The Demon Barber at Your Service [Tracing Sweney Todd – finale]

An article dated June 13, 1934 “Part of the Show,” which was written in response to Sweeney Todd and other productions, suggests how theatre producers engaged the audiences’ attention with various techniques to make sure that they kept following what went on on the stage, and therefore, eventually, to make sure return audiences. “Audiences are waking up to the fact, long recognized on the other side of the footlights, that they play an important role in any kind of entertainment offered them.” This suggested that the theatre would strive to present various effects and elements that would capture the audiences’ senses. Considering the gory material of the story of Sweeney Todd, one could imagine what kinds of effects were produced before the audiences’ eyes. “Every performer, from the clown to the dignified public speaker, knows that the mood and temper of an audience are as important as its contribution at the box office… More direct and obvious is the training given recently by producers of plays which need quick applause and hisses for best effect.” Hinted is the awareness of theatre producers to master audiences’ psychology to be able to control their responses. They would do what they needed to do technically to achieve the desired effects and engage the audiences actively.

The delightful collaboration between stage and pit encouraged by Mr. Morley in Hoboken some time past, the gay participation in old songs between the acts of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ a few years ago, and the lively part taken by the audience in some of today’s shows are all of a piece. It may be too informal for some tastes, but most people like to help in their own amusement.

Involving the audiences to some degree in the dramatic world of the play had been a successful technique. Audiences familiar with dramatic cues felt emotionally involved and participated actively with their spontaneous responses. The same articles gave an example. In a play called The Drunkard (also by Dibdin-Pitt), when “the villain tries to lure the hero to the villain’s ale-house, the latter’s moment of hesitation is the cue for ‘Don’t go, don’t go,’ from all quarters of the house.” We could imagine how emotionally involved the audiences might have been seeing a customer sitting in the barber’s big trap chair, with Sweeney standing behind him holding a sharp razor.

Although criminal stories are always in demand both in paper and for the stage, another demand also came along with it eventually: better quality, which in first decades of the 20th century could also mean embracing some naturalistic style. Another essay written by Charles Morgan in 1932 presented his appreciation of James Bridle’s work The Anatomist, which also told about criminal minds just like Maria Martin and Sweeney Todd. The piece was “a serious and extremely able play, written from the point of view not of the murderers but of Dr. Knox, the Edinburgh surgeon whose researches required a continuous procession of human anatomical specimens.” While the greater part of the play was still made in the old tradition of melodrama, it also presented scenes which made more senses and more authentic to real life, which also paid attention to the language being used. The Anatomist was, according to Morgan, “an ancient melodrama with an overlay of modernity.” The play uniquely combined both melodrama conventions with naturalistic drives. “The blood and thunder came; heredity and the ethics of capital punishment were conveniently put aside; and we were free to observe with interest the dramatist’s and the actor’s compromise between modern naturalism and melodramatic tradition.” At this particular period, attention had been paid to the storytelling details of pieces dealing with crimes and violence in addition to the dramatic plot and visual effects typical of melodrama.

So, the old legend of Sweeney Todd the demon barber has been told, written, adapted to the stage, and revived. Its popularity has been proved undiminished. Starting from an obscure source, it was one of the urban legends that continued to haunt its English public. Born in the era of melodrama and operating in that particular genre, the 19th century Sweeney Todd presented “bigger than life” features of the convention. Playing with the ideas of deepest fears, the productions of this melodrama engaged the audiences in an active emotional involvement to what was going on before their eyes in their battle against a strong, horrifying evil power of the murderous barber. Although the story of Sweeney has gone through some adjustments to suit contemporary audiences, from the penny dreadful versions, Dibdin-Pitt’s stage version, to the most recent Sondheim’s musicals, it still retains some of its melodramatic characteristics: the condition of being trapped in a nightmare where a lot of things happen to the extreme, and the journey ends when we, audiences, are awake from the dream. Although goodness won, it wasn’t an easy winning, and therefore was highly satisfying – which proved to be key in the success of the piece and its subsequent revivals. Quoting Brooks, “melodrama is indeed, typically, not only a moralistic drama but the drama of morality: it strives to find, to articulate, to demonstrate, to ‘prove’ the existence of a moral universe which, though put into question, masked by villainy and perversions of judgment, does exist and can be made to assert its presence and its categorical force among men” (20).


Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1976.

“Concerning the Vernal Habit of Play Reviving.” The New York Times 11 April 1926

Duncum, Paul. “Attractions to Violence and the Limits of Education.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 40.4 (2006): 21-38.

Fell, John L. “Dissolves by Gaslight: Antecedents to the Motion Picture in Nineteenth Century Melodrama.” Film Quarterly 23.3 (Spring 1970): 22-34. JSTOR. U of Kansas Libraries. 21 November 2006

Frank, Leah D. “Hissing the Original Sweeney Todd.” The New York Times 22 July 1984: LI 13.

Kanfer, Ethan. “Creepy friends.” The New Leader 88.6 (2005): 65.3. Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. U of Kansas Libraries. 15 Dec. 2006

“Literary Reform Urged.” The New York Times 17 October 1897

McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre & Society, 1820-1870. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 1992.

Mollin, Alfred. “Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd.” American Music 9.4 (Winter, 1991): 405-417. U of Kansas Libraries. 21 November 2006

Morgan, Charles. “Melodrama as an Art: A Study in Contrasts.” The New York Times 1 April 1928
_____________. “Touching Up an Old-School Melodrama.” The New York Times 10 January 1932

“One Opening.” The New York Times 13 July 1924: x1.
“Part of the Show.” The New York Time 13 June 1934
“Rialto Gossip.” The New York Times 20 July 1924
“Robert Vivian of Sweeney Todd.” The New York Times 3 August 1924

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Urban Legends in the Pickwick Papers.” The Journal of American Folklore 96.382 (1983): 462-470. JSTOR. U of Kansas Libraries. 8 December 2006

“Sweeney Todd.” <;

Tanner, Michael. “Blunt edge.” Spectator 295.9184 (August 14, 2004): 38(1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. University of Kansas Libraries. 15 Dec. 2006

Thompson, Alan Reynolds. “Melodrama and Tragedy.” PMLA 43.3 (1928): 810-835. JSTOR. U of Kansas Libraries. 21 November 2006

Here comes the “Niagara of blood” [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 5]

Charles Morgan wrote for New York Times an article “Melodrama as an art: a study in contrasts, Sweeney Todd and Mary Dugan as exponents of diverse styles,” on April 1, 1928, four years after the premiere of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. He compared and contrasted the two plays that shared a similarity of presenting criminals at the heart of the stories. From this essay we can find some information about the style of the Sweeney production, at least based on this writer’s review. By the time he wrote it, it seemed that melodramatic style had become somehow outdated as realism came to the contemporary theatre. However, Morgan said that there were still good things about Sweeney Todd that were worth appreciation. The Trial of Mary Dugan, according to Morgan, claimed to be “the exact reproduction of an American murder trial,” while Sweeney Todd, he argued “on the contrary, does not aim at being an ‘exact reproduction’ of anything in heaven or on earth,” which he thought to be its “outstanding merit.” He went on describing that the piece as obeying an artistic convention of melodramatic style, which was indeed different from realist convention, and therefore, deserved objective judgment. Unlike naturalism’s “slice of life” rules, it presented selected high moments of a life course, and this guaranteed a highly dramatic plot.

The convention of Sweeney Todd is roughly this—the high lights of the picture are required to suggest the whole picture. This is the opposite of the genuinely naturalistic convention that is derived from Ibsen—a convention which often requires imagining of the whole to expand from an accumulation of details each of which, considered separately, might be insignificant and undramatic.

Further, Morgan said that melodrama is “a means of creating emotion by fantastic enlargement, and has nothing in common with plain photography.” He also defended melodrama as a convention having its own privilege despite the change of theatrical trends. “It is true that to us who are experienced in realism and pseudo-realism the melodramatic convention is now so unfamiliar that we are inclined to laugh at it, just as we are inclined to laugh at a Chinese play done in the Chinese manner; but that is the fault of our unfamiliarity, not of the convention itself.”

How exactly was the look of the Sweney Todd production that some reviewers considered melodramatically laughable? We can infer from Morgan that it must be “bigger than life,” exaggeration here and there, something that in the course of naturalist fashion had become ridiculous. Morgan gave examples of the use of elements in the show that indicated the style: the window shadow, the barber chair, the razor and the cut throat. “When Todd lures a victim into his shop, we see the barber, the customer, the razor and the whole tragic event thrown in gigantic shadow on the frosted panes of the shop.” Morgan was aware of how some people might think how absurd it was to do such a horrendous act near the window, risking people witnessing it, even only through the shadows.

And the barber’s chair, which throws men into the vaults, is much bigger and more elaborate machine than ‘exact reproduction’ requires; it is the centre of a huge see-saw, and when it moves, half the floor moves with it. And when Todd cuts a lady’s throat, he turns her straight toward the audience, uses a razor a couple of feet long, and lets loose a Niagara of blood.

All of these descriptions show the exaggeration qualities of the presentation, as comic as they sound, all meant to shock the audience beyond their natural everyday reactions, which was exactly what melodrama aimed at doing to the audiences who came to the performance to be affected particularly in this manner, which is not to be compared to, or confused with, means of naturalism.
The bombastic tendencies of melodrama should also be understood within the socio-economic context under which those techniques emerged at the first place. John L. Fell quoted a melodramatist who explained the “writing for the eye” technique he had learned.

One of the first tricks I learned was that my plays must be written for an audience who, owing to the huge, uncarpeted, noisy theaters, couldn’t always hear the words, and who, a large percentage of them having only recently laded in America, couldn’t have understood them in any case. I therefore wrote for the eye rather than the ear and played out each emotion in action, depending on my dialogue only for the noble sentiments so dear to audiences of that class (25).

And thus, melodrama had its own justification to appear bigger than life to the point of being considered rough and unsophisticated by the high middle class audiences. It was meant to be highly visual because it was demanded to be so. A loud performance for a loud audience, melodrama had been long associated with working class group of audiences.

Blood + some laughs = that meat pie [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 4]

A review, which also served as an ad of the show after the opening night described the eighty-year-old melodrama’s “motivating force was in all probability the success of Fashion. Sweeney Todd corresponds to the American piece in period. It turned out to be a flavorous old melodrama, which, as is the way with these old pieces, has turned comic in the spots where it was most seriously meant.” There are a couple of things we can find from this statement. First, by the time Sweeney Todd was produced in 1924, American audiences might have been enjoying the more recent theatrical