Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.
But in 1533, they weren’t happy and nothing could fix it. Henry VIII wanted a son. His wife, Catherine of Aragon didn’t produce one quick enough. So, Henry had his marriage to Catherine declared invalid by a corrupt official.
The vows Henry made were gotten rid of the moment they were found inconvenient. His wife was not allowed to see her daughter, and she died in loneliness. Some medical experts claim there was no poison only cancer, but it’s perfectly possible that the poisoning affect of her failed marriage hastened her death.
When one sees the excuses Henry made for his divorce, claiming that the marriage not being biblical, one wonders why he married her in the first place? Henry wanted the Pope to annul what he originally asked the Pope to permit.
Well, maybe she smelled bad, as some people get gas attacks in old age. Maybe her Spanish accent was starting to get on his nerves. Maybe when she was younger she was really attractive, and now the shallow old man was growing tired of her.
But, if we look at other royal marriages, we see the convenience of linking two families. In laws could be powerful allies in Indonesia, as they hoped their own family would gain the throne. But with a divorce, once powerful allies could become powerfully bitter enemies.
Yet, over 200 years later, when the Brothers Grimm put together their household fables, the idea that one could marry royalty and live happily ever after was still believable enough. This seems strange, considering the prevalence of high profile divorces at the time.
Before Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed his wife Josephine, he had thought himself sterile. Then, Napoleon’s mistress had an illegitimate son who resembled Emperor Napoleon in many ways (no doubt the baby was short, fat, and cried a lot.)
Ironically, Napoleon had recently banned divorce. Well, now his colleagues (or perhaps Josephine’s enemies) told him that having a natural heir was in his interests, and those of the nation.
So, Napoleon got a divorce. He was now free to link his empire with that of Austria. The heir to the Austrian throne married Napoleon, and she eventually bore the Emperor a son. But alas, the child did not survive into adulthood.
From these marriages and others in places as diverse as Jakarta and Alexandria, it appears that marriage served at least two purposes. Marriage extended families, creating bonding alliances, and marriage created a framework for inheritance of titles, goods, names and wealth.
In 1812, the year that the Brothers Grimm published their first fairy tales, there were rumors of a royal divorce in Britain, or of the Prince of Wales desiring one. Yet, people still held to the idea that a royal wedding, with a castle, a fortune, and a beautiful spouse, guaranteed eternal bliss. And, while princes in places like Indonesia had dismissed wives and consorts that became inconvenient, Britain’s royal couple stayed together.
It seems my grandparents were much more realistic. Marriage was never meant to be an ideal, more of a responsibility. The old films on television speak of a series of responsibilities, where two people promise to look after each other in sickness and health, poverty and wealth, and so on.
But, my parents generation didn’t seem to stay together “for better or for worse.” Divorce rates surged for that generation, in both the United States and Portugal. According to Science Daily, Single baby boomers are more likely to live in poverty, and be ill or disabled than those who married and stayed that way. They are also less likely to have health insurance.
Now, we may say it serves them right for expecting their marriage to be a magical “happily ever after” and not having the patience to put up with “for better or for worse.” We may say that their lack of patience and responsibility shows in their expanding waste lines, in the fact that few of them seem to have started effective businesses, and in the fact that they aren’t even stepping into leadership positions when the world needs their experience. Or, we may claim that past generations were trapped in loveless marriages and the baby boomers are just doing what others would have done in their place.
The baby boomers were fed two fantasists. Not only did they have Disney continuing to idealize the perfect spouse in the “happily ever after” marriages that needed no work, but they also had Disney with it’s fatalist “Parent Trap”, where a troubled marriage could not be saved. Great movies about failed marriages won awards, and continue to do so. Being a single parent was no longer a mark of shame, it became more of a badge of honor, “I raised these kids by myself.”
Well, Generation X, or the part of it I know, turned away from that. Some never married in the first place, or never bothered to go through with the formal ceremony. But those that have that I know of have generally outlasted the marriages of their parents.
I wondered, were the Baby Boomers too lazy to keep their vows?
When I was legally married, in a civil ceremony in Britain a little over a decade ago, the officiator (who I assume was a government official) did not read a long list of promises like in a film script. No, she should have been hired by the impatient villains in “The Princess Bride” and “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.”
While I was expecting more to come, a long list of promises to memorize, she simply said “to the exclusion of all others.”
Well, no one objected to the short ceremony, and there was ice cream cake afterwards. No one objected to that either.
Which brings me to the next myth about marriage. “If anyone objects, he should speak now or forever hold his peace.” Oh, if only those who object to the traditional ideas of marriage vows could hold their peace for ten minutes, let alone forever! If only annoying people had the same short attention span when it comes to criticism as it does when it comes to fixing their own relationships.
In one of my favorite films, Gandhi, other reasons for marriage are spelled out. Again, like in the famous marriages that ended centuries before, it’s the dissolution of a marriage which brings out its true meaning.
According to the film, when Gandhi was in South Africa (about the first decade of the 20th century), General Smut issued a decree banning any religion that wasn’t a “Christian” one. This law dissolved Hindu marriages and Muslim ones, both singular and polygamous.
I’m not sure if Gandhi’s said the words attributed to him, I can’t seem to find a reference in a speech from that time, so perhaps the movie glamorizes it a bit. But in John Briley’s screenplay “Gandhi” say that “Under this act our wives and mothers are whores. And every man here is a bastard.”
So, marriage (to some in the 1980s, when the movie was made) was about legitimacy of the family unit, a moral legitimacy. It was an insult at that time not only to be thought to be in unmarried relationship that resembled marriage, but also an insult to be thought to be born into such a relationship. To have the status of a marriage questioned was to bring dishonor to the family created by it. Yet, that idea of marriage as necessary part of family life seems to be dying.
It is strange that those same people who reject the idea of marriage being a necessary form of morality want to expand it to another kind of relationship that the creators and defenders of the tradition have generally found immoral.
Yet, what I’m interest in is more the stories that we skip over. There were those like that of the Prince Regent of Wales in 1812, but perhaps at that time they felt compelled by duty to country or children to work their marriage out.
So, I’ve found a script, based on the works of the classics like Moliere, set in modern Wales, about a couple that doesn’t have to stay together. There are no national alliances or civic threats that they must keep up. They don’t have to break apart either, there is no abuse, deceit or abandonment.
Instead, I wondered what would happen, if two people who lived in the same house drifted apart and became strangers.
What if living happily ever after was not the end of it, and drifting apart was not the end either? As I look to history, I didn’t find a model for my couple. I found it in a script I’d written years ago from my imagination and inspired by the great classical playwrights of centuries past. But I decided to set it in modern times, among ordinary people, when people are no longer encumbered by politics and outside pressures. Only when the political and economic reasons for marriage are eliminated could a story reflect what marriage is truly about.