“Agrippina had long been a problem to Nero, always interfering as she did and quarreling about who should be murdered and who shouldn’t. (Ed. Note: Agrippina was Nero’s mother.) Since he owed her everything for murdering Claudius, he had hoped to kill her as gently as possible. He did not want her to suffer, and he went to some lengths to prevent it. He gave her quick poison three times without result, then fixed the ceiling of her bedroom so it would fall and crush her as she slept. Of course that didn’t work. It never does. Either the ceiling doesn’t fall or the victim sleeps on the sofa that night.”
The preceding passage is taken from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, Will Cuppy’s comically masterful book of biographical sketches of various historical characters. Cuppy transforms his subjects into human beings, not as they’re known from history books, but as they would have been known Cuppy-wise: foolish, fallible, and very much our common ancestors. The section on Nero continues thusly:
“Next, he attempted to drown her by means of a boat with a collapsible bottom, but the vessel sank too slowly and she swam away like a mink. Nero then lost his head completely, as who wouldn’t, and told his freedman, Anicetus, to try anything. Anicetus, a rude but sensible fellow, went and got a club and beat her to death. Maybe the Cave Men knew best.
We cannot be sure how many others Nero murdered, since some of the stories are probably mere gossip. You know how it is. Once you kill a few people, you get a bad name. You’re blamed for every corpse that turns up for miles around and anything else that goes wrong.”
Cuppy was a master of understatement, reducing familiar and not-so-well known historical characters to human dimensions. Consider the following paragraphs on the father of the explorer Leif Ericsson:
“Leif Ericsson, or Leif the Lucky, was the son of Eric Thorvaldson, or Eric the Red, a large, cheerful Norwegian who went around killing the neighbors in his spare time. Because of this bad habit Eric was banished from Norway, so he went to Iceland, where he thought the neighbors would be less fussy.
In Iceland, Eric married Thorhild the Bouncing, the daughter of Jorund Atlisson and Thorbjorg the Ship-Chested, and they had three sons named Leif Ericsson, Thorvald Ericsson, and Thorstein Ericsson. Eric was very fond of home life, but one day he broke loose and murdered Eyjolf the Foul and a few others and was banished from Iceland. So there he was again.”
Cuppy also brings his wit to bear on the home life of those in power, as in this passage from the chapter on William the Conqueror:
“The home life of William and Matilda seems to have been happy enough, barring occasional knockdown fights and petty constant bickering over the children and who was the boss. Matilda was a good wife, except that she always took the part of her rebellious son, Robert Curthose, a rat if there ever was one, unless it was William Rufus, his father’s favorite. In their later years the domestic relationship of William and Matilda approached more closely to the ideal. That is, they stayed as far away from each other as was humanly possible.”
When The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was first published in 1950, it spent four months on the best seller list of The New York Times, and eventually went through eighteen hardcover printings and ten foreign editions, proof of its impeccable accuracy and deadly, imperishable humor. Cuppy can’t be beat for sly wit - be sure to read all about it!
Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.