Something for the weekend. Of course the whole purpose of the above scene from Quo Vadis (1951) was to demonstrate what a deluded buffoon Nero was, but the singing, if one can call it that, by Ustinov still has top place in my musical hall of shame.
The Roman writer and bon vivant Petronius had served as Nero’s arbiter of taste. When he learned that Nero had decided to take his life he committed suicide. Before he did however, he sent Nero a letter attacking him. The letter is lost to history, but the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz gave voice to the probable sentiments contained in it in his novel Quo Vadis:
“I know, my Caesar, that you can’t wait to see me and that your loyal heart misses me night and day. I know that were it up to you, you’d shower me with gifts, make me the prefect of the praetorians, and order Tigellinus to play the role for which the gods created him, namely to feed the mules on the estate you inherited after poisoning your sister Domitia. Forgive me, but I can’t come to visit you just now as I swear by all the ghosts in Hades, and that includes those of your murdered mother, wife, brother and Seneca as well.
“Life, is a great treasure, my friend, and I knew how to pluck the most precious gems out of it. But there are also horrors in life that I can’t endure. Oh, please don’t think I was particularly offended when you killed your mother, wife and brother, burned Rome, and sent all the decent men of this empire to the underworld. No, you grandson of Chronos who devoured his children. Death is a part of our human heritage, and no one would expect you to behave in any other way. But to cripple my ears year after year, with listening to your songs, to watch your puny, skinny legs kicking about in a Pyrrhic dance, to hear your music, your recitations and your creaking epics – you poor, suburban versifier – proved too much for me and prompted me to believe I’d much rather die. Rome plugs its ears when it hears you, the whole world laughs at you, and I can’t blush with shame on your behalf much longer. The howling of Cerberus, the two-headed dog that guards the gates of Hell, may remind me of you, but it won’t hurt as much. I never had to pretend to be his friend, you see, and I don’t have to apologize for his voice.
“Be well, but don’t sing. Kill but don’t write verses. Poison but don’t dance. Burn cities but don’t play the lyre. This is the last friendly bit of guidance you will ever get from … Petronius, the arbiter of taste.”
The brilliant film version of the letter from Quo Vadis: