, stop, stop!” Philippe wriggles in the Chevalier’s grasp. “You’re making me flush through my powder!”

With a quaint fanfare of bells and flutes, and a jaunty little trill on the harpsichord (possibly Lully, he’s definitely around), the chamberlain returns.

“May I present to you, Philippe, duc d’Orleans and brother of his Majesty the Sun King: Her Highness, Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of the Palatine!”

The entourage oohs and aahs as several appointed Ladies in Waiting precede the princess in gowns of fine silks and taffetas. Philippe, for his part, is ecstatic about the gowns, and remarks occasionally to his Chevalier that “it’s like fashion week! Oh, the German collection is impeccable--they always know just what to do for broad shoulders.”

At last, the most senior of the Ladies in Waiting finishes her grand courtesy, and the Princess herself enters.

Her gown is simple.

Her face is entirely without makeup.

Her hair is...not so bad, actually, if a little frizzy, and the approximate color of a veiney banana left out a week too long.

She is a perfectly ordinary woman, actually, with a sturdy frame and a pleasant demeanor.

To Philippe, this is the worst thing ever.

“Oh my god!” he cries, hiding himself behind his Chevalier and gripping his shoulders to keep from fainting. “How am I supposed to sleep with that?

Elisabeth Charlotte looks up after her courtesy and finally gets a look at this shrieking fop. “What the Hell!” she says, as brusque a she is plain. “He’s wearing more lace than I am!”

“And it is a travesty!” Philippe shouts, whipping out a handkerchief from his codpiece and flapping it at her cleavage. “Cover that up! Cover everything up!”

“Cover yourself up, you gibbering loon! Mein Gott, I’ve seen stronger legs on a chicken!”

“How dare you! You, you, you--you potato-face!”

“Painted dandy!”

“Carthorse!”

“Laundry-pile!”

Protestant!

The chorus of courtiers hisses, ooh, as if that one was truly below the belt.

The chamberlain coughs. “Monsieur, the Princess has converted to Catholicism for you already.”

“Oh, whatever.” Philippe, who has at this point mussed the shoulders of his Chevalier’s coat beyond ironability, struts right into Elisabeth Charlotte’s face and glowers down at her. “Now see here, my little Swabian brood mare. You and I have a sacred duty to uphold, and if we are to procreate and bear heirs and advisors for my brother the King and whoever should come after him, you are going to have to please me sufficiently. And right now, Princess, you please me none at all.”

Elisabeth Charlotte stands on tiptoe and sneers right into his kohl-lined eyes. “You’re no prize yourself, you hen. What if I don’t enjoy you?”

“You don’t have to enjoy it.”

“Right, and you don’t have to get it up.”

The Chevalier wails, “Let me at her!” and a bevy of footmen hold him back. “Let me at her! Mon fluffy rubber duckie can get it up for anything he wants!”

“You’d know firsthand,” Elisabeth Charlotte says. “I bet it only takes the first hand.”

The courtiers, a bit swayed, applaud as if at a round of golf. Clearly, this is better than Season Nine of Who’s Schtupping Louis.

“I’ll rip the Kaiser out of her buns!” the Chevalier wails as the footmen drag him off. “That’s it, sister, you, me, abandoned whorehouse, we’ll see who it only takes one hand for! I love you, mon chubby-wubby puppy! Don’t let that woman defile you! No! Hands off, that’s vintage, it’s worth more than you! Oh, the humanity! Vive la fashion!”

The doors shut. The silence is a bit awkward.

“So,” Philippe says, still livid.

“So,” Elisabeth Charlotte says, equally terse.

“Monsieur,” the chamberlain tries, nudging them apart and working his way between, “I assure you, the marriage must be consummated, and if you find yourself unable I am afraid--”

“Unable!” Philippe bellows, a hand to his chest, aghast (we assume, under the makeup). “Unable! I’ll show you unable!”

He drops his britches. There is a jangle of many pieces of jewelry.

Elisabeth Charlotte stares. “Is that...pierced?”

Philippe curls his lip in triumphant defiance. “No, my German cow. It is the Saints that will allow us to endure this indignity.”

“Indignity!” She gathers up her skirts. “I’ll show you indignity! To the bedchamber!”

“After you, Princess.”

“Yes, I’m sure you love to watch me walk away.”

“Oh, it is on.”

And he marches out after her, somewhat literally girding his loins, as the courtiers look on with amusement.

***

That’s right! says Rattus Rattus. Philippe of Orleans, though an avowed homosexual--as close to “out” as anyone really got, in those days--managed to buck up and father several children on his supposedly ugly bride! Princess Elisabeth Charlotte wrote in her diary that she didn’t so much mind what her husband did with other men nearly as much as she minded sleeping with him in the first place. She said, “you’re welcome to gobble the peas, I don’t like them!” But she and Philippe were the mother and father of the Regent, Philippe II, who served as guardian of the throne until Louis XV came of age, and Élisabeth, the mother of the first Hapsburg. So I guess you can say that they managed on behalf of the Empire.

***


MEASLY MIDDLE AGES

Henry Plantagenet of Lancaster, who at this point is not Henry IV but merely Henry Bollingbroke, is in some distress. It is 1398 and Henry, surrounded by his closest confidants and advisors in preparation for tomorrow’s epic duel against Thomas Mowbray, does not quite know how to communicate his issues.

“It’s just...Dick, you know?” he says, as Falstaff straps him into his armor.

“What’s Dick, Henry?” Falstaff asks.

“I don’t like Dick,” Henry explains. “Not anymore. I mean, Dick was fine enough when we were children, but now Dick’s gotten a little big for his britches if you know what I mean. Tighten that greave, would you, it’s loose.”

“Got it,” Falstaff says. “And begging your pardon, but I don’t see why that’s a problem. Whether you like Dick or not, Dick rules, and you have to accept it.”

“I don’t have to accept anything!” Henry ruffles his shoulders. “I am Henry Bollingbroke. I’m unrivaled in battle. I’m uncompromising in policy. I’m a true man! Dick doesn’t cut it.”

Falstaff considers this and shrugs, waddling around on his knees to see to Henry’s other greave. “You know, some people really do like Dick. Especially a lot of people at court. Bagot likes Dick, Greene likes Dick, Bussy likes Dick--why, I think even Percy likes Dick, sometimes. I know his son does.”

“I don’t care what Percy likes. I want Dick out of my business.”

“You’ll have a hard time of that. Dick’s got the run of the palace, Henry, every corner. We shouldn’t even be talking about this, not with you already accused of treason and all. Dick might come any minute.”

“Oh, Dick would like that, I’m sure.” Henry snarls. Clearly, this greave isn’t tight enough yet. “Dick would love to have me up against a wall like that. Caught in the act and everything. Then Dick could drive me out of the palace. I bet all the people who like Dick so much would love to see me go. But I’ll be back. Oh, yes. I’ll be back, and I’ll vanquish that vile Dick once and for all!”

Richard II (played by Mathew Baynton) coughs from the doorway. “Everything all right in there, Bollingbroke?”

Falstaff snickers. Henry looks over his shoulder and smiles sweetly. “Never better, Dick!”

“That’s King Dick to you,” says Richard II. He smirks, and his robes flounce on the way back out the door as he gives a little shimmy. “Later, Bolls.”

***


GORGEOUS GEORGIANS

The cartoon Georgian lady explains, In Georgian times, women of station were often forced into marriage, sometimes with husbands they had never met! But two Irish ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Posonby, ran away to Wales together and set up house, never marrying, because they wanted to be with each other. You can imagine how this scandalized the nation! Two women, living without a man? What on earth would they get up to?

***

Gentle, saccharine Vivaldi pastiche plays as we find ourselves in the Welsh country house of Plas Nweydd near Llangollen. Massive picture windows with open curtains frame the fireplaced back of a bright gothic salon, full of relaxing colors and diaphanous fabrics and fresh flowers in callibombe vases. It is teatime (though in here it is nearly always teatime) and Eleanor Charlotte Butler lifts a little bell off a silver tray with one pinch of her white lace glove. It is 1790, and Eleanor is a bookish and slightly plump woman of about 50 years old.

A maid enters and does her courtesy. “Tea, ma’am?”

“Yes, for the both of us,” Eleanor says, nodding at her companion, the slightly younger but just as innocuously dressed Sarah Posonby, who is sitting beside her on the couch playing with a large, spoilt cat.

The maid nods, and does her courtesy again, and leaves. Eleanor returns to her book, and Sarah to rubbing the cat’s belly. The cat purrs loudly, and Sarah exclaims over its sweetness. She and Eleanor share a fond smile, with blushing cheeks and batting eyes. Sarah leans a little closer to her on the couch, but doesn’t stop favoring the cat.

Through the picture windows, we see a man with Georgian-era espionage gear rappel from the higher storey, sitting in a rope harness that clashes with his not-so-stealthy frock coat. He produces binoculars (which have been invented for at least a century), and presses them up against the glass, upon which they slide and fumble for a moment before he can crush his face against them, trying to get a look at the women inside.

The scratching of the binoculars on the window startles Eleanor from her reading, and she turns back to glance at the Peeping Tom with a sigh. “Sarah, dear,” she says.

Sarah looks up from scratching the cat under the chin. “Yes, love?”

“I do believe we have another gymnogynomaniac.”

With a glance at the window, Sarah confirms this, and is entirely nonplussed. “Why yes, we do.” She shrugs and resumes her ministrations to the cat, who redoubles its affections.

Again, Eleanor picks up the little silver bell and rings for the maid. The maid promptly enters and does her courtesy again.

“Ma’am, we’ve only just put the water on. The tea will be ready soon.”

“No, don’t hurry yourself with the tea. I rang this time because we have another Peeping Tom.” She waves her book at the window by way of pointing.

“I’ll see to it, ma’am,” the maid says, and crosses to the window. The man, struggling with the binoculars, does not even think to look beneath him as the maid opens the window, which makes the man lose his footing and sets him swinging in the breeze. The maid then produces a poker from the fireplace, twists it around in her grip once or twice, and then pokes the man in his behind. We hear many muffled Georgian blasphemies as the man outside flails and, eventually, falls into the bushes. The maid then returns the poker to the fireplace and closes the window. “Your tea should be ready by now, ma’am. I’ll bring it up.”

“Very good,” Eleanor says, her nose in her book and her hand idly fidgeting with the tail end of Sarah’s coiffure. Sarah purrs almost like the cat, and they share another tender glance.

There is some activity in the chimney, it seems: ashes fall in drips and drabs into the fireplace, then in larger chunks. The binoculars thud into the iron log cradle. Eleanor looks over her shoulder to behold this and sighs. Once again, up comes the little bell. Once again, the maid scurries in, though this time she has tea service.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry if I’ve dawdled--”

“No, dear, it’s just that this one needs a little more dissuasion,” Eleanor explains, waving the book toward the fireplace, which is still thrumming with the pitter-patter of dislodged ash and the occasional mumbled curse.

“Right, ma’am,” the maid says. She takes time to pour and serve two cups of tea while the voyeur in the chimney struggles valiantly. Eleanor and Sarah (who has to set the cat aside for a moment to pick up her teacup) drink the tea and murmur their approval. The maid, satisfied, approaches the fireplace, teakettle in hand, and, after a moment to gauge the distance, throws the remaining hot water up the chimney. Presumably, the Peeping Tom now has second-degree burns on his backside. After a final cacophonous scraping, the chimney is quiet again, and the maid retrieves the binoculars, somewhat dusty, from the cradle.

“Should I put these with the others, ma’am?” the maid asks.

Eleanor nods. “Yes, that will be fine, thank you.”

The maid does her courtesy and takes the binoculars to a hitherto off-camera corner of the room, where she places it atop a pile of similar espionage accoutrements: a few dozen binoculars, camouflage gear, two telescopes, rope, a trick bible, several sketchbooks, and some things that look as if they belong at the royal society. The maid then exits with the empty tea-tray.

Sarah sips her tea. “Excellent weather we’re having.”

“Indeed,” Eleanor agrees, nibbling a biscuit.

The cat, neglected, noses at the creamer. Sarah shushes the cat with a cluck of her tongue and resumes her petting. “I think we should go for a walk.”

“After we finish our tea?”

“Well, surely not before!” The ladies laugh at their little joke, and snuggle together on the couch while the cat mewls its approval. Sarah gives Eleanor a little scratch under the chin, just like she had the cat, and they continue laughing and enjoying their company.

Out the other picture window, we see the voyeur, now divested of his gear, scraping at his wet, ashy backside as he runs off into the distance. He trips over the rope seat on the way, one last indignity at his fruitless efforts.

***

Rattus Rattus hoots with laughter, sitting in the teapot like a certain dormouse. The Ladies of Llangollen attracted a lot of attention. They even caught the eyes of King George III and Queen Charlotte! But even though a lot of people stopped by and tried to see what all the fuss was about, the Lladies lled a llargelly uneventfull llife.

***

Eleanor and Sarah, hand in hand, gambol merrily through the fields of Llangollen, and sing:


[click for audio!]

We are the lesbians who don’t do anything!
We just stay here and drink our tea.
And if you ask us if we do anything,
We simply tell you:

“Get off our property,” Elisabeth says politely to someone just offscreen.

We don’t do anything!

***



GROOVY GREEKS



BARBARIC BYZANTINES

In Byzantium, says the cartoon byzantine on the title screen, the Emperor had a special word for “the man who sleeps beside my chamber”: parakoimomenos. Usually, the parakoimomenos was a eunuch. But not always...

***

We find ourselves in the imperial stables of the high Byzantine court in the middle of the ninth century. As an extremely attractive young male stablehand tends to a recalcitrant horse, Castro-era porn music and a cheerful voiceover provide the following:

“Meet Basil the Macedonian.”

Basil (played by Mathew Baynton) looks helpfully at the camera. “It’s pretty massive, if you know what I mean.” The horse whinnies, equally helpful.

“Oi, is my horse ready?” someone asks, strutting onscreen. Viewers at home may be blinded by the thoroughly oiled chest of The Emperor Michael III. Basil, onscreen, isn’t blinded, if the fact that he’s staring is any indication.

“Yes, sire,” Basil says, and hands over the reins of the horse. The camera pans in, soft-focus, as their hands touch.

And then as their eyes meet: Michael’s, lusty and intrigued; Basil’s, in somewhat obviously schooled innocence.

“Basil’s meeting with the Emperor Michael would immeasurably change both their lives,” the voiceover supplies.

“Say,” says the Emperor, “haven’t I seen you...wrangling with the horses?”

“You have, sire,” Basil says, lowering his eyes to where the camera won’t go.

The Emperor nods approvingly, which displays his impressive romance-novel hairlessness. “Why don’t you show me some of your tricks?”

Basil grins, and, because this is ostensibly a children’s show, we whip-pan to them lounging about in the Emperor Michael’s massive byzantine bed, Michael thoroughly wrung out and mussed as if from a long day’s ride (ahem) and Basil coolly smoking an anachronistic cigarette.

“By the Theotokos, you are well fit,” Michael pants.

“Funny,” says Basil, “I don’t usually fit anywhere.”

Michael laughs. “You’d fit right in at court. Here, let me marry you off to my ex-girlfriend so you can pretend you’re respectable. You can have the room next to mine.”

“Excellent,” says Basil, as he stubs the anachronistic cigarette out in a nearby chalice. “Fancy another ride?”

“Do I ever!”

Another whip pan disguises whatever it is they get up to next, and the voiceover chimes in, “But it would take more than a new wife to assuage Basil’s thirst for power.”

Some time later (as indicated by the change of setting and the growth of some facial hair) we find Emperor Michael sitting on his throne and Basil standing beside it in the trappings of a high court official. The Castro-era porn music is still playing, illustrative bow-chicka-wows echoing off the iconography.

“You know,” says Basil, “I’m beginning to get the hang of this kaisar thing.”

“I have to say, you’ve got a knack for it,” Michael agrees. “You might even make a good Emperor someday.”

“You don’t say,” Basil says, more than halfway to the camera. “Why don’t you make me co-Emperor so I can try it on for size?”

“That sounds like a brilliant idea! Here,” Michael says lewdly, “kneel and receive the honor.”

Basil kneels. The camera pans up. One of the ikons on the wall drops its jaw and says, oh, yeah!

”Basil, the Well-Hung Stableboy,” the voice-over reads, as a title placard spreads across the screen in Greek. “Coming, but not too soon, to a home entertainment system near you!”

***

I’m afraid the story of Michael and Basil has a bit of a bittersweet ending, Rattus Rattus muses, perched in another golden chalice somewhere in the chamber. Well, he got to be co-Emperor like he wanted, and then he murdered Michael in his sleep. Apart from that, though, he was a pretty good Emperor, and he ruled Byzantium for nineteen years. People called him a second Justinian because he made so many new laws. Then again, he also broke a lot of them. You know, like murdering people.

***


RAUNCHY ROMANTICS


-[click for audio!]

The scene: the interior of a German salon, 1821. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is amusing himself by playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. He doesn’t completely suck, and even if he did you wouldn’t have the nerve to tell him so. He is a dignified personage, and deadly serious about his art and his work.

So when young, gangly Franz Peter Schubert (played by Mathew Baynton, who else?) pops up from behind Goethe’s piano and drapes himself across it, utter wonderment and adulation across his face, it shakes up the mood a little.

Do you know something, Goethe? Schubert sings along with Goethe’s accidental accompaniment,
I think the way you write all your novels is hot!
Do you know something else?
It’s always been my dream
To set to music the things you write in your novels.

Schubert sidles around the piano to illustrate something in the middle register, or to nestle his hand a little closer to Goethe’s.

And this is what Gretchen’s Wheel sounds like on piano! He demonstrates! Goethe swats at him.
Yes, this is what Gretchen’s Wheel sounds like on piano!
Or even Der Erlkönig! This part, he plays in the bass, where Goethe can’t hit him if he wants to stop playing.
...your version’s nice, too, Schubert concedes.

After a long moment, he snuggles in with Goethe on the piano bench. Goethe is unimpressed, even angry.

Herr Goethe, Schubert sings, leaning perilously close,
What would you think if someday I should be your apprentice?
What would you think if someday I should be your apprentice?

Goethe slams the piano lid down and nearly catches Schubert’s fingers under it. Without saying another word, not even a witty epigram, Goethe Sturm und Drangs out of the salon.

Schubert sniffles, and leans on the piano dejectedly. “My lawyer was right,” he sighs. “Never discuss intellectual property with a writer.”

***


AWESOME USA

Schubert used to send Goethe the music that he wrote based on Goethe’s work, Rattus Rattus explains from the piano bench, but Goethe never liked other people messing with his words! I’m a poet myself, you know! He clears his throat loudly. ”Roses are red, violets are blue; this next story is almost one hundred percent true!”

Did you know that the American Revolution got a lot of help from foreigners like General Lafayette and Tadeusz Kościuszko--whew, that’s a mouthful. That must be how they managed to beat us off, ha ha! And in fact, the man who made the American Army what it is today wasn’t an American, but a Prussian...

***

It is the dreadfully cold winter of 1777, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton (played by Mathew Baynton) is freezing his balls off. Not literally, of course, it’s just that cold.

“Look alive, soldiers!” he says (in an atrocious New York accent).

“We can’t, Colonel Hamilton,” says one of the corps, through chattering teeth. “Most of us are dead. And the ones that aren’t have dysentery.”

In the background, someone may be farting to death.

“Gosh darn it,” Hamilton says, as he snatches one of the snow-covered blankets off the nearest corpse and wraps it about his shoulders. “We have no money, no food, no fuel--” another fart rings out “--except for gas, and the Redcoats are going to crush us all.”

“Great,” says the corpsman, “now we don’t have any morale either.”

Hamilton groans, and shoves the nearest corpse into the snow so he can sit in its place on the log. “Now you’re just being insubordinate.”

“I can’t follow a straight line, Colonel. You expect me to follow the chain of command?”

“Are you drunk, soldier?”

“What if I am?”

“That ale’s reserved for officers!”

“A man’s gotta eat, sir.”

Hamilton buries himself under the blanket. A nearby bough upends its contents of snow and old boots onto his head. This is faintly ridiculous.

“That’s it,” Hamilton says beneath his improvised blanket-cloak. “I’m gonna surrender to the first limey General I see. At least that way we’ll get some darned food.”

Meet Alexander Hamilton, a voiceover says, which shocks the people onscreen a great deal, as they can hear it. He is about to surrender the Continental Army at Valley Forge and end the American Revolution before it’s barely begun.

The corpsman startles to his feet. “What in the name of--“

Shh, the voiceover goes on, let me finish. Ahem. This could all have been avoided if he had a sassy German friend!

“Was machst du da?” someone shouts as he stamps through the snow in full military dress. “Was, was, was machst du da?!”

“--what?” Hamilton says, gaping so widely that snow falls into his mouth.

The personage who has just entered onto the scene is truly impressive. He is of staunch bearing and considerable height. He wears a full Prussian military uniform of the era complete with cloak, wig, and replete medals on the breast of his frock coat. As concession to the bristling winter, he also sports a vermilion scarf.

One of his aides-de-camp, a very pretty young man with a slight French accent, says. “Forgive the Baron, he does not speak too much of the English. He asks, what, what, what you are doing.”

“The Baron?” Hamilton asks.

“The Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben,” the aide-de-camp explains. “He has come to prevent you from making, how you say, a very stupid mistake.”

The Baron continues to rant in German, at something of a length. He flails his arms about, indicating various deficiencies in the condition of the camp: the corpses on the floor, the overall stink, the loose arrangement of tents and more. We can assume that, in German, he makes a great deal of puns in the Second City style that don’t quite translate to English. At least one of these puns involves I do not care if you’re Colonials, we do not defecate where we eat, which really doesn’t translate to English well, and if it did the joke could not be made on children’s television.

“I don’t understand a blasted word he’s saying,” Hamilton says.

“Hang on,” says the aide-de-camp. He instructs von Steuben to slow down, and von Steuben, who has been beating his walking-stick against the nearest tree and is now covered in snow, stops to take a deep breath and listen.

