Reason to Beat your Wife

A tale in which someone knows the secret of a how to have a happy marriage

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Do you dare tell a tale with a title like this? Can you cope with the uncomfortable moving of your audience in their seats when you first give the friend’s advice?

If you can, and can carry your audience through to the end of the story, you will have one of the greatest laughs from them – and they will be yours for the rest of the performance.

To carry them through that awkward time, make sure your body language and voice give them just enough of a clue that they do not need to leave the theatre immediately.

I found this Egyptian story in The Second Virago Book of Fairytales, Vol. 1, ed. Angela Carter (London, 1992, ISBN 1-85381-616-7). An excellent collection of tales.

“Husbands and Wives” is a Danish tale with essentially the same plot in Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark: Stories collected by Jens Kemp (trans. by Stephen Badman).

The version below was posted on the Storytell listserv by Lois Tzur:

The Feast

In France, some 400 years ago, there was a noble family which was blessed with wealth and property, and twelve fine sons. But when, at last, a daughter was born, they were all delighted. She was their darling, the joy of their hearts. With so many brothers surrounding her, the girl learned many other things besides the domestic arts and feminine graces that become a female, things that most women of her time never learned: history and languages and philosophy; running and climbing and even a little swordplay; chess and cards and all the gambling games of the nobility; the code of honor of a gentleman. According to this code, a gentleman must not show his suffering, of body or spirit. Most especially when another person had caused him pain, by word or blow, on purpose or by chance, he must never reveal his pain to that person.

One day the brothers saw that their sister was now a graceful young woman; and with their parents’ consent set out to find a proper husband for her. Noble and rich, of course; young but not too young; and attractive, witty and warm-hearted as well. Of course they looked first among their cousins and their parents’ circle of friends; but it happened that all the suitable young men were already married. So they turned to other aristocratic circles, less familiar to them, and almost at once seemed to find just what they were seeking. In addition to all the qualities they had listed, he was an only child, and one of his estates was not more than fifty miles from one of their estates. Neighbors, almost.

The brothers quietly investigated the young man by casually yet carefully questioning his friends, his fellow officers in military service, his fellow students at university, and some cousins of his own age. Not a word against him. So they went on to the next step and arranged to meet him themselves, then invited him to visit their home for a week, to give the two young people a chance to get to know one another — carefully chaperoned, of course. At the end of the week they questioned their sister. Could she accept this man as her husband? And she shyly confessed that she could; his manners, his talk, his looks all appealed to her. After that everything was quickly arranged, and within two months she was married.

And within three months she was sorry for it. True enough, no one had a word against him. But they had forgotten the old saying: “Beware of the man nobody likes, but seventy times beware of the man everybody likes.” For such a man, as you will see if you stop to think, must be at the least dishonest. And so it was in this case. The man was a sadist (though the term had not been invented yet) who took his greatest pleasure in causing people pain, physical or mental. But he only tormented those who were in his power, who could not complain. His parents, for example, or his servants. The tenants on his land, the common soldiers under him, shopkeepers who wanted his custom. His character was known, yet secret. For of course, the brothers never questioned that kind of person. And now he had a wife to torture; oh, what glee!

What her parents or brothers would have done if they had learned of her situation I can only guess, for she, with her brothers’ code of honor, made it her first aim in life not to let them know her troubles. Her code served her badly here, but helped her in another way: she also made it a point not to let her husband see how he hurt her, and received every act or word as if she were made of marble. There was no fun for him in tormenting someone who didn’t feel a thing, so more and more he left her alone and went off to take his peculiar pleasure among women made of flesh, or brought these women back, to humiliate her. It didn’t — it pleased her to be rid of him, but she had sense enough not to show that, either, just kept her marble, senseless face.

She made the best of her situation, and when she was left alone used her skills to manage the estate, and tried to make up to the helpless peasants for some of her husband’s cruelty. Never when he was present, though. If only she could have been sure that he would never come to visit, or if she knew when he was coming. But here, too, he did all he could to make trouble. He would appear without warning after a week or after ten months — you could never be sure.

Once, when he had been insulting everything about her and cursing the fate that gave him such a lumpish wife, she said, still marble-faced, “I know we must be married until death parts us, but if I am such a burden, I will go and live alone, far away, in Italy or Germany, and you can tell everyone that I have gone for my health.” This was a mistake. She would have been better off if she had wept and begged him never to leave her, not to disgrace her by sending her away. At the least hint that she might prefer to live without him, he redoubled his visits and his insults. But her stony face bored him, and he went off to find new interest: politics.

After months of absence, he came back in the middle of the night, pulled her out of bed and ordered her to get ready at once to come with him to their mansion near Paris. He needed her, he had invited all the great men of France to a dinner in three weeks’ time, and she must prepare a feast beyond compare; if these people were satisfied with him, he would be given a high post, near the King, and his future would be assured.

But she did not move. She sat in an armchair and said to him, “I’m not coming. I won’t help you one bit, why should I?” Enraged, he started towards her with uplifted fist, ready to beat her into submission. She only laughed. “Go ahead, beat me. Wouldn’t the King like to see me with black e yes, serving him food! Kill me. Then who will speak to you? Why should I help you? Make it worth my while. Swear on your honor as a gentleman of France that after the feast I may go away from you and live alone in Italy — you may say it is doctor’s orders, or that I am crazy, I don’t care — and I’ll make you a perfect feast, without fault or flaw, such as has never been seen before.” She knew, that in the fashion of the time, if he swore to do something, he would keep his oath.

He was outraged, but did not dare to beat her. Not even on her back — the crazy woman might show her wounds to some of the wives at the feast, and that would end his career. But to lose her — to lose a source of pleasure, someone to torment, now that he was at last sure that she hated every moment of their life together! Yet what could he do? And at last he found the answer: “You yourself said you would make me a perfect feast. So be it. If you make a feast that has no flaw, no fault, where no-one, not my guests and not I, can find anything missing, find any fault or flaw — why then – then I’ll let you go to Italy to live alone. But if anybody — my guests or myself — asks for something that is not there, you must stay.” As she herself had offered a perfect feast, she felt she had to accept this offer.

And then she had not a second to waste. Off to Paris at once. The servants knew everything, as servants always do, and out of love for her did everything to help her win her wager. It was summer, and with a prayer to the gods that it would not rain, she planned to serve the feast in the magnificent gardens of the estate, so that all around she could have tents or huts full of servants and supplies, near at hand, and the snap of her fingers would bring what was asked for in seconds. The great day came, and God be praised, it was cloudless and warm. She went to take one last look at the tables before the guests arrived. All was laid out like a picture, in perfect symmetry. And at that instant, a bird came flying by, and let drop a ‘calling card’ right on the spotless tablecloth. She had opened her mouth to call for a servant to change the cloth when she heard the sound of the first guests approaching. No time! Quickly she took a bowl of fresh fruit, and moved it to cover the stain on the cloth, praying that her husband would not notice the lack of symmetry before the guests sat down. The battle had begun.

Throughout the afternoon, the husband tried every way to trap her into failure. He didn’t want this wine, why was there none of his favorite? And in an instant a servant appeared with what he had asked for. Singers? Old fashioned! Ballet, that was modern. And at once dancers appeared from a tent. And so on, time after time. She had thought of everything. He begged the guests to make requests, and either they asked for simple things, or they refused to make any request, overwhelmed with all that was offered. At last, in spite of all his efforts to keep them , the guests began to leave. He stood there, apologizing in Oriental fashion for the poor fare, the foolish entertainment, but only received delighted compliments in return. The feast was over, the guests were leaving were leaving; he had lost his wager, he had lost his wife, and furious, forgot the guests and roared out, ‘Shit! Shit! SHIT!!”

Triumphantly she lifted the bowl of fruit, and pointing at the tablecloth, said, “Yes, my husband, if you really want shit — we have that, too.”

Lois wrote of how she came across this story:

“When I was in Jonesborough in 1990 I spoke to a teller whose name I don’t remember and mentioned that I was searching for stories for adults. He gave me a three line summary of this story, and said I could find it in Balzac’s Droll Tales. I did eventually buy a copy of the Balzac book, and found the story, which is only a few lines. But meanwhile I had created MY story, and stuck to it.”


The video clips here are all amateur quality, shot in various theatres.

Their intention is just to show the range of my storytelling and give a flavour of a live performance.

Permission is granted for use in non-commercial educational contexts.

The videos are © Richard Martin.

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