Friday, June 1, 2012

'Til Death Us Do Part

La Clé de la Chambre la Plus secrète de Barbe-bleue—The Key to Bluebeard’s Most Secret Chamber (inspired by Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, La Barbe-bleue) – Antique apothecary bottle; antique French bisque porcelain pin cushion doll; antique French cupboard key; dried rose buds; antique jet mourning cameo; embroidered French ribbon; black glass beaded trim; purple ribbon; sterling heart lock charm; vintage glass-beaded hatpins
‘Tis June—the official unofficial marriage month. Since the beginning of recorded time men and women have been dragging each other up the aisle and to the altar, there to pledge their troth before the eyes of God—and the legal system—sometimes for better, mostly for worse, or so it seems, given the current divorce statistics. Yup, as soon as they say, “I do,” it would appear that they don’t.

After all, marriage means commitment.

So does insanity.

Through the ensuing centuries, humans have always been seeking another way out from the ties that bind, another way of dropping that ol’ ball and chain, another way of getting free of that deadbeat, that philanderer, that shrew, or that battleaxe, and when that wedding ring starts feeling more akin to a noose, you’ll find that those newlyweds quickly become newly-deads.

Murder has got to be the second most common way of slipping the bonds of holy matrimony. It looks especially favorable when you want a surefire permanent solution—or should I say, dissolution—to the problem, or when you just can’t stand the thought of him or her getting half the house, half the car, half the dog, and, please, let’s not drag the kids into this.

History’s rife with cases of uxoricide (now you know the fancy label for husbands offing wives, remember that the next time you’re on Jeopardy!)—from the burly Henry VIII, who relieved two of his six spouses of their heads (legally, it must be admitted, even if the charges were trumped up, but, hey, who was going to be saying “um, ain’t that wrong…?” to the king?) to the timorous Dr. Hawley Crippen, who drugged his betrothed, chopped her up, and buried her in the basement so he could carry on with his typist to the jet-setting Claus Von Bülow, who may or may not have slipped his wife, Sunny, a couple of extra doses of insulin on his way out to skiing the Alps. Fiction’s got ‘em, too—from Shakespeare’s insanely jealous Moor of Venice who smothered his poor Desdemona upon their marital bed in Othello to the handsome hubby who sent his über-rich wife off with a bang—a gunshot to the head—while honeymooning in Egypt in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile to the unfortunate, bedridden Mrs. Thorwald whose other half’s nursing skills included not only providing an aspirin or two but showed a deft proficiency with one very large knife and a hacksaw as well, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Of course, there are many instances of mariticide (you can figure that one out for yourselves), but we’re dealing with the male of the species here today, class.

The most famous example of the uxoricidal complex just has to be…

…wait for it…


This charming little fairy tale of a homicidal lunatic (yes, you are supposed to read it to children) was written in the late-seventeenth century by Charles Perrault, the same author responsible for giving the world Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red-Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots.

Perhaps Monsieur Perrault had problems in his youth, perhaps he suffered from nightmares, or was afraid of the dark, or had separation anxiety, or wet the bed, whatever, and, yes, I know his stories are meant to be morality tales, ones to teach the kiddie-winkies lessons, but honestly—Cinderella’s clearly an abused child who’s having real difficulty fitting in with her, oh, what’s the current politically correct term?, oh, yeah, “blended family”; Sleeping Beauty’s cursed to snooze away a hundred years due to a minor oversight on some guest list; Little Red’s either a dim bulb or needs to make an appointment with the nearest ophthalmologist as soon as possible since she can’t tell that Grandma’s got not only big eyes, big ears, and big teeth, but black fur, a snout, and a big tail too; and there’s something, well, downright creepy about that well-shod, talking tabby who’s trying to coerce some young guy into taking off his clothes and jumping in a river…but I digress.