Then he points, just off-screen, and shouts a single line.

The aide-de-camp coughs. “He asks, ‘why is the latrine at the top of the hill?’”

“Oh,” Hamilton says. “Er. That’s just where the soldiers put it.”

Von Steuben sputters. We can assume that what he says is an exact repetition of Hamilton’s statement, in German, with considerable indignation. After that, he rails about for another several minutes.

“He’s mocking me, isn’t he,” Hamilton says.

“Yes,” says the aide-de-camp. “He says that the filth, which carries disease, should be made as far away from the camp as possible, so the soldiers do not get sick. And that you should not eat the dead animals and leave their corpses lying around even if they are English. And that you are a stupid female dog yourself.”

“How dare you!” Hamilton shouts, “Wait. How dare he!”

“Thank you, Colonel. He says, furthermore,” the aide-de-camp goes on, struggling to translate as von Steuben blasphemes with alacrity and gets a great deal of bonus material past the network censors, “that he will take it upon himself personally to train one hundred and twenty of your best men, a model company if you will, and he will have me shout curses at them for hours until they know which end of the bayonet goes into the enemy and which goes into their mouths.”

The corpsman gasps. “You mean the bayonet isn’t an eating utensil?”

Von Steuben, hearing this, grabs the soldier’s nearby bayonet and uses it to poke him in the rear.

“Oof!” says the corpsman. “Ouch! That smarts!”

Von Steuben curses.

“It builds character,” the translator supplies helpfully.

***


VILE VICTORIANS

Stupid deaths, stupid deaths, they’re funny ‘cause they’re true!
Stupid deaths, stupid deaths, hope next time it’s not you! *^___^*

“Oh, I love your new haircut!” the Grim Reaper says to one of his laconic, skeletal companions. “Shorter in the front, I always say, lets them see more of your pretty smile--oh, bother, we’ve got the next one. Come in!”

The man presenting himself at the gates of the afterlife is greeting the hereafter in the highest fashion, in a fitted tweed suit and an angular shirt-collar, with his wavy hair combed perfectly off his face.

“Name?” asks the Grim Reaper.

“Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Willis Wilde,” the man says, for that is, in fact, who he is (played by, you guessed it, Mathew Baynton).

The Grim Reaper makes his notes. “Good, good. That’s quite a mouthful. Occupation?”

“Bunburyist,” Oscar says.

“Bunburyist?”

“A many who lives a double life,” Oscar explains. “In one of my lives, I’m a respected and occasionally reviled author of plays, poems, and indictments against social convention.”

“Ooh! And in the other?”

“A sodomite, apparently.”

“Professionally?”

“In a sense,” Oscar shrugs, snickering to himself as the inevitable epigram unfolds first in his mind, and then on his lips. “I’ve certainly made a name for it, and spent a lot of time at it, and lost a great deal of money upholding my reputability. If those aren’t the prerequisites of calling myself a professional, I’m doomed to the life of an amateur.”

“Well, not anymore!” The Grim Reaper guffaws at his own joke. “What’s the cause of death?”

“Protracted or immediate?”

“Pardon?”

“The protracted cause, or the immediate cause? One thing does lead to another, after all, and I’d rather blame the men who cast the stones than the poor, innocent rocks.”

“You were stoned to death?”

“Only metaphorically. You see, back when sodomy was merely my hobby and not my ostensible profession, an acquaintance of mine, the Marquess of Queensbury--the one who invented modern boxing--thought he’d give me a head start on making a life of it. So he did what he thought would save his son’s honor, what little he had after cavorting with a person of my amateur profession, that is to say, and he accused me, not his son, of the immoral acts to which we were both party.”

“Ooh, that’s gossip! So your boyfriend’s father sold you out?”

“It’s more like he laid the bait and I snapped it up like a greedy little trout. I sued him for libel.”

“You what?’

“I called him a liar.”

“But you just said the boy was your boyfriend!”

“Yes, but buggery was a felony offense. His little note spelt out a lot of trouble I couldn’t avoid. So I took the Marquess to court, and tried to prove I wasn’t what I was.”

“And then?”

“Well, I can call an apple a banana all I like, but I can’t peel it with my fingers.”

The Grim Reaper doesn’t quite find it in him to laugh.

