Sweeney Todd: George Dibdin Pitt

Actually, I couldn’t find the actual play by George Dibdin Pitt, so this one is by Austin Rosser, based on the play by George Dibdin Pitt. Oh well. This is a really interesting adaptation, especially after seeing Tim Burton’s take on The String of Pearls. Like the Tim Burton adaptation, this one engages what Elaine Hadley calls the “melodramatic mode” in order to translate Thomas Preskett Prest’s distinctly disorganized narrative into a triumph of middle-class virtue over working-class vice. The chaotic disorganization of The String of Pearls complicated our adherence to these comforting categories, I think, and sometimes we were sympathizing with Sweeney Todd in spite of ourselves.

This theatrical adaptation opens with Sweeney Todd taking on Tobias as an apprentice. Interestingly, this version fleshes out Tobias’s flights of emotion when Sweeney Todd says, “Your ma told me that you come from a very ‘delicate’ family, and easily upset, that you’ve been tenderly nurtured and you’re to be treated as such” (2). Not so with Prest’s Tobias, whose mother seems jolly and affectionate, but not overly attached to her son. Tobias’s “delicacy,” apparently, explains why he’s always crying and wringing his hands (although, to be fair, he has plenty of reason to cry). It also aligns him with middle-class sensibilities, like those of Joanna.

Anyway, Mark Ingestrie is pretty much what he was in Prest’s novel–a seafaring man who comes back home with a string of pearls to claim Joanna’s hand. He stops by Sweeney Todd’s barber shop for a shave, gets thrown down to the basement by the mechanical chair, and survives the fall thanks to an obliging corpse, who breaks his fall. This is not exactly what happened in the novel, but actually, Prest doesn’t tell us anything about Mark until he shows up, destitute, as Mrs. Lovett’s new baker. What happened to him in the meantime? Prest doesn’t really care. Get over it.

In this version, Mark escapes from the dungeon, somehow climbs back up through the mechanical chair, instructs Tobias to run to Joanna and alert the police, and then hires himself out to Mrs. Lovett as a baker. He bites into only one pie before he realizes that they’re made of human flesh: first, he finds a hair (not that surprising), but then he finds a fingernail, which might also be a bone–and he jumps to the right conclusion.

Meanwhile, Joanna is busy fending off the lecherous advances of the local priest, who has her mother’s blessing to marry her by force, if necessary. He “helps” her search for Mark when she decides that he’s missing, but then tries to rape her in an alley. Not sure how the original version by Pitt treated this scene, because it’s fairly graphic in this Rosser re-make. I would normally say it’s more graphic by nineteenth-century standards than by 21st-century standards, but I think that rape is graphic by any standards, really. But Sweeney Todd interrupts them at the key moment, and Lupin (the priest) retreats. Then, Todd tries to slit Joanna’s throat, since he knows she’s looking for Mark (who he thinks he’s killed). But then Lupin re-interrupts after he hears Joanna scream. In the confusion, she runs off in a panic, and Lupin takes the opportunity to make an appointment for a shave.

As in the Tim Burton adaptation, this version gives Joanna much less sexual agency than she had in the novel. Prest’s Joanna also had a mother who wanted her to marry a lecherous priest, but she refused, insulted by the idea. Admittedly, it helped that she had a father on her side, who was willing to physically shame the priest–but still, the novel shamed the priest, while the play subjects Joanna to attempted rape (twice).

This brings us to Mrs. Lovett–another helpless victim in this adaptation. Again, in the novel, she’s portrayed as fully, willingly, voluntarily evil. She has some fits of conscience toward the end, but she’s not much of a victim–certainly not a victim of extortion. Here, she’s kind of pathetic. She’s looking for a husband–again, not something she did in the novel (who needs one, when your human-meat-pies are bringing in so much business?). She flirts with Lupin, who flirts back in order to get dirt on Todd. He then stupidly tries to blackmail Todd, who promptly uses his mechanical chair, and then Lupin is no longer a threat. Later, Mrs. Lovett tries to quit the pie-making business, telling Todd that she is “still a country girl at heart” (25). Todd threatens to kill her, extorts her continued cooperation, and then the play suggests that he rapes her. Wow. More rape. The subtle suggestion here is that, according to the logic of melodrama, she “deserves” to be raped, because she’s an accomplice to all of Todd’s murders. This upsets me for a lot of reasons, but for now, I’ll just focus on how UNLIKE Prest’s Mrs. Lovett this Mrs. Lovett is. Prest’s Mrs. Lovett actively uses her sexuality to sell pies, playing on the emotions of her predominantly male clientele. She uses this same sexuality to imprison the men who work in her bakery, and never seems the least bit bothered by any of this until the end of the novel, where she, inevitably, gets her comeuppance. This Mrs. Lovett has very little agency, acts like the trauma victim that she is, and eventually gets thrown in the furnace, just like Tim Burton’s Mrs. Lovett.

After this dramatic scene, Sweeney Todd is passed out drunk in the bakery, while Mark impersonates a disembodied Voice in an attempt to scare Todd (which doesn’t work very well). Mark eventually confronts Todd, who beats him up, and is about to kill him when he decides that it would be a better idea to tie him up and make him watch his lover get raped. At this point,  Todd goes off on a love-hating rampage: “all you lusty young loving couples, watch out! Sweeney is on the prowl! And I hate yer. It’ll be you, then her. Eh? Eh? Haha! All you young fellows with fancy notions in your heads, wenching in shop doorways, in narrow alleyways, yearning for it under the arch of a bridge–watch out tonight, ‘cos old Sweeney is on the loose and he’ll uncouple you” (35). This Sweeney Todd seems to be motivated by the more melodramatic factors of rage and jealousy, while Prest’s Sweeney Todd was more motivated purely by greed. He never would have gone about “uncoupling” lovers, unless they had something valuable for him to steal. His murderous rampage was purely economic. This one is much more squarely melodramatic.

But it gets even weirder. After killing Fogg after running into him on the street (another helpless victim in this version, rather than the pure evil he was in Prest’s version), Todd grabs Joanna (who randomly happens to be walking alone in a dark alleyway) and takes her down to the basement where he has Mark tied up. By this time, the police are out looking for Todd (since Tobias had already alerted Joanna some time ago), so he has to be quick about things. But, as he’s getting ready to rape her in front of Mark, he insists that she tell him she loves him, which she refuses to do. She loves Mark, after all, not Sweeney Todd. This draws things out long enough for the police to be almost there by the time that Sweeney gives up and starts crying in response to Joanna’s sympathy: “I don’t love you–I don’t–I don’t–I feel sorrow for you–a terrible sorrow–I …” (40).

Okay, let me try to work through this here. After the quote above, the stage directions say: “Joanna breaks off as she realizes that her arms are thrown out impulsively towards Sweeney and that there are tears on Sweeney’s face” (40). Her arms are thrown out “impulsively.” Because she doesn’t really know or have control of what she’s doing. Just as she instinctively can’t lie about who she loves, even for her own self-preservation, she also instinctively reaches out to comfort her would-be rapist when she notices he’s crying. Wow. Just… wow. What happened to Prest’s cross-dressing, mystery-solving Johanna? For his part, Sweeney responds to the sympathy by saying, “Just one kiss. (He pauses) Just the one kiss which has been denied me all my life–(hesitantly)–that pure kiss which penetrates the soul!” (40). Hmmm. There are two words that Prest’s Sweeney would have mocked incessantly: “hesitantly” and “pure.” This Sweeney is just… what? A neglected child who never got the love he needed? Just as much of a victim as the countless people he himself has victimized? This is the note the play ends on, as he kills himself just as the police are about to arrest him, and Joanna continues to try to comfort him as he falls. Fascinating.

After reading this adaptation, I think this is a good time to reflect on one of the dominant narratives I was told about literary history as an undergrad: we should avoid criticizing the past for being the past. The other dominant narrative was the opposite of this: authors from the past lived in different times, and those times were sometimes reflected (negatively) in their work. While I understand the first model–we shouldn’t criticize the past for being the past–I think it’s outlived its usefulness for me. I can definitely see the melodramatic context of this George Dibdin Pitt adaptation, and can appreciate that it portrays some Victorian female characters in a recognizably Victorian way. Fine. But I think that when we advise students not to “criticize the past for being the past,” we reinforce this notion that the past is simply one thing, that it’s monolithic in some significant way. This cautionary narrative of reading literary history actually capitalizes on stereotypes, in my opinion. We might say, “well, Victorians had different notions of femininity, and we shouldn’t criticize them for not behaving as 21st-century people would.” That’s certainly true, and the problem I have with that logic is not that it seems to be apologizing for something we might call “sexism” or “misogyny,” but that we assume that Victorians had a monolithic notion of sexuality that they should not be judged for. As I’m seeing from the differences between the Prest version and the Burton and Pitt versions, there are many different Johannas and Mrs. Lovetts that Victorian readers/theater-goers consumed. And the Johanna that I’m praising–Prest’s Johanna from The String of Pearls–isn’t even a representation that I’d describe as “subversive” in any way. That might seem like an easy descriptor for a cross-dressing female detective in a novel of the 1840s, except that Prest wrote for an extremely popular, extremely rich, and extremely powerful publishing house–and The String of Pearls is a product of this hegemonic publisher, whose top executives were in the top 1% of British earners. So, in the context of British publishing culture, it’s dangerous to label any of this output as “subversive,” really. Prest’s Johanna is just a typical, conventional, cross-dressing, assertive Victorian heroine. So, can I criticize Pitt’s Joanna for being a typical passive, submissive Victorian victim? Yes. Absolutely. Because there’s no “the past” to criticize. “The past” is not a thing, does not exist. There are only pasts, which overlap, oppose, and contradict each other, and I can absolutely prefer some pasts over others. That doesn’t make me any less of a historicist, I don’t think, because I’m engaging in versions of the same debates that my source material was engaged in–which keeps the literature alive just as much as paeans to its literary merit do.

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