So, we now return to our regularly scheduled program…

Bluebeard is an enormously rich noble, feared by all, his visage made terrible by his great, bushy black beard—so black that it, in fact, appears blue. He has had many wives, all of whom have vanished mysteriously, and he is in search of yet another, setting his sights on three comely daughters of a neighbor. Petrified of his rumored reputation, the two older girls pass him onto their youngest sibling, who, after much wheedling and wooing, and much against her older brothers’ likings, agrees to accept his proposal. All goes well for the lovebirds, at least for awhile. Then, one day, the bewhiskered lord and master announces that he is leaving on business, and places in his young wife’s hands the keys to the kingdom—or their palatial chateau at any rate. With a smile, he tells her to enjoy herself while he’s gone, explore the house, use any of the keys you want—except this one, this small gold key.

Promise me you won’t use it, says he.

Of course not, answers she.

And he’s off.

Faster than you can say, “Pandora’s Box”, our little miss is scouring the manse to locate the one door that that small gold key will open. And once found, the key is inserted, the lock turns, and what lies beyond?

You guessed it, all of her husband’s former brides, slaughtered, in a room saturated in blood. Horror-struck, our little miss drops the key, which lands smack-dab in the middle of a puddle of gore, a stain she just can’t wash off—shades of Lady Macbeth, anyone?

When her husband returns prematurely, our little miss plays dumb. What key? What room? What stain? What bunch of dead bodies?

But her fate is sealed, and she’s destined to take her place on the slab alongside the prior Mrs. Bs.

Of course, since this is a fairy tale, folks, and everyone is bound by law to live happily ever after, our little miss’ brothers arrive miraculously and just in the nick of time save her, send Bluebeard to his much deserved bitter end, and all hasten en masse to the attorneys to claim the late-husband’s estate…

…the end.

We won’t go into the hidden aspects and psychological symbolism and metaphorical analysis of all of this—the phallic key unlocking the bloody portal—nope, maybe we should simply take a moment to point out that if the blasted girl had done as she’d been told, none of this would’ve happened!

Hey, as my great-grandmother used to say, if you go picking up rocks, don’t be surprised when something awful crawls out.

The tale of Bluebeard and his frequent self-induced widowerhood has been told and retold for centuries— from page to stage, from the faithful to the far-out, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Thackeray, Anatole France, and Shirley Jackson have repeated it. In the hands of Angela Carter, the story becomes one of lush lust and intrigue titled The Bloody Chamber; Margaret Atwood reweaves it as a dissection of a marriage in Bluebeard’s Egg; while Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard introduces a man who destroys all of the women he loves in one way or another; and in Joyce Carol Oates’ Blue-Bearded Lover, the last wife actually sticks around and mothers Bluebeard’s offspring. Poets Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, and Maya Angelou have transformed it into verse, and it has also been the source of grand operas by the talented trio, Offenbach, Dukas, and Bartók.

But it’s been on the silver screen where the fable has proved especially popular. There’s Georges Méliès’1902 silent nine-minute one-reeler and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 cult film noir, and there’s suspense master Claude Chabrol’s 1963 thriller incorporating facts in the case of a true-life, early-twentieth-century Parisian serial killer and controversial French filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s recent cinema spin, which transports two young girls of the 1950s back to become part of the original seventeenth-century narrative. It has also become a romantic-farce as Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, first in 1923 starring Gloria Swanson and then Claudette Colbert top-lined in the 1938 remake. Even Charlie Chaplin took a stab at it in his 1947 black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux.

However, it’s Edward Dmytryk’s 1972 directorial effort that takes the cake as the campiest, most outrageous, most over-the-top—and possibly most enjoyable—adaptation. Updated to World War I Austria, it stars Richard Burton as the titular murderous madman and a bevy of bouncing-breasted beauties—including Raquel Welch, Virna Lisi, and ‘60’s sex kitten, Joey Heatherton—who get bumped off in utterly campy, outrageous, and over-the-top ways, from being guillotined, falconated, and a personal favorite, chandeliered. All this bloodshed is set to a musical score where someone is either playing a kazoo or repeatedly squeezing a duck.

In any case, if you are planning to dispose of your hymeneally-coupled yokemate, pause, please, count to ten, and remember Bluebeard’s tragic saga…

…I can always recommend a good divorce lawyer.

"Bluebeard" by Gustave Dore, 1862