“So Queensbury won his trial,” Oscar goes on, “and they raked me over the coals--figuratively speaking--then forced me to pay for it--literally speaking. Whereupon, since I’d basically outed myself on the stand anyway, the Crown saw fit to make an honest man of me. Of course, they put me up in prison, where I did at least manage to write, but I took ill from the stress and burst something in my right ear. When they finally let me out, I managed to hand off a letter that I’d written to the young man, who denied ever reading it. I can’t blame him, though, it was rather long. So then I packed off to Paris to see if I couldn’t go back to the other half of my double life and be a plain old reviled author again. It might have worked, I don’t know, I was ill at the time. And then I caught cerebral meningitis from that thing in my ear and died. It wasn’t terribly impressive.”

The Grim Reaper’s jaw dangles, as vacant and gaping as the laconic skeletons beside him. Then, his lip (such as it is) begins to tremble, and his eyes to water, and his nose to sniffle, and soon he is sobbing like a wretched child whose very first ice cream cone has just toppled to the sidewalk.

“That’s--” he stammers, “that’s--that’s not funny at all!” he bellows through his tears, which are white and laden with makeup. “I mean it’s stupid, but it’s not funny! It’s not fuh-hu-hu-hunny at all!”

“Actually,” Oscar says, “there’s a certain ironic charm to it.”

“I don’t care!” the Grim Reaper wails, blowing his nose on his colleague’s sleeve with a fantastic hoot. “Just go! Just go on, go away. It’s so sad I can’t look at you anymore. Just go, go, through the gate.”

“Well, I suppose I’ll be the life of the party.” Oscar gives a nod of his head, as if he were wearing a hat, and turns to leave through the prescribed exit.

“No, no, no!” The Grim Reaper, still crying, pounds his fist on the bench. “This is no time for puns! Oh, god, that’s so awful! Oh--oh, no, there’s another one coming in. I’m sorry. I’m still crying. State your name, please.”

“King Edward the Second,” the newcomer says, holding a red-hot iron poker in one hand.

The Grim Reaper’s face affixes itself into a mask of utter horror.

Stupid deaths, stupid deaths, hope next time it’s not you! *^___^*

***


SLIMY STUARTS

His Majesty, King Charles II, sits jauntily on his throne in 1677. Because this is the Mathew Baynton Charles II, and not the Rupert Everett Charles II, there are no happy yapping cocker spaniels onscreen, but there is the intimation of a great deal of cock. Also, he may or may not be fondling the crown jewels, which were returned to him in a previous episode.

“So, Pepys,” the King says, “what gossip have you got to amuse Us with today?”

“I’m afraid it’s not very amusing,” says Samuel Pepys , coughing into his sleeve.

“Well, come-come! It’s got to be funny to someone. Sing for your supper, Pepys, I say.”

“Well.” Pepys coughs again. Clearly there is a bit of a draft in here. “Well, it’s about your mistress.”

“Which one?” Charles leans forward on the throne, scratches an itch with his scepter. “Is it Nell? Oh, I do so love when Nell gets into trouble.”

“No, it isn’t Nell.”

“Well, what about Louise? Louise is always so much fun to poke at, if you know what I mean!”

“I do, your Majesty, but it’s not Louise.”

“Then Barbara? Is she up to her old games again? Or Moll? Kate? Lucy?”

“No, your Majesty. It’s Hortense.”

“Hortense!” Charles cheers, and rocks back on his throne again, happily reminiscing. “Dear Hortense Mancini! My Italian firebrand! My Vatican virago! Such a silly name. What’s Hortense up to now?”

“Well, she’s cheating on you, sire.”

“Yes, I know that. What else?”

Pepys lets some air out of his ruffled collar. Clearly, there isn’t a draft in here after all. Perhaps he’s feverish. “She’s cheating on you with a woman.”

“Oh,” King Charles says, and then, at much greater length, “oh.” He taps the corner of his mouth with the head of his scepter. “I’m sure she’ll let me watch.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, your Majesty.”

“Oh?” With an air of certain challenge and intrigue, King Charles lets the scepter tilt and leans over it, making his best cocker spaniel eyes up at Pepys. “And what on earth would deter me from watching them?”

Pepys tries valiantly not to sputter. “Well, sire, the one she’s sleeping with is your daughter.”

The “Oh” that resounds out of the King’s mouth is quite different than the last three. He curls a little more into his throne, contemplates this for a moment. “Which one?”

“Anne, sire.”

“Anne Palmer?”

“Yes. Barbara’s girl.”

“Well, that’s not a problem at all!” King Charles claps his hands around the scepter. “She’s not really my daughter. I only said she was to shut her mother up. I mean, she’s not a Palmer either--I think she’s Chesterfield’s. Bring Hortense to me at once! And Anne too. Can they fence? Ooh, I want them to fence!”

