A blog by Barry Edelson

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

How "Sweeney Todd" and "Peter Grimes"
Make Us Face the Darkness of the Soul

When it comes to literature, the darker the story the better. Perhaps it is a post-Romantic hangover: if a novel, short story, film or play doesn't in some way reflect on the blackest depths of the human experience, I feel I have wasted my time. I enjoy a really good comedy as much as the next person, and I find nothing objectionable in the occasional tale of uplift, so long as it is done with a minimum of sentimentality and contains at least a nod to the bleaker realities of existence. But when it comes down to investing serious time in a book, or serious money in the theater, I want to know that by the end there is a better than average chance that I will be seriously depressed.

Two recent theatrical experiences, both based on stories originating in 19th-century England, certainly fit the requirement: Tim Burton's filmed version of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and the Metropolitan Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes". These are two of the darkest visions of humanity that have ever been brought to life upon the stage or screen, and as such they raise two compelling and baffling questions: Why do people write such dreadful stories, and why are we drawn to them? From prehistory to the present day, the creative impulse has hardly shied away from the tragic and horrific, and audiences have never been hard to attract to the spectacle of human suffering.

Why do people write
such dreadful stories
and why are we
drawn to them?

There is so little human warmth in "Sweeney Todd", and whatever bare flickers of hope for mankind we encounter are so quickly and mercilessly snuffed out, that one wonders if Sondheim deliberately set out to write the most inhuman musical drama possible. Since I saw the movie a few weeks ago, the song that has haunted my recollection is the beautiful "Not While I'm Around" from the second act. But it is not the song's beauty that is haunting. It is very possibly the most cruel song ever written: immediately after this tender duet between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias, the boy she and Sweeney Todd have taken in to work in the shop, they try to kill the boy to keep him silent about their murderous enterprise. As they track him down in the sewers, they lure him with bits of his own song: "Nothing's going to harm you..." It is hard to imagine another instance of treachery more wicked and unsettling, all the more hideous as it is directed against a child.

What are we to make of Sondheim's strange and troubling depiction of this strange and troubling story? It is a tragedy after the Greek model only in the most superficial way. Sweeney is most assuredly frightening and his fate is unavoidable, and every other character with blood on his hands also meets his own inevitable reckoning. But where is the protagonist's greatness of spirit? He is driven to evil not by an inherent flaw in his own nature but by an earlier act of evil committed against him. Is this merely a tale of social injustice, in which the rich and powerful are hunted down for their crimes against the weak and the poor? Hardly, as the weak and the poor are as villainous as their masters, and many whose throats are slit have committed no wrong, as far as we know. Then is this a story of original sin, with the "great black pit" of 19th-century London standing in for the entire fallen world in which no one is innocent? Perhaps that is the best explanation, as it is hard to find a streak of light anywhere in the story. Even the young lovers who make their escape are clearly doomed. Anthony, naively echoing the young Sweeney, tells Johanna, "When we're free of this place all the ghosts will go away." But this is not remotely possible in so brutal a landscape. She says, "No, Anthony, they never go away."

At least Peter Grimes, in Britten's extraordinary setting of the story, has two people who genuinely care about him. The theme of the misunderstood outsider is prominent in many of Britten's dramatic pieces. To what extent this a reflection of Britten's own experience of being a homosexual in a disapproving society, and of being a conscientious objector during WWII during which time the opera was written, is open to speculation. Though Britten apparently enjoyed a very long and fulfilling relationship with the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he lived openly for decades, he, like Sondheim, was drawn time and again to characters for whom redemption is ultimately impossible. There are elements of Greek tragedy in "Peter Grimes" as well, but the 20th century's witness to evil renders the form inadequate to the tale. The chorus in "Peter Grimes" is not merely a commentator upon the action, as in the Greek plays, but is a central character in the ensuing drama. The chorus portrays the menacing and closed-minded villagers, who convict Peter Grimes in the death of his apprentice even though he has been officially exonerated. Peter Grimes knows at the outset that he will never escape the bad opinion of his neighbors. If there was any chance of redemption through the love of Ellen or the friendship of Balstrode, it is undermined by his own failings and the villagers' unceasing hostility.

While "Sweeney Todd" is outwardly satirical and has moments of genuine, though black, humor, there are few musical phrases in the entire score of "Peter Grimes" that are not in a minor key. Like Sondheim, Britten's occasional glimmer of light is meant ironically and only heightens the intensity of the underlying cruelty. The longest sequence that could be termed light-hearted (relative to the overall darkness of the opera) is at the beginning of the third act. And what is the setting for this revelry? The magistrate's pursuit of two prostitutes, an aside of depravity beneath the shadow of Peter Grimes' impending doom. The moment is soon cut short, and the drama hurtles horribly to its conclusion.

Music pries open the window
into our darkest selves.

Perhaps more than any other 20th-century composer, Britten knew how to adapt opera's conventions to modern sensibilities without sacrificing its essence. Most of all, this meant allowing the emotional weight of the story to be carried entirely by the music, and carefully selecting stories which are not so complex in themselves as to overwhelm the score. Opera plots are often and easily parodied: most somehow manage to be both mindlessly simplistic and indecipherably convoluted. But Britten improves upon this tradition of silliness with a plot that can be summarized in a few lines but is still deeply compelling. As in most operas, the unfolding of events in "Peter Grimes" is not as important as the accumulation of emotional history, and the libretto, while clear and incisive, never takes precedence over the score. The words provide the skeleton on which the notes are layered, the darkness of the story conveyed not by dialogue or ideas but by a musical score as forceful and unrelenting as the storm that sweeps in upon the village.

My wife and I watched the opera yesterday as a live broadcast in a concert theater, part of a new venture by the Metropolitan Opera begun last year. Seeing the drama unfold on a giant screen with excellent sound quality was an exceedingly satisfying way to see an opera. The intimacy of the filmed action made the experience at least as absorbing as being in the opera house. In 600 theaters around the world, "Peter Grimes" was probably seen yesterday by more people than have seen it in live performances since it was premiered 60 years ago. Similarly, "Sweeney Todd" probably reached more people in movie theaters in the last few months than have ever seen it on stage. This only underscores the point: there is no shortage of people willing and eager to explore the dark night of the human soul. But why?

Perhaps it is easier to answer the question if we consider a less complex but related phenomenon: horror films. Why do so many people enjoy frightening themselves to distraction? Do we all have an innate need to face our deepest fears in order to find our courage against the real world? In subjecting ourselves to chilling stories like "Sweeney Todd" and "Peter Grimes", do we feel compelled to face the darkness in ourselves in order to believe in our own decency and the potential goodness of human society?

Both Sondheim and Britten, in their distinctly original ways, use music to pry open the window into our darkest selves, creating a context and texture without which we would probably not be able to gaze so long and hard at the unspeakable acts unfolding before us. The result is cathartic (another Greek dramatic invention) precisely because the music is brilliant enough to hold our attention even when our better judgment tells us to look away — much as we cover our eyes in the horror flick as its sinister music rolls over us in waves.

If life is frightening, if everyone seems tainted, if people are always poised to coalesce into an angry mob, then perhaps we overcome these realities by staring the world down, by looking for scant hope in the innocent few, and by sitting quietly in a theater audience to prove to ourselves that we can behave like civilized creatures if we put our minds to it.

March 16, 2008

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