Archive for June, 2014

Month of H8: Rulebreakers

Friday, June 27th, 2014

June is a big month in the life of Henry VIII. He was born on June 28th, his first wedding was on June 11, and he divorced his fourth wife on June 24th. In his honor we’re publishing blog posts inspired by his life and times.

Henry VIII defied the church in Rome and was excommunicated for it, beginning the English reformation (albeit somewhat by accident). Years of turmoil followed, and the history of Christianity would never be the same.

Today’s blog post salutes other legendary rule breakers, whose acts created turmoil, but changed the course of history.

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was published. This monumental book illustrated Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe, overturning over 1300 years of scientific thought. Humanity’s perception of its place in the universe would never be the same. Galileo was born 20 years later, and he would go to jail for adhering to Copernicus’ world view. It took a while for the church to come around to his views – it wasn’t until 1822 until the church allowed the printing of books accepting heliocentrism, and not until 1992 that the church acknowledged errors in their handling of the Galileo affair.


Rosa Parks refused to follow the rules and give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white man. A highly publicized bus boycott ensued and sparked the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights movement. Years later, the legally segregated South would be transformed into an illegally segregated South.

Romeo and Juliet
defied their families and insisted on being together. Their example proved that love is stronger than family and royalty. And ever since, high school children have been forced to read their story and discuss their fate year after year after year.


And of course there’s Prometheus. He stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humanity, bringing power to the people and enabling the birth of technology. After Prometheus the world was never the same, and he was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle each day. Henry VIII was only excommunicated for his transgression – he got off pretty easy.

Know Your Continents

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

On June 24, 1497, Italian-born explorer John Cabot landed either near Labrador, Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island (we don’t know). In any event, when he landed, he declared that he had found Asia on behalf of Henry VII of England.

This kind of thing used to happen a lot. Christopher Columbus set out for Asia, arrived in the West Indies and suddenly the locals were enslaved and mining gold for him and he was telling everyone he’d been to Asia.

We’ve devised a simple method for preventing the misidentification of a given land mass someone happens to “find.”

The next time you’re tempted to “claim some land for England” or “declare it for Spain,” ask someone who actually lives there these questions:

(1.)   Is this land in India or Asia?

(2.)   Are you currently living in India or Asia?

(3.)   Do you speak any Indian or Asian languages? (How about dialects? No?)

(4.)   Do you or anyone you know ever tell people your dog is a Lhasa Apso or a Tibetan Terrier or a Shih Tzu?

(5.)   Just double-checking in case I misunderstood earlier: this isn’t India or Asia, is it?

If the inhabitants respond “No” to the above questions, take them at their word and go home. It’s the only way to avoid being branded a ninny by history; you are also statistically less likely to be set adrift by your crew or killed and eaten.

Month of H8: Nearly Forget About It

Friday, June 20th, 2014

June is a big month in the life of Henry VIII. He was born on June 28th, his first wedding was on June 11, and he divorced his fourth wife on June 24th. In his honor we’re publishing blog posts inspired by his life and times.

Hey, did you know that Shakespeare wrote a play about Henry VIII? It’s true! It’s called Henry VIII. It’s not one of his most well-known plays, so if you haven’t heard of it, it’s not necessarily your fault. It’s most notable attribute is having more stage directions than any of Shakespeare’s other plays. If you’re not a theater person or a Shakespeare scholar, you’ll probably forget about that fact.

Henry VIII was the play that burned down the Globe Theater (a cannon used for special effects set the roof on fire), so maybe people just wanted to forget it.

In honor of this nearly-forgotten play by a famous playwright, here are some other nearly-forgotten works of art by great artists. None of them burned down a theater.


Salvador Dali painted an impressionist painting? Why yes, he did. Granted, he was six years old at the time, but it still counts. Ironically, it’s also one of the few paintings of the “modern” period of which no one has ever grumbled “my kid could do that.”


Ludwig van Beethoven is known for his nine great Symphonies, his virtual invention of the Romantic piano sonata, his stirring concertos and string quartets, and even for his one opera Fidelio. But how many of his songs have you heard?

It turns out he wrote dozens. Songs in English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, even Polish. Irish folk songs, German art songs, it appears he tried his hand at all of them. None of them really stuck.


Sure, James Joyce wrote three classic novels and that amazing collection of short stories, but he also wrote a play? That’s right, Joyce’s play The Exiles is occasionally produced, but mostly as an example of why novelists should not write plays. (The plays of Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens could also serve this purpose.)

How about this: someone should put on a stage production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII with songs by Beethoven and backgrounds by a 6-year old Salvador Dali! (We can leave Joyce out of it.) Then we could forget the whole thing.

A Shortness of “Breath”

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

On June 17, 1969, the musical review, Oh, Calcutta! opened on Broadway.

Originally, the show’s Prologue was Samuel Beckett’s Breath, which had a one-page script and ran about 40 seconds. Beckett took the piece out of the show when he found out the director, Kenneth Tynan, had cast naked people; the sketch was to feature no people at all – only lighting cues, a stage “littered with miscellaneous rubbish,” and (the sound of a) breath.

Oh, Calcutta went on without Breath.

There was probably plenty of breathing already.


Month of H8: H8ers Gotta Eat

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

June is a big month in the life of Henry VIII. He was born on June 28th, his first wedding was on June 11, and he divorced his fourth wife on June 24th. In his honor we’re publishing blog posts inspired by his life and times.

When you first think of Henry VIII, you undoubtedly think of his many wives. The next thing you think about is his voracious appetite.

In Henry’s day, much of what we consider to be healthy food – vegetables and multi-grain bread for example – were considered to be peasant food. Royalty ate meat, mostly game. And a royal feast would include meat items that seem completely foreign to a modern diner, such as baked lampreys, grilled beaver tails, roasted swan, and beef lungs, to name just a few.

Water was considered to be unhealthy, so alcohol such as ale and sweetened, watery wine were the beverages of choice. A gallon of wine a day was pretty standard for your average Tudor.

Here’s a fascinating clip of historian Dr. Lucy Worsley recreating Henry’s weekly shopping. You’ll be amazed he made it to the age of 55.

Life Could be Super

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Life can be so disappointing. That’s why we read comics books featuring the Justice League of America and the X-Men and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Imagine our consternation when we found out that the following organizations only sound like superhero team-ups – but they turn out not to be super at all:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
They don’t hold séances, build time machines, or investigate mysterious portals. Hard to say what they do investigate.

Schmalkaldic League and The League of Nuremberg
It’s unlikely these two could ever have a cross-over issue, as the Schmalkaldic League was formed to oppose the Protestant League of Nuremberg.

League of Women Voters
If you’ve ever been to the polls, you’ll know this is the perfect guise for a secret enclave of crime-fighters.

League of Nations
Nope. Not the champions of every country in the world united to fight crime. Not at all.

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments
Not a group of modern-day druids fighting crime in forests. Or is it? One can always hope…

Month of H8: First Spouses Club

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

June is a big month in the life of Henry VIII. He was born on June 28th, his first wedding was on June 11, and he divorced his fourth wife on June 24th. In his honor we’re publishing blog posts inspired (albeit sometimes loosely) by his life and times.

Today’s post is about first spouses of famous people.

Let’s start with Henry VIII’s first wife.

King Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, the 23-year-old widow of his older brother, shortly after being crowned King at age 18. Catherine was an influential advisor, working to secure the Treaty of Westminster between England and Spain. Henry trusted Catherine so much that he made her regent during his adventures in France. However, after 18 years of marriage, Henry divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn.


Catherine, in her happier Queeny days.

Albert Einstein met his first wife, Mileva Marić, when they were fellow students at the Zürich Polytechnic. Mileva’s academic career ended when she married Einstein, although it has often been rumored (but unproven) that she did much of the work that led to Einstein’s great theories. In any case, upon their divorce in 1919, Einstein promised to transfer his anticipated Nobel Prize money to his former wife to place in trust for their two sons. When Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1922 he delivered the money as promised.

Mileva Marić was a great first wife for Einstein. She was a bright and accomplished enough scientist for Einstein to communicate with about his ideas, and she supported him in his lean years. She even agreed to remain married to him under a harsh list of conditions that would have made most women run away screaming.

The (first) Einsteins. He looks happier than she does.

The (first) Einsteins. He looks happier than she. And he doesn’t look happy.

Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel (née Schindler) met her first husband Gustav Mahler at a friend’s house party. Gustav immediately fell in love with Alma and proposed marriage shortly after. Mahler, 19 years Alma’s senior, only requested that Alma give up composing once they married.

Alma wrote in her diary: “He thinks nothing at all of my art – and thinks a great deal of his own – and I think nothing of his art and a great deal of my own. That’s how it is!”

But, like many women throughout history, Alma gave up her dreams for her husband and stopped composing. Toward the end of their marriage (and after Gustav discovered Alma’s affair with the man who would become her second husband), Gustav relinquished and even helped Alma publish some of her music. He died of a heart ailment in 1911, seven years into their marriage, leaving Alma free to move on to other husbands.

Gustav Mahler was an okay first husband for Alma. The older composer kept Alma in the cultured world of the arts, and although theirs was not a happy marriage, Mahler had the kindness to die while Alma was still young.

Alma's firs husband

Alma’s first husband

Igor Stravinsky married his first cousin Catherine in 1905, five years before his ballet “The Firebird” made him a world-famous composer. Catherine met the definition of long-suffering: she was Igor’s copyist, the mother of his children, the keeper of his house in exile, and she put up with her husband’s numerous affairs, even staying on good terms with his mistress. All through this she suffered from tuberculosis, which killed Igor and Catherine’s eldest daughter before Catherine finally succumbed to it in 1939. Igor married his mistress the following year.

Catherine was a great first wife to Igor. Who wouldn’t want a spouse so willing to suffer for nothing in return? (Well, she did it anyway — nobody seemed to care whether she did it “willingly” or if she’d had her dreams destroyed long before she married him.)

The Stravinskys. They look alike because they were first cousins.

The Stravinskys. They look alike because they were first cousins.

Socialite Jacqueline Lee Bouvier’s first husband suffered from Addison’s disease and was a serial philanderer with probably dozens of mistresses and flings while he was married to her. Five years after his early death, she married Aristotle Onassis, who treated her much better.

Jacqueline Bouvier and her first husband

Fake It Until You Make It!

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

On June 3rd, in the year 350, a mild-mannered usurper by the name of Iulius Nepotianus showed up with a bevy of gladiators and proclaimed himself emperor of Rome. It was a gutsy move, but sometimes gumption (plus gladiators) was an important trait for any Roman Emperor.

And it wasn’t preposterous to think he could traipse in, call dibs on the throne, and actually rule the place. There were plenty of usurpers who did indeed end up becoming legitimate emperors – Septimius Severus, for instance, and Trebonianus Gallus. But still. Given that all parties had powerful allegiances, axes to grind, and, well, gladiators, usurping was a high-stakes business that usually ended badly for the usurper.

June was a month of big ups and downs for Nepotianus: on the 1st of the month, he was just Flavius Iulius Popilius Nepotianus Constantinus from the block. By the 3rd, he was the Roman Emperor and calling himself Augustus. By the 30th, he was again parading through Rome in triumph (though it was not his triumph). And it wasn’t him parading, so much as his head – this time, at the point of a lance.

Nepotianus' head, pre-lance.

Nepotianus’ head, pre-lance.