Pepys does what is perhaps the only sensible thing to do under these circumstances, and hits the floor in a dead faint. He mutters something about his diary, underclothes, and fresh leg of mutton just before passing out.

“Pepys?” King Charles nudges him on the buttocks with his toe. “Pepys? Ah well. More for me! Ladies!”

***

Rattus Rattus laughs to himself. Indeed, Hortense Mancini was known for sleeping with several prominent women in the Restoration court! Anne Palmer, who loved Hortense and was inconsolable after their parting, would do nothing but lie in bed kissing Hortense’s portrait for weeks after her husband forcibly carted her off. Hortense, however, would continue to scandalize the country by seducing other women at court, at the King’s expense.

***

Fade in on a cigarette resting in the crook of a crystal ashtray: an elegant powdered hand cuffed in lace reaches down and plucks it out. As a dominant seventh arpeggio plays, that cigarette works its way to a gloriously painted mouth, set in a striking, hawkish face framed in dark curls. Hortense Mancini is wearing ornate Restoration Men’s finery, a velvet coat and sash and britches, with a women’s enormous gathered hairdo. Both the outfit and hair show concrete and distinct signs of recent debauchery.


[click for audio!]

Silly Charlie made his case to me in exile, she sings, or drawls,
And my uncle turned him down quite flat.
But few years later found Charlie’s fortunes turned around,
And I said to myself, “where’s the trouble in that?”

There is a much better thing
Than marrying a king,
And that thing has to do with this king’s thing:
For Charlie, my dear, it’s indelibly clear
That French Crowns make up most of your bling,
Oh--

The Duchess of Portsmouth is rigid.
(She reminds me of Sydonie, my friend.)
People say she’s unspeakably frigid,
But I had her quite well in the end.
Barbara Villiers don’t do what she ought to--
There’s some truth behind all of those slanders.
But I’d much rather sleep with her daughter, dear Anne Palmer:
After all, a girl’s got to have standards!

Give me a fine English goose,
And say I, to hell with the gander,
They tell me my morals are loose,
And say I they should watch themselves philander!
Charlie the king has a harem,
A half-dozen women or more,
But say I, if he lets me share ‘em,
I’m a rake, but I’m nobody’s Hortense Mancini.

I’ve had Lucy and Lizzie and dear old Moll,
I’ve had Nell, though she much prefers men,
And you’ll know in the halls of Whitehall,
There’s no cock-of-the-walk, she’s a hen!

Give me a fine English goose,
And say I, to hell with the gander,
They tell me my morals are loose,
And say I they should watch themselves philander!
Charlie the king has a harem,
A half-dozen women or more,
But say I, if he lets me share ‘em,
I’m a rake, but I’m nobody’s Hortense Mancini,
No no no nobody’s Hortense Mancini!
You can say I’m a rake but I’m no no no nobody’s Hortense Mancini...

She sprawls on the harpsichordist. Hit me with that passacaglia.

Ooh, so that was a little too much to Handel? Sorry if I baroque something.

******

Cast (in order of appearance)

Christopher Marlowe - Lawry Lewin
Francis Bacon - Ben Willbond
Richard Barnsfield - some jailbait angling for a BAFTA
William Shakespeare - Mathew Baynton
James VI of Scotland - Jim Howick
Philippe d’Orleans - Simon Farnaby
Chevalier de Lorraine - Mathew Baynton
Chamberlain - Nathaniel Martello-White
Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate - Martha Howe-Douglas
Henry IV - Jim Howick
John Falstaff - Ben Willibond
Richard II - Mathew Baynton
Eleanor Charlotte Butler - Alice Lowe
Sarah Posonby - Martha Howe-Douglas
Maid - Sarah Hadland
Peeping Tom - Jim Howick
Basil I - Mathew Baynton
Michael III of Byzantium - Ben Willibond
Franz Peter Schubert - Mathew Baynton
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Jim Howick
Alexander Hamilton - Mathew Baynton
Corpsman - Jim Howick
Translator - Nathaniel Martello-White
The Grim Reaper - Simon Farnaby
Oscar Wilde - Mathew Baynton
Edward II - Laurence Rickard
Charles II - Mathew Baynton
Samuel Pepys - Jim Howick
Hortense Mancini - Martha Howe-Douglas

with John Eccleston as the voice of Rattus Rattus

and Guest Starring Brian Gallivan as Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Moonlight Sonata cropped from a recording by Vladimir Horowitz

 

All homage and credit due to the Austin Powers franchise, Veggie Tales, the Second City Network, and Classic Peanuts.


And I’ve never been to Frisco in the fall~