These days Sweeney Todd just doesn’t cut it
Another year ends at school and I am the guest at a brilliant performance of the musical Sweeney Todd. This tells the story of the demon barber of Fleet Street who slits a succession of throats, their owners winding up as the main ingredient in the meat pies of his landlady, Mrs Lovett. This commercial practice they justify on the basis that Sweeney will eventually avenge a great wrong done to him by a corrupt judge and a venal beadle. I have seen it several times over a good many years and I realise that the more I see it, the less I like it as a piece of musical theatre.
My first thought was to assume that this must be something to do with my tastes changing. After all, it’s the same musical. On reflection, I think many productions fall into the Hollywood trap of trying to make Sweeney Todd, as played by Johnny Depp in film, a dark and brooding tragic hero. Such drama cannot cohere because any sympathy Sweeney’s historical betrayal and conviction may evince will not survive the sheer brutality of his actions. At the risk of sounding like Lady Bracknell, to kill one person to right a terrible wrong may pass for justice, but to murder scores of random people on the way begins to look like psychopathy. By aiming at high tragedy, the piece risks overreaching itself.
This tension reveals itself in the playing. For though there was prodigious talent in the cast, I was reassured to find that the most artistically convincing and emotionally compelling moments were when the “good” characters sang of love and beauty. By contrast, it was impossible not to feel that when these gifted performers were trying to get into the skins of evil characters they had none of the emotional resonance required to be frightening; instead, a hint of the moustache-twirling pantomime villain lurked about their malice and depravity. It occurred to me that it is precisely because character reveals itself in action that we had to invent dramatic soliloquy. It is a device necessary for the justification (or at least the mitigation) of evil. By contrast, good actions need no analysis of motivation.
I noticed something else too. Napoleon is reputed to have said something to the effect that one negates the tragic potential of any dramatic confrontation simply by having the protagonists sit down. Similarly, when Sweeney Todd starts singing to his razors, the instruments of his revenge, his menacing words are rendered tame. Singing humanises; it is an expression of the desire to connect to others which we learnt in the cradle. It affirms goodness or the desire for its recovery. David soothes Saul’s demons by singing. Once one of the Desert Fathers had a vision of the Devil with no knees – a simple expression of his refusal to bend the knee and serve. Analogously we might assert that, in contrast to the choirs of angels in heaven, there is no singing in hell. This is the simple expression of its community of exponential isolation. No one would be moved by it.
And something in me must have changed, that I view this musical differently. I can no longer accept what I would call the glamour of evil: the idea that evil is fascinating, or compelling, or Johnny Depp-cool. It wasn’t the Übermensch power of evil radiating from Nazi war criminals which impressed itself on their captors; it was their ordinariness. As evil is a privation, there is nothing larger than life about its devotees once contrasted with the goodness of holiness. When we expect there to be something glamorous about evil we will always be unpleasantly disappointed because its glamour is a mirage generated by our own inadequacy, our refusal or failure to strive for the Good.
As a priest, one is frequently asked what it is like to hear confessions. Many people have the perception that there is something sensational about it, as though there were a kind of appropriation of power that must come with hearing sins, or that sin predominates in that tribunal. Any priest will tell you that, of all the places in the world, here the real nature of evil is revealed, stripped of any glamour by recourse to God’s infinite grace, the act which makes me myself once more.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London