Don't They Shine Beautiful?

by Jamie Johnston

Jamie thinks about beauty, cleverness, justice, and goodness in Sweeney Todd.
~
Note: Not a review. Rather, extended musings that not only thoroughly give away the plot but largely assume you've already seen at least the film and preferably also the stage musical. All quotations are from the script as published by Nick Hern Books, 1991.


So some time ago I went to see Tim Burton's film version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. When people asked afterwards what I'd thought of it, I commented that I was disappointed that they'd cut it so heavily and I thought Johnny Depp sang like someone out of a boy-band, but my main judgment was that it was absolutely beautiful. This rather surprised and puzzled some people, and the resulting conversations rather set me thinking about a rather interesting side of Sweeney Todd that I hadn't considered before, namely the complex and counter-intuitive way Sondheim and Wheeler, and their characters, use and abuse ideas about beauty and moral goodness.

There's nothing new in saying there's some kind of relationship between aesthetic appreciation and moral approval. They produce similar feelings of satisfaction and admiration. This is especially true in the narrative arts, where beauty and righteousness tend to converge: the aesthetic experience of Hamlet is satisfying not necessarily because the words sound pleasant and are spoken with fine voices by people arranged in a visually satisfying way within the space of the stage but because the words fit their meanings, and their meanings fit the situation, and the characters seem real and are portrayed convincingly, and, in short, everything seems right'; conversely, the moral experience of Hamlet is satisfying not necessarily because any of the characters is morally exemplary or because the message of the play is morally uplifting but because there is a sort of poetic justice at work that makes us feel, at the end, that things have unfolded in the way they ought to have unfolded and a sort of normality and moral sanity has been restored, and, in short, everything seems right'.


His skin was pale and his eye was odd

Sweeney Todd plays on this tendency to equate aesthetic quality with moral quality. The first point to note is the importance of human physical beauty (or ugliness) in the play. The very first thing we are told about Sweeney himself - indeed the first thing that's said in the entire show, after the opening instruction to "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" - is that "His skin was pale and his eye was odd". Clearly this is pretty standard stuff (the funny-looking ugly guy is the villain: so far, so Richard III), but it's still interesting that Sondheim brings it to our attention so early, even before the ostensibly more relevant fact that "He shaved the faces of gentlemen / Who never thereafter were heard of again". Appearance comes up early, too, in Sweeney's first mention of his lost wife:
There was a barber and his wife,
And she was beautiful.
A foolish barber and his wife.
She was his reason and his life,
And she was beautiful.
And she was virtuous.

Well, there you are: she was beautiful and she was virtuous. Naturally. And it turns out, in due course, that Sweeney's daughter Johanna is also beautiful and virtuous; and although the text doesn't give a description of her suitor Anthony it's a fair bet that in most productions he will be handsome, because he's young and good-hearted and wants to rescue the damsel in the tower. And another villain, Judge Turpin, as well as being a dirty old man lusting after his barely adolescent adopted daughter, is clearly rather shabby, since even his loyal sidekick feels compelled to sing:
Forgive me if I suggest, my lord,
You're looking less than your best, my lord,
There's powder upon your vest, my lord,
And stubble upon your cheek.

But hold on: it's a little more complex. Though the prologue tells us that Sweeney's skin is pale and his eye is odd, Mrs Lovett calls him "beautiful" twice in four lines; and, sure enough, here he is in the film played by the beautiful Johnny Depp and looking all the more appealing for his pale skin and dark eyes. Nor was Michael Cerveris unattractive, shining bald head notwithstanding, in John Doyle's 2005 revival of the stage version; and even not a ridiculous hairstyle and trousers up to his armpits could conceal the fact that Len Cariou, the original Broadway Sweeney, was a well-built man. And there are other tensions between appearance and character. Most crucially, of course, the squalid beggar-woman turns out to be Sweeney's beautiful wife; and the flashy and exotic Signor Pirelli is actually an Irish con-man called Danny O'Higgins. More subtly, Beadle Bamford, of whose appearance nothing specific is said, is a villain very much concerned with the appearance of himself and others, at one moment giving cosmetic advice to the Judge and at another being tempted to his death by the promise of a pomade and a facial rub. Taking his cue from these contradictions, Burton gives us Timothy Spall as a Beadle who is very effete and foppish but still looks utterly disgusting on account of his lank hair and rotten teeth; and he makes him the sidekick of Alan Rickman who, as the Judge, looks rather dashing despite the powder upon his vest and the stubble upon his cheek. On the other hand Burton plays tricks with the good-looking young couple as well: both Anthony and Johanna (described as "looking so sad, so queer" by Anthony) have rather odd faces, attractive in a way but also cartoonish and slightly unsettling.


We blind 'em, sir

But perhaps more important than the appearance of the characters is the way they respond to and comment on beauty. After telling us that there was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful, Sweeney continues:
There was another man who saw
That she was beautiful,
A pious vulture of the law
Who with a gesture of his claw
Removed the barber from his plate.
Then there was nothing but to wait
And she would fall,
So soft,
So young,
So lost,
And oh, so beautiful!

The way he tells the story, it seems that the fates he and his wife suffer are the direct consequences of her beauty at least as much as of any particular immoral decision or action by Judge Turpin: she is beautiful, Turpin sees that she is beautiful, and disaster follows inevitably. Later we see Turpin himself struggling in vain to resist the effects of Johanna's beauty:
Johanna!
Johanna!
I treasured you in innocence
And loved you like a daughter.
You mock me, Johanna,
You tempt me with your innocence,
You tempt me with those quivering -
No!
God!
Deliver me!

In both cases the implication is that beauty necessarily constitutes a temptation or even a provocation to evil and that the worst we can really say about Turpin is that he fails to resist it.

Misfortune and misery are linked not only to beauty of face but to other forms of natural beauty. Johanna's first song, Green Finch And Linnet Bird, asks,
Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate,
Sitting in cages,
Never taking wing?

And later,
Are you discussing or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

The last line, with the striking and disturbing idea that the beautiful song of a bird could be a scream, is revealed, when Anthony tries to buy a bird for her, as the closest to the truth:
Anthony:
He sings bravely. But why does he batter his wings so wildly against the bars?

Bird-seller:
We blind 'em, sir. That's what we always does. Blind 'em and, not knowing night from day, they sing and sing without stopping, pretty creatures.

Again, a direct causal link between beauty and violence. Indeed in Burton's film there is incredible beauty in the violence, and moreover the violence is about the only source of beauty in the film. Sweeney promises his razors that "You'll soon drip precious rubies", and sure enough Burton provides blood (and lots of it) of a heightened scarlet that runs in elegant rivulets and splashes in lively shining beads, culminating in that astonishing final shot of Sweeney hunched over his wife with a waterfall of bright red blood pouring from his throat onto her body and spreading out in a butterfly-like pool across the stone flags of the cellar. And this linking of beauty and violence is no superficial add-on by Burton: it's woven through the play, and of course arises from the very premise that Sweeney kills people who have come to him to be made more attractive.

Even where there is no causal relationship between violence and beauty, a strong association between them is built up by repeated juxtaposition. The Judge's song, in which he praises Johanna's beauty while whipping himself, has already been quoted. Later, when he visits the tonsorial parlour for the first time, he sits in the chair as Sweeney viciously whets his razor to cut his customer's throat but, in place of the threatening, tension-building music one might get in a thriller, the two men sing a dainty duet in praise of:
Pretty women...
At their mirrors...
In their gardens...
Letter-writing...
Flower-picking...
Weather-watching...
How they make a man sing!

And similarly, in the musical sequence that shows us, in condensed form, Sweeney's murder spree, he kills client after client while singing a gorgeous, dancing melody to his daughter:
And are you beautiful and pale,
With yellow hair, like her?
I'd want you beautiful and pale,
The way I've dreamed you were,
Johanna...

And the song ends, as the sun comes up, with Sweeney, full of cheerfulness and double-meaning, greeting "Another bright red day!" In fact, though in these scenes the beauty of the music and the praise of beauty in the words seem divorced from and opposed to the threatened and real violence being enacted, they are inextricable. In the first Pretty Women Sweeney observes that pretty women "Stay within you"; and in the reprise of the same song, a few seconds before he himself is killed, Judge Turpin exclaims, "What we do for / Pretty women!" Well, what do we do in this play for pretty women? The Judge rapes, imprisons, and forces marriage; Anthony (as we shall see later) conspires, deceives, and abets a murder; and, most centrally, Sweeney kills and kills and kills. All he sings about as he does it is his wife and daughter: they drive him on, because "Pretty women / Stay within you." One might be forgiven, on thinking about the plot of Sweeney Todd, for saying that Sweeney is driven by love, but in fact he never says the word, or anything much like it: never love, but always beauty.


Too bad. Pure thing.

So far it seems that beauty in Sweeney Todd is often the cause, accompaniment, and consequence of violence; another dimension opens up when we notice that often the beauty in question is accompanied by virtue and innocence. This is clear in Judge Turpin's rendition of Johanna and in Sweeney's description of Lucy, his wife; and the idea that virtue and beauty lead to misfortune and evil appears elsewhere, often casually, as for instance when Mrs Lovett sings, in her own re-telling of the story of the barber and his wife,
Poor thing. Poor thing.
There were these two, you see,
Wanted her like mad,
One of 'em a Judge,
T'other one his Beadle.
Every day they'd nudge
And they'd wheedle.
But she wouldn't budge
From her needle.
Too bad. Pure thing.
So they merely shipped the poor bugger off south, they did,
Leaving her with nothing but grief and a year-old kid.
Did she use her head even then? Oh no, God forbid!
Poor fool!
Ah but there was worse yet to come -
Poor thing.

The echoing of "poor thing" with "pure thing" emphasizes the link between virtue and misfortune, and Mrs Lovett even seems to go further and say that the couple's misfortune was the wife's own fault: "Too bad. Pure thing. / So they merely shipped the poor bugger off..." and then, "Did she use her head even then?" The suggestion seems to be that to save her husband and child Lucy ought to have given herself to the Judge, and that therefore the blame lies primarily on her purity' rather than on the apparent villains. Of course this fits with Mrs Lovett's devotion to Sweeney and her consequent hostility to the wife, but it simultaneously reinforces the message that to be beautiful is to ask for trouble and to be virtuous is to be foolish.

This message seems frequently to be endorsed by what we ourselves see and hear in the play. The romance of Athony and Johanna, the two most obvious examples of both virtue and (at least in Johanna's case) beauty is the early part of the play, is frequently ridiculous in its naivety and frivolity. This is, of course, true to some extent of any conventional love-at-first-sight romance in melodrama, if looked at with a cynical eye, but in Sweeney Todd it is deliberately emphasized. In their duet Kiss Me! Johanna spends virtually the whole song completely ignoring what Anthony is saying while she frets, hears imaginary noises, and wanders off at tangents. At one point she declares that with him beside her she won't care that she hasn't brought anything with her, and then immediately spends eight lines explaining that she must, nonetheless, take her reticule; at another she sings,
I loved you
Even as I saw you,
Even as it does not
Matter that I still
Don't know you name, sir...

And it's another feature of their courtship that Anthony's conduct is persistently, though subtly, characterized by a certain measure of questionable morality. After their first encounter, he sings not, "I'll rescue you, Johanna," but, surprisingly, "I'll steal you, Johanna"; and then, the Beadle having wrung the neck of the song-bird Anthony tried to give to her, he smashes the empty bird-cage, which of course on one level symbolizes his intention of liberating Johanna from her captivity but which on a more immediate level associates his love for her with a slightly startling act of aggression. Later he goes to Fogg's lunatic asylum to rescue her, armed and presumably intending to shoot his way out if necessary, though in the end he loses his nerve and it is Johanna who picks up the gun and shoots Mr Fogg (while in the film they simply abandon him to be torn apart by the other inmates). In fact Anthony arguably indulges in as much obsessiveness, violence, and subterfuge in his attempts to elope with Johanna as the Judge does in trying to keep her (the crucial difference being, of course, that Johanna wants to elope with Anthony and does not want to be imprisoned by Turpin).

Another way in which virtue and innocence are implicitly disparaged is the complete success with which the various villains of the piece deceive and manipulate the good and honest characters. After failing to persuade her in the ordinary way, Judge Turpin eventually has his way with Sweeney's wife Lucy by pretending to be contrite, inviting her to his house where there happens to be a masked ball going on, has her plied with drink, and then rapes her while the guests look on: a scheme that, as Mrs Lovett narrates it, is so transparent that one finds it difficult to feel entirely sorry for Lucy in her failure to see through it. Toby, despite living and working on the premises for quite some time, totally fails to notice that there seems to be some link between the arrival of a new customer at Todd's tonsorial parlour and the delivery of fresh supplies of meat to Lovett's pie shop, or that very few customers ever leave the tonsorial parlour. None of this seems to have much to do with the cleverness of the deception; rather, it is to do with the trusting nature of the characters who are deceived: they are good and honest and therefore fail to consider the possibility of others not being. No one but Sweeney sees through the blatant frauds of Signor Pirelli, and no one but Mrs Lovett sees through Sweeney's own fictitious persona. Toby and Lucy do manage to get half the picture each, but they are blinded to the whole truth by affection: Toby senses there's something wrong about Sweeney, but is too fond of Mrs Lovett to guess that she's a party to his evil and ends up inviting his own execution by revealing his suspicions to her and offering to save her from the barber; meanwhile Lucy denounces Mrs Lovett as a witch and knows there's something evil about the smoke that pours out of her bakehouse chimney, but can't see her own husband's involvement and warns him about her, even calling her "the Devil's wife" without apparently realizing that this makes Sweeney, Lovett's live-in partner, effectively the Devil. Sweeney promptly cuts her throat: a pretty typical reward, in Sweeney Todd, for being honest and naive.


It take-a da art

So it seems that one cannot, in this play, be both good and clever; and yet, in another way, being clever is often treated as equivalent to being good, or even as more admirable. And this brings us back to beauty and the appreciation of beauty: for as well as natural physical beauty there is a pervasive theme of the beauty of human artistry. A somewhat frivolous example is the contest between Sweeney and Pirelli, in which Pirelli lays so great a claim to excellence in the art of tooth-pulling that Queen Isabella of Poland so enjoyed having her tooth pulled out by him that she wanted them all done. He goes on to sing that:
To shave-a da face
Or even a part
Widout it-a smart
Require da heart.
It take-a da art -
I show you a chart -
...
It take-a da skill,
It take-a da brains,
It take-a da will
To take-a da pains,
It take-a de pace,
It take-a da grace -

And, of course, while he sings this Sweeney quietly wins the contest; but this, rather than undermining Pirelli's point, proves it very nicely, and at the same time shows us that Sweeney is the real artist. Indeed, Sweeney's artistry and cleverness is a major motif. It is most clearly stated in Mrs Lovett's description of Benjamin Barker:
There was a barber and his wife,
And he was beautiful,
A proper artist with a knife,
But they transported him for life.
And he was beautiful...

The prologue concurs. Its second verse (after the one that tells us about Sweeney's pale skin and odd eye) relates that "He kept a shop in London town / Of fancy clients and good renown", and then asks, "And what if none of their souls were saved? / They went to their maker impeccably shaved / By Sweeney". A few verses later the praise expands:
Inconspicuous Sweeney was,
Quick and quiet and clean 'e was.
Back of his smile, under his word,
Sweeney heard music that nobody heard.
Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned,
Like a perfect machine 'e planned.
Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle,
Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle.

And in the epilogue Sweeney and Mrs Lovett rise from the grave to remark that "To seek revenge may lead to hell / But everyone does it, though seldom as well / As Sweeney". As for Sweeney himself, his most effusive praise in the entire play comes when Mrs Lovett suggests making the murdered Pirelli, and various future patrons of the tonsorial parlour, into pies:
Mrs Lovett,
What a charming notion,
Eminently practical and yet
Appropriate, as always.
Mrs Lovett,
How I've lived without you
All these years I'll never know!
How delectable!
Also undetectable.
How choice!
How rare!

This is, of course, why these two villains dominate the play: certainly not because they are morally better than anyone else, nor even because they are morally worse; not because they are more attractive or emotionally easier to empathize with; but just because they are more ingenious and audacious. They outwit everybody at every turn, and anybody who seems to have got the better of them (such as Pirelli or the Beadle) quickly ends up the worse for it. They manipulate and orchestrate and Sweeney in particular, in the tradition of Iago and the Count of Monte Christo, almost stands outside the plot and propels it like the writer and director of the play itself (another aspect of his artistic accomplishment: "Sweeney heard music that nobody heard").

The cleverness of Sweeney and Mrs Lovett has a transformative magic to it. Even before their meeting, they are both traders in transfiguration: a barber wields a knife to make ugliness into beauty, and a pie-maker makes animal-carcasses into delicacies. Then each pushes further. Sweeney turns beautification into murder; Mrs Lovett transforms the by-products of murder into the best pies in London; Sweeney converts his chair into an efficient method for disposing of bodies; between them, they create a gloriously grim factory turning hypocrisy and corruption to gastropub gourmet delight.


We all deserve to die! Tell you why, Mrs Lovett, tell you why.

Mrs Lovett's genius is, as Sweeney says, practical and economical. Her vision, though audacious, is limited to the meeting the needs of the moment. Once they've made enough money, she'll be quite happy to give it up, and even the retirement she sings of is a realistic and practical one:
By the sea, Mr Todd,
That's the life I covet;
By the sea, Mr Todd,
Ooh, I know you'd love it!
You and me, Mr T.,
We could be alone
In a house wot we'd almost own
Down by the sea...

To her the murder factory is just a means to solve several immediate and temporary problems. She recognizes that one of those problems is Sweeney's pathological desire to kill, but even this she regards as something rather akin to a hobby:
By the sea, in our nest,
We could share our kippers
With the odd paying guest
From the weekend trippers,
Have a nice sunny suite
For the guest to rest in -
Now and then, you could do the guest in -
By the sea.

This smallness of vision is why she must ultimately be overpowered by Sweeney's more unhinged, more grandiose genius. In theory Sweeney could perhaps come to the end of his "work", regain his daughter, and retire; but the audience understands quickly that this is in reality impossible, and even Sweeney himself sings to Johanna, as he slashes his way through the City of London's stubbly populace:
And if I never hear your voice,
My turtledove, my dear,
I still have reason to rejoice:
The way ahead is clear,
Johanna...

His obsession is driven by the beauty of his wife and daughter, as I suggested earlier; but it is also driven by the beauty of poetic justice. One strand of the philosophy of law proposes that justice is really fittingness, and at any rate this is true of poetic justice: an outcome feels just and right if it is proper, neat, appropriate, fitting; and this is, in fact, a sort of beauty, too: the beauty of the perfect solution. Sweeney has a strong sense of fittingness, but one that leads him to grim conclusions. An early warning comes when he takes up his razor again for the first time since his return to London and shouts, "My right arm is complete again!" But at this stage his motive is ordinary revenge; when Turpin escapes from his chair, however, he snaps and, in a passage that deserves to be quoted at length, moves beyond revenge to a sort of topsy-turvy justice:
There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it's filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it -
But not for long!
They all deserve to die!
Tell you why, Mrs Lovett,
Tell you why:
Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs Lovett,
There are two kinds of men and only two.
There's the one staying put
In his proper place
And the one with his foot
In the other one's face -
Look at me, Mrs Lovett,
Look at you!
No, we all deserve to die!
Tell you why, Mrs Lovett,
Tell you why:
Because the lives of the wicked should be
Made brief.
For the rest of us, death
Will be a relief -
We all deserve to die!

There is a psychotic logic to Sweeney's epiphany: there are oppressors and oppressed, and the former deserve the punishment of death for their wickedness, and the latter deserve the reward of death to relieve them of their misery. Here the idea appears, for the first time, as a grim and serious thesis; but it gets its fullest and most satisfying expression as an extended joke in A Little Priest:
For what's the sound of the world out there?
...
Those crunching noises pervading the air?
...
It's man devouring man, my dear,
And who are we
To deny it in here?
...
The history of the world, my love -
...
- Is those below serving those up above.
...
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below.
...
We'll not discriminate great from small.
No we'll serve anyone -
Meaning anyone -
And to anyone
At all!

What delights Sweeney about Mrs Lovett's plan is not only that it is "eminently practical" but also "appropriate". It solves many problems at once; it is neat; it is clever; it is elegant; it is economical; it is proper; it is just; it is funny; it is perfect; in short, it is beautiful.


Shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd

That beautiful plan is set out and elaborated in a song that, though in the structure of the play it's Mrs Lovett's star turn, shines an important light on Sweeney's character; for he delights in the song itself and much as in the plan. As the song begins (after some prefatory recitative establishing the plan), Mrs Lovett makes most of the running in terms of ideas and jokes:
Todd:
What is that?

Mrs Lovett:
It's priest.
Have a little priest.

Todd:
Is it any good?

Mrs Lovett:
Sir, it's too good,
At least.
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh,
So it's pretty fresh.

Then he starts to participate a little more:
Todd:
Awful lot of fat.

Mrs Lovett:
Only where it sat.

Todd:
Haven't you got poet
Or something like that?

Mrs Lovett:
No, you see the trouble with poet
Is, how do you know it's
Deceased?
Try the priest.

We may note at this point that part of the fun of this song in the way it plays not only with ideas and words but also with rhyme. Nothing unusual there, of course, especially in Sondheim, but the difference is that in this song the characters themselves seem to be aware of their own use of rhyme; and we can see Sweeney's increasing participation in the song in these early stages by noticing that he starts with non-rhyming lines ("Is it any good?" and "Awful lot of fat"), but now essays his first rhyme ("Haven't you got poet / Or something like that?")

Next, warming to the theme, and fortified by a bite of the imaginary priest-pie, Sweeney now ventures a rather poor joke of his own, calling it "Heavenly." Lovett giggles (not a mere directorial touch but stipulated by the stage-directions) and, further encouraged, he gets further involved, first with a slightly better joke (and rhyme) -
Mrs Lovett:
Lawyer's rather nice.

Todd:
If it's for a price.

- and a little later even joining the game up inventing new pies (with, again, a more confident and playful rhyme):
Todd:
Is that squire
On the fire?

But Mrs Lovett doesn't yield him control of the game so easily, responding by both contradicting the content of his contribution and outdoing his rhyming with the greatest display of virtuoso comic rhyming (both final and internal) so far:
Mrs Lovett:
Mercy no, sir,
Look closer,
You'll notice it's grocer.

And now the song really takes shape as a sort of duelling game in which they try to outdo one another in the cleverness of their word-play, rhyme, and ideas for new pies. I shan't quote the whole song here; suffice it to say that the two become increasingly delighted with their own and each other's cleverness, and Sweeney in particular (especially well played in this respect by Michael Cerveris in the 2005 revival) relishes both such multi-layered and ideologically meaningful punning as "Those above will serve those down below" and the more off-the-cuff word-games of which this exchange (regrettably cut in the film) is the pinnacle:
Mrs Lovett:
Now let's see...
We've got tinker.

Todd:
Something pinker.

Mrs Lovett:
Tailor?

Todd:
Paler.

Mrs Lovett:
Butler?

Todd:
Subtler.

Mrs Lovett:
Potter?

Todd:
Hotter.

Mrs Lovett:
Locksmith?

... At which point Sweeney laughs heartily at his own defeat. But the song, and this passage in particular, shows us something beyond the fact that Sweeney has a sense of humour. He started the play wanting revenge. Frustration and rage at the corruption and hypocrisy of society pushed him into wanting revenge not only on the individuals who have wronged him but on people in general; but even at that point it was all rather abstract and generalized, and moreover was motivated by a sort of social theory rather than any sense that he enjoyed the idea of killing people. But by the end of this song he and Mrs Lovett between them have in their minds' eye gleefully slaughtered, cooked, and eaten a priest, a poet, a bishop, a curate, a lawyer, a Royal marine, a squire, a grocer (and notice how they move from the sort of upper-class moralizers Sweeney dislikes to the lower and arguably more honest classes), a vicar, a tinker, a tailor, a butler, a potter, a locksmith, a clerk, a chimney-sweep, a financier, a bank cashier, a beadle, a fiddle-player, a piccolo player, a rear admiral, a general (with or without his privates), a fop, a shepherd, a politician, a friar, an actor, a judge, and an executioner. And why have all these people been condemned? Not, by and large, because they've done anything unpleasant to Sweeney, nor even because their professions or characteristics invite his disapproval, but because they lend themselves to jokes, word-plays, and clever rhymes.

A Little Priest is the focal point of the play for many reasons, but one must be that it most clearly exposes the extreme moral tension that results from the importance throughout Sweeney Todd of beauty, cleverness, neatness, poetic appropriateness, comedy, and other such interlinked objects of human asthetic appreciation, from the instinctive tendency of both the characters and the audience to make the mental link between these qualities and the quality of moral rightness, and from the fact that this instinctive linking ends up leading to the most monstrously immoral outcomes without it ever being entirely clear how this has happened.


A wondrous sweet and most delectable thing

I say "of the characters", and indeed the aesthetic sensibility of almost every active character has an important part to play in furthering the plot. Judge Turpin's appreciation of Lucy's physical beauty caused Sweeney's initial exile, and his appreciation of Johanna's beauty similarly triggers the main plot that plays out upon his return. Anthony's reaction to Johanna's beauty is similarly crucial; and in out of Fogg's asylum he is required to put his aesthetic discrimination to use as Sweeney carefully teaches him all the various shades of blonde hair known to wigmakers. The Beadle, with his love of adornment and culture, is instrumental in sending the Judge to Sweeney's tonsorial parlour in the first place; his keen eye for a good shave is the reason why he is chosen to judge the competition between Sweeney and Pirelli; and near the climax of the play Mrs Lovett is able to distract him from discovering Toby's imprisonment by engaging him in a rendition of a folk-song. Pirelli himself, of course, poses as the consummate artist of the barber's trade and in direct consequence both provides the capital for Sweeney's tonsorial parlour and becomes his first victim. Even Toby, though hardly an aesthete, is initially ensnared in the Todd-and-Lovett culinary enterprise as a result of his enjoyment of gin and pies (and sings, as he wanders on-stage in his final derangement, "Bake me a pie / To delight my eye, / And I will sigh / If the crust be high"). Mrs Lovett, the only really active female character, has a different sort of aesthetic psychology, and one much more strongly tempered by pragmatism, but her collaboration with Sweeney, and her deception of him with regard to Lucy's fate, without which none of Sweeney's actions in the play would occur, nonetheless all arise from her infatuation with the barber who was "beautiful: / A proper artist with a knife". And Sweeney himself, as I've argued, drives the play like a writer-director and is himself driven by the most highly developed aesthetic sense in the piece, an appreciation encompassing physical beauty, the beauty of the fitting outcome, the beauty of the perfect solution, and the beauty of the clever joke. In fact the only characters not distinguished and motivated by their personal aesthetics are the largely passive Lucy and Johanna, both motivated (in so far as they do anything at all) by subjective personal attachment to their respective loves rather than by objective appreciation of beauty.

Not even the nameless denizens of London escape being implicated in Sweeney's reign of terror as a direct result of their aesthetic enjoyment: on the contrary, without their enjoyment nothing would happen at all. For it is, after all, in pursuit of a more attractive appearance that Sweeney's customers come to him; and it is in pursuit of a more satisfying culinary experience that the customers at Mrs Lovett's pie-shop end up eating the customers of Mr Todd's tonsorial parlour. The first act closes with Sweeney and Mrs Lovett plotting the killing and baking of the professionals and tradesmen of London in A Little Priest; the second act opens with the professionals and tradesmen of London eating one another with enormous gusto and appreciation in God, That's Good!. Their praise for the pies, and by implication Mrs Lovett's artistry (and by further implication, though they don't know it, Sweeney's too), is so emphatic that by the climax of the song they become completely incoherent:
God, that's good that is de have you
Licious ever tasted smell such
Oh my God what perfect more that's
Pies such flavour
God, that's good!!!

But, of course, it's not good. On the contrary: it's thoroughly evil. But the ambiguity of language itself here reinforces the central tension between ethics and aesthetics in the play: the morally worst pies in London are the aesthetically best pies in London. And where does that leave the people who eat them? The pies are delicious, and no one can censure them for enjoying the sensation of eating them; at the same time, they are undeniably supporting, with their praise and their enjoyment, a sort of cottage industry of murder and cannibalism. And this is, in a sense, what the audience of Sweeney Todd is doing too. We sit for a couple of hours enjoying the music, the acting, the jokes, the wit, the ingenuity of the whole thing; with subtle encouragement we end up admiring and sympathizing with the villains. Sondheim and Wheeler manipulate us just as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett manipulate all the other characters in the play. But we are even more morally compromised than the pie-eaters on stage, because when we laugh at A Little Priest we know exactly what we are enjoying: a terribly clever and witty and melodic song about arbitrarily killing and eating people. We enjoy it all the more because we know that. And if we come out of the theatre at the end feeling that we've seen a good show, we are not unlike the people who leave Mrs Lovett's feeling that they've had a good pie.


Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?

Of course the paradox of people enjoying plays about horrific events is so old and so much explored from Aristotle onwards that there's nothing very significant about this particular example of it. But one of the remarkable things about Sweeney Todd is its central concern with what causes that paradox, namely the apparent inability of the human mind in practice to make and observe a clear and definitive distinction between aesthetic enjoyment and moral approval. It is a problem that both pervades the play and expands beyond the play itself to the very fact of the play's existence: it hangs heavily not only over the stage but over the whole auditorium. There is a moment in epilogue that is often interpreted as a rather ham-fisted and ineffective attempt to implicate the audience by suggesting that we all want revenge and do morally dubious things in its pursuit:
Men:
No one can help, nothing can hide you -
Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?

Company:
Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney's weeping for yesterday,
Is Sweeney!
There he is, it's Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
(Pointing around the theater)
There! There! There! There!
There! There! There!

The real force behind this is not that we are all driven by revenge (for Sweeney himself, as I've argued, is not really driven by revenge) but that we are all driven to a great extent by aesthetics. We enjoy what pleases our eyes and ears, what tickles our senses of smell and taste and touch, what is clever and witty and funny, what is neat and ingenious and impressive, what seems fitting and appropriate and satisfying. And, like Sweeney, we can all too easily forget that none of these qualities is necessarily the same as being morally sound, and that a good pie may not always be a good pie.
Themes: Theatre
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Comments (go to latest)
Jamie Johnston at 17:40 on 2008-05-27
Many thanks to Rami for persuading the electro-pixies to approve this article for uploading!
Wardog at 11:46 on 2008-05-28
By the way, the only reason I haven't commented enthusiastically on this yet is because I have yet to find anything even remotely worthy of it. This is a *wonderful* article.
Rami at 15:17 on 2008-05-30
>thanks to Rami
You're very welcome! Unlike Kyra I haven't seen either the play or the film so I can't comment -- which is good because I don't think I could come up with something to follow this article.
Wardog at 16:03 on 2008-05-30
Nooo! Bollocks. The ferret ate my comment, which was lengthy and *astoundingly* erudite. Indeed, it's like will never be seen again and this is but a poor replication.

I was just saying something about how interesting it is to observe the way the themes you explore in your article transfer from the stage play to the movie adaption. Obviously the film is (necessarily) a very different beast to the play and very enjoyable on its own terms but the (again, necessarily) compressed format of it means that that these ideas and themes seem to make it the screen, err, excuse the pun, half-baked.

Todd himself: you mention in your article that he's a rather iago-like figure in his revenge-scheming, as he manipulates and controls the events of the play itself. But in the movie I understand they made a conscious decision to cut most of his spoken dialogue - the consequence of which is that he's detached from action and also seems be acting almost entirely on impulse (cf. his sudden plan to entrap the Judge when Anthony tells him of Joanna's incarcaration in the asylum - it all comes off in a flurry, there's non of the careful planning depicted in the play). And because they cut A Little Priest so extensively we never get to see Todd really relishing the cleverness and neatness of the plan - it's a moment of rare playfulness from him, yes, but because it's so short and he soon degenerates back into soulful staring and mooping it seems almost out of character in the film. Because he does not linger in appreciation of the both the plan and the game, his complicity in both (although, of course, he is) doesn't feel real (at least, it didn't to me) - and because of that, the audience doesn't feel complicit *either*.

Joanna Reprises: In the film there's only the two given to Anthony and Todd, which creates, I think, a perhaps unhelpful correspondence betwene them and sets the Judge apart from them as an antagonist. Essentially Joanna becomes a sort of anthem to loss - as Anthony combs the streets in search of her and Todd alternatively slits throats and stares out of the window with melancholy eyes. But in the play because the Judge *also* sings a rendition of Joanna, then we draw correspondances between the three of them and intead of being an anthem of loss, as you so rightfully point out in your article it's an anthem of possession and objectification and they're all as bad as each other. Poor girl.

Toby: In the play, because he's a halfwit, Toby's credulity (in not noticing the massive murder and meatpie-ification business going on right under his nose) and his affection for Mrs Lovett both spring from his foolishness, and thus cannot be seen as positive markers within the context of the play. But in the movie because he's a small boy (albeit a gin-soaked one) the implication is that they spring from something as wholesome as innocence. I think in the play we tend to feel a bit contemptuous of Toby (because he is stupid and credulous and, therefore, deserves his madness-inducing disillusionment) but in the film I think perhaps we feel genuinely sorry for him.

Anyway, I'm babbling. Just some thoughts.
Sister Magpie at 17:05 on 2008-05-31
I don't know what to add to this article except that I totally loved reading it--and also Kyra's comment above mine. Particularly the comment about Toby...it made me think about the aesthetic choice of making Toby a young boy, for isn't a pale little boy more beautiful than a half-wit older one? And how does the boy soprano differ aesthetically from the usual tenor? Madness is of course something that runs throughout the play, and Toby's own madness is what leads to the "perfect" conclusion--when he's mad he can finally see the way Sweeney does and so see that just as Mrs. Lovett needed to be killed when she did, it's now right for Sweeney to have his own throat cut for killing others (especially the beggar woman, who Toby in the play singles out as exactly the person Sweeney *shouldn't* have killed, without knowing just how right he is).

The play also often has Toby's madness symbolized by an aesthetic change that gives him white hair, but even in the movie I think there's clearly something "beautiful" in Toby's transformation. In the play he of course begins reciting poetry and seemingly sees connections and patterns where he didn't before that send him into more poetry (the razor, the pie). And of course Sweeney's actions wind up unleashing many other madmen into the streets with their own beautiful but dark visions (city on fire, lunatics yelling at the moon, hunchbacks kissing...).

Heh. Looks like I did have more to say! I loved this article! Brilliant1
Jamie Johnston at 18:52 on 2008-06-02
Aw, shucks, thanks all! I totally agree with your comments. One of the great things about Sondheim is that once you find a theme or an idea in one of his musicals you can think about it more and more and eventually just about every sentence (and probably, if one's musical knowledge is good enough, every musical phrase) turns out to link back to it. Like Shakespeare (though not always so effectively).
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