18. “The Scourge of Princess” and the Author of “The Lewd Sonnets“
In his youth, Pietro Aretino went to Perugia to take up painting for a while. He eventually ended up in Rome, where a rich banker, the patron of the painter Raphael, took him under his wing. Painting was not really Aretino’s thing, however, and he eventually gave up on that. His real talent lay in words, and in 1516, he penned a satiric will of Pope Leo X’s recently deceased pet elephant. In it, he mocked Rome’s leading figures, including the Holy Father.
The pope was a good sport about it, and the satire was well-received. It launched Aretino’s career as a satirist, and he eventually ended up with the nickname “Scourge of Princes”. After the death of Leo X, Aretino penned vicious satirical pamphlets supporting the candidature of Cardinal Giulio de Medici for the papacy, which helped get him elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. However, despite the patronage of the new pope, Aretino was forced to leave Rome in 1524 because he had grown too notorious. Especially after he composed a dirty poetry collection known as the Lewd Sonnets.
Pietro Aretino’s exile turned into a life on the run when a bishop, who had been victimized by Aretino’s vicious pen, hired assassins to take out the satirist. So Aretino hit the road and wandered northern Italy. He served various aristocrats and distinguished himself with his wit and audacity. While at it, he also made ends meet every now and then with blackmail. Aretino eventually ended up in Venice, and hit it off with the locals. He spent the rest of his days living a grand and dissolute life amidst the Ventians.
It finally came to an end at a party on October 21st, 1556 when Aretino’s sister told a particularly risque joke. Her brother laughed so hard that he fell over backward from his chair, and keeled over then and there. Another version has it that he was done in by falling into a fit of apoplectic laughter after hearing the joke. Yet another variant has it that his tragicomic demise was caused by suffocation from laughing so hard. However it happened, all accounts agree that laughter was what brought Pietro Aretino to his tragicomic end.
16. Pushing a Middle-Aged and Overweight Actor Beyond His Physical Limits Backfires
1989 saw the release of The Return of the Musketeers, a film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ Twenty Years, depicting events two decades after the original Three Musketeers story. The movie was middling. It opened to mixed reviews, which remain mixed to this day, with a current Rotten Tomatoes rating in the 60% ballpark. Filming was marred by the tragicomic demise of character actor Roy Kinnear (1934 – 1988), who played the role of Planchet, the servant of the Musketeer D’Artagnan.
On September 19th, 1988, on a film set in Spain, a scene called for Planchet to gallop on horseback at speed across a wooden bridge. Kinnear, who was 54-years-old and considerably overweight, had not expected to perform such a strenuous stunt. He also had little to no experience in horseback riding. Indeed, he was described by fellow actors and the filming set’s stunt coordinator as a “nervous” and “incompetent” horseman. That did not stop the film’s director, Richard Lester, from instructing the aging and obese actor to “thunder” at high speed across the Alcantara Bridge near Toledo.
15. A Tragicomic Fall That Killed an Actor and a Director’s Career
The results of director Richard Lester’s demands on actor Roy Kinnear were tragicomic. As might have been expected, ordering an inexperienced, overweight, and out-of-shape rider with next to no equestrian skills to charge at top speed across a bridge was a bad idea. Kinnear fell off his horse, and suffered severe pelvic injuries, which led to massive internal bleeding. He was rushed to a hospital, but the doctors were unable to save him, and he expired from his injuries the following day.
Kinnear’s family sued the movie’s director, Richard Lester, and a producer, for exposing the actor to unnecessary risks while filming. On the first day of the trial, witnesses testified that although the scene was known to be hazardous, Kinnear was not offered a stunt double. That was then compounded by Lester ordering Kinnear to ride at speed across the bridge, despite knowing that the actor was a poor horseman. The following day, the defendants settled the case for 650,000 British pounds. Director Lester was forced to quit the filmmaking business because of his role in the accident.
14. When “Go Kill ‘Em” as an Encouragement to Actors Turns Literal
“Break a leg” in showbiz wishes the addressee success during a performance, not that he or she would literally suffer an accident onstage that requires a cast and crutches. Similarly, the expression “go kill ’em” for comedians does not urge the comic to murder the audience, but to kill them with laughter – figuratively, not literally. However, that was not the case for an eighteenth-century comedic troupe whose theatrical performance in 1782 ended up literally killing an audience member with laughter.
The tragicomic event occurred during an April evening that year when a Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with some friends to see The Beggar’s Opera on Drury Lane, in London. The play starred a popular actor named Charles Bannister, and when he appeared on stage in drag, portraying a character named Polly Peachum, the entire audience was thrown into fits of laughter. A print of Bannister as Polly Peachum gives a hint of what caused the extreme mirth. In the guise of the charming Polly is a lantern-jawed and poorly shaved middle-aged man, in a voluminous dress and holding a fan, staring deadpan.
The Beggar’s Opera’s audience eventually collected itself after bursting its stitches laughing at Polly Peachum, wiped the tears from their eyes, and resumed watching the play. Not so, Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was unable to suppress the laughter that seized her. As a contemporary source described it: “Mrs. Fitzherbert, the widow of a Northamptonshire clergyman, had been with some friends to Drury Lane on the evening of 17 April 1782 to see the transvestite ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in which Charles Bannister played Polly. This lady was overcome by laughter to the extent that she had to leave before the end of the second act. She continued in hysterics until the morning of 19 April, when she died“.
The Gentleman’s Magazine put it more succinctly soon thereafter: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning“. The incident caused waves at the time, as it was pregnant with what were, for its era, several class transgressions. The presence of a clergyman’s widow at a comic play was highly unusual in of itself, and her uncontrollable laughter in public even more. That might have been expected from a fishwife back then, but not from a woman whose gentility was deemed a given back then.
12. A Hit Movie With a Jinxed Production – and One of Hollywood’s Most Tragicomic Demises
1941’s hit movie They Died With Their Boots On was a highly fictionalized depiction of the life of George Armstrong Custer, from when he first entered West Point, to his death at Little Big Horn. Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, the film was a huge commercial success, and one of the highest-grossing movies of 1941. However, production was marred by significant tragedy, as three crew and cast members perished on set during filming – some in unfortunately tragicomic ways.
A jinx seemed to have settled upon the movie set early on, and misfortune stalked the production. At some point, Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it seemed touch and go for the famous actor. In the opening days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, eighty people were injured, and three died. The first fatality was a stuntman who had a massive heart attack and keeled over on the set. Next was an extra with no horseback riding experience, who fell off his steed while galloping and broke his neck. More was to come.
The best known of the deaths occurring on the set of They Died With Their Boots On – and a tragicomic one at that – was the unfortunate demise of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941). An experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn, with whom he frequently played polo, Budlong badgered the famous actor into getting him on set. Flynn relented and got him a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many horseback riding scenes.
Unfortunately for all concerned – and especially for Jack Budlong – Errol Flynn’s buddy got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm, or perhaps more accurately, by simple stupidity. It occurred while filming a scene that depicted a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate cavalry. Instead of using a prop sword, Budlong insisted on using a real saber while leading a Rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As seen below, a coroner’s inquest put the blame for Jack Budlong’s demise squarely on the shoulders of the deceased would-be actor.
10. A Tragicomic Demise by an Actor’s Sword, in an Overly Enthusiastic Display of Zeal
Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield” on the set of They Died With Their Boots On. He rode headlong, enthusiastically waving his saber while prop explosions went off all around, to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Unfortunately, Budlong’s horse was not trained to deal with the explosions and battlefield chaos and noise. Not sharing its rider’s enthusiasm for battle, it panicked and started bucking. Budlong was thrown off his saddle 15 to 20 feet in the air, resulting in one of the more tragicomic ways of shuffling off the mortal coil.
Budlong landed on and was impaled by his own saber – the one he had insisted on using instead of a prop. It ran him clean through, piercing his abdomen and exiting out his back. Budlong was rushed to an LA hospital, but his injuries were too severe to survive. His demise brought to three the number of deaths during production, making They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives during filming: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.
Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) was an ancient Greek artist from Heraclea in Magna Graecia, near today’s Taranto, Italy. He was considered by contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived, and he was praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and pushing it to new levels. He was innovative and broke with tradition, and departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color. Instead, he relied on clever manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works.
Zeuxis often preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure. None of his works survive today, but historical records describe his paintings as exceptionally realistic. As recounted by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Zeuxis entered into a competition with a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, so the story goes, that birds flew down to peck at them. Nonetheless, as seen below, Zeuxis was trumped that day.
Although Zeuxis was a master of realism, he was trumped in his artistic competition with Parhassius, who invited Zeuxis to examine the competing painting. When he tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, Zeuxis discovered, to his chagrin, that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that his rival had won, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, the rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge and a spur in their quest to surpass the ancients.
Zeuxis’ tragicomic end came because of his ungallant conduct towards a wealthy patroness. A rich elderly woman hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting fashioned in her own likeness and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, who was supposed to be the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman wanting to pose as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter and kept on laughing until he dropped over, dead.
Around 1794, Margaretha Peter was born into a large Swiss family, and from an early age, she displayed remarkable religious zeal. By the time she was six years old, Margaretha was a preaching prodigy who captivated congregations with impassioned sermons. Indeed, she sometimes demonstrated a better grasp of the Bible than many grown ministers and men of the cloth. She also had an exceptionally strong personality. That allowed her to spiritually dominate her family and neighbors, whom she turned into her disciples.
When Margaretha turned twenty, she announced that she was a prophetess, and established a small congregation in her village. She also took to wandering and preaching, gaining a reputation and following across Switzerland. In 1823, Margaretha began harping on Satan, warning her followers that he was all around them. Soon, she was experiencing prophetic visions of demons taking over the world. Then one day, she told ten devoted followers to gather weapons and pray, because the final battle between Satan and God was about to begin. What began was a tragicomic chain of events that would lead to multiple fatalities.
