We humans seem to have an insatiable appetite for tales of romantic love, whether fictional ones from Jane Austen for example, or real ones from across the centuries. The fact that these stories often have a very sad ending intrigues us more; how can an emotion such as love be the cause of its own demise? (Note 1)
Such was the passion between Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, that in some ways the end was never in doubt; they choose suicide to stay together in their eternity. When the Roman general Mark Antony first saw Cleopatra he reportedly exclaimed: “Brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the powers to subjugate everyone.” She could have had anything or anyone she wanted but she fell passionately in love with this Roman. As Shakespeare depicts it, their relationship was volatile but, after they risked all in a war with Rome and lost, they chose to die together in 30 BC, rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome in disgrace. Mark Antony stabbed himself with his sword whilst Cleopatra ‘allowed herself to be bitten by an asp’, an Egyptian cobra.
In the first postcard about tragic love affairs I mentioned Elvira Madigan, whom I knew about from travels in Denmark. Many visits to Vienna and holidaying on an Austrian lake gave me insight into the Mayerling story, although I admit it’s not well known here. I thought it was a simple tale of two lovers who commit suicide, but there’s more to it than that.
No one at the time could foresee the fall-out from the doomed love affair between Rudolph, the 30 year old Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover 17 year old Mary Freiin von Vetsera. Rudolf, who was married to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, and was heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary; crucially they had no son, only a daughter. The romantic version is that the strict codes of the Hapsburgs forbade this dalliance and that Rudolf proposed a suicide pact with Mary. Sneaking away to a royal hunting lodge in Mayerling, an hour outside Vienna, the crown prince shot his lover and then turned the gun on himself; it was 30th January 1890.
The Mayerling tragedy is the subject of both a film (1968) and ballet. The former stars such actors as Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, James Mason, Ava Gardner and James Robertson Justice. Historians now agree that Rudolf was a poetic young man, liberal in his politics and often at odds with his conservative father. But he was also a rake, someone who used his position to bed as many women as possible. It’s believed he had some 31 illegitimate children! Another rumour was that he was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife.
The Habsburg court tried to stifle the facts, suggesting he had died of a heart attack but their enemies enjoyed the scandal. As Rudolf had no son, the succession would eventually pass to Franz Joseph’s brother Archduke Karl Ludwig’s eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Sadly for everyone Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist and ethnic Serb, assassinated him in Sarajevo in June 1914. The dominos fell: Austria declared war on Serbia, an ally of the Russian Empire and the systems of other alliances resulted in the start of the First World War that autumn.
What if Rudolph had not committed suicide? He was obviously a man conflicted by the demands of duty and his own personal wishes (Thinks? This reminds me of another prince?), but he had a growing reputation as a liberal on the European political scene and was not supportive of his father’s conservative aims for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maybe there would have been no First World War? You can have fun with ‘What if ….?’
Don’t you find it weird when various songs pop into your conscious brain, every so often? It’s either the lyrics or the musical score or both. Whenever I meet someone called Maria I can’t help it; ‘I once met a girl named Maria.’ just arrives, the memory sung by Tony (Richard Beymer) to his Maria (the beautiful Natalie Wood (Note 2)) in the 1961 film West Side Story. In a smoky cinema in Devizes in Wiltshire one evening I watched another modern day Romeo & Juliet take, this one set in 1950s New York. The portrayal is strong, vibrant, colourful and energetic as rival teenage gangs, The Jets, a white gang led by Riff, and The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo, fight for turf on the mean streets of the Upper West Side. Tony, a Jet and best friend of Riff, and Maria, a Shark and Bernardo’s younger sister, fall in love …… then everyone thinks they know better ….. there’s fighting ….. and a song ‘Officer Krupke’ …….. and eventually Chino, Maria’s fiancé, shoots Tony, who dies in Maria’s arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and pleads with everyone to stop the inter-gang warfare.
My education never covered Greek mythologies but gradually I have learned the outline of the story of Helen of Troy. (Note 3) When Parris (one ‘r’ or two?), the woman-mad Prince of Troy, made a diplomatic mission to Sparta (modern-day Greece), he met Helen and fell head-over-heels in love with her. They ran back to Troy together, causing the Greeks to assemble a great army, led by Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, to rescue Helen, thereby starting the decade long Trojan War. Whether she wanted to be rescued is a matter for debate, so of course is whether she actually existed! We’ll never know, but her romantic part in the greatest epic of all time can never be forgotten, forever remembered as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’. She didn’t actually smash a bottle of Greek Metaxa brandy over the bows as she wasn’t there; it was her face that Menelaus kept in the forefront of his mind when he built the huge navy built with which to attack Troy. Later the Greeks constructed a wooden horse to gain entry to the City of Troy; it secured their victory. Paris was killed and Helen and Menelaus returned to Sparta. (Note 4)
Richard 20th August 2021(my 5th wedding anniversary!)
PS To be continued ……..
Note 1 Well! Of course! Those of us who have experienced love that withers, love that dies, shouldn’t be surprised!!
Note 2 Natalie Wood (1938 – 1981) had married, divorced and remarried fellow American actor Robert Wagner. He remains ‘a person of interest’
38 years after she fell off their yacht and drowned, aged 43. (In the film Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant’s voices sing ‘Maria’).
Note 3 She’s always known as Helen of Troy but of course she was born a Spartan.
Note 4 Coincidentally ……in last Sunday’s Sunday Times book reviews there’s one of ‘The Women of Troy’ by Pat Barker. The most thrilling scenes are ‘set inside the Trojan Horse; sweaty Greek soldiers packed into the wooden contraption as tight as olives’. I can instantly visualise them!!