6. To Beat Back the Devil, This Congregation Beat Itself Black and Blue
Following Margaretha Peter’s instructions to prepare for the final battle between good and evil, her disciples gathered axes and clubs, and whatever other weapons they could get their hands on. They then barricaded themselves in a farmhouse attic. Margaretha told them that invisible demons had surrounded the house, then, as the suspense built, she shrieked that they had broken in. Her followers were so much under her control that they began to wildly swing their weapons at imaginary devils only she could see.
That went on for hours, during which they destroyed the attic. Then they descended to the ground floor and began hitting each other, on the theory that pain would ward off the demons. They kept at it, until neighbors finally called the police. They arrived to find Margaretha’s followers senseless on the floor, while she continued pummeling them. Things got more tragicomic the following day, when Margaretha told her congregation that more pain was needed to fend off the Devil. She then grabbed an iron wedge and began bludgeoning her brother, while her followers resumed beating each other up.
5. The Tragicomic Ending of a Prophetess Who Ordered Her Followers to Kill and Crucify Her
After beating up her congregation and getting them to beat themselves up, Margaretha Peter announced that her deceased mother’s ghost had ordered her to sacrifice herself. Her sister stepped up and insisted that she be sacrificed instead. Margaretha accepted and began beating her sister with an iron wedge. The rest of the congregation joined in, and soon, the sister had gone to meet her Maker. When a follower protested, Margaretha assured her that her sister would rise from the dead in three days. Margaretha then ordered her followers to crucify her. They were reluctant at first, but she assured them that she would return to life in three days.
So they made a cross, and with Margaretha urging them on, nailed her to it by her hands, elbows, feet, and breasts. She then ordered them to stab her through the heart. They tried, but couldn’t get it right. So they took a hammer and crowbar, and smashed Margaretha’s head. Then the congregation gathered around the bodies, and prayed while waiting for them to come back to life in three days. Needless to say, three days came and went, but the dead Margaretha and her dead sister stayed dead. Her disciples were tried for murder, and eleven were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years.
In ancient Greek mythology, Calchas was a gifted soothsayer, blessed by the god Apollo with the gift of predicting the future from the flight pattern of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greek armies when they invaded Troy, and in the Iliad, Homer extolled his skills, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“. Calchas played a significant role in influencing the events of the Trojan War. Before the Greeks could even reach Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds.
Calchas prophesied that the winds were sent by the god Artemis, who was angry at the Greek High King and army leader, Agamemnon. To appease Artemis, Calchas stated that Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, and the winds shifted, allowing the Greeks to finally sail to Troy. On another occasion during the Trojan War, the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague and turned to Calchas for advise on how to lift it. He divined that the plague was sent by the god Apollo, who was angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father.
3. A Tragicomic Demise From Laughing Too Hard at a Rival Soothsayer’s Failed Prediction
To compensate himself for having lost Chryseis, Agamemnon seized from Achilles, a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize, Briseis. That led to a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad. Calchas also endorsed Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans glommed on to Calchas’ reputation and ascribed to him a prophecy foretelling that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the fall of Troy, then go on to lay the foundations of Rome.
The soothsayer reportedly met a tragicomic end in Magna Graecia, laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s false prediction. Calchas had planted some grapevines, but his rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited the other soothsayer to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at his rival’s failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked and perished by asphyxiation before he got to drink from his vines.
Pankration, which means “all force”, was an ancient Greek sport that combined wrestling and boxing. It was a no-holds-barred event, in which just about everything intended to inflict harm was allowed, except for gouging and biting, or attacking an opponent’s genitals. It is widely viewed today as the ancestor of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). The ancient Greek world’s most famous pankratist was Arrhachion of Phigalia (died 564 BC), who was crowned champion of that sport in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympiads.
He returned to the Olympics in 564 BC, seeking a threepeat a third consecutive championship. Arrhachion advanced through the early rounds and made it to the title bout. There, perhaps with age catching up with him and slowing him down, he got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered Arrhachion, got behind him, and with legs locked around his torso and heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold. Arrhachion was too much of a competitor to accept defeat, however, and managed to turn things around. Unfortunately, the result was his own tragicomic demise.
1. A Great Fighter’s Tragicomic Demise at the Moment of Victory
When Arrhachion of Phigalia found himself locked in a chokehold in the pankration title bout at the 564 BC Olympics, the situation seemed hopeless for him. However, the two-time returning champion was a wily competitor and had a few tricks up his sleeve. Feigning loss of consciousness, Arrhachion tricked his opponent into relaxing a little. When his opponent eased off, the wily title holder snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave.
The sudden excruciating pain made his opponent do the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he made the sign of submission to the referees. However, in throwing off his opponent while the latter still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrhachion ended up with a broken neck. His opponent having already conceded, the dead Arrhachion’s was declared the title bout’s winner – perhaps the only time in the history of the Olympiads that a corpse was crowned an Olympic champion. He thus added a wrinkle to the athletic ideal of “victory or death” by gaining victory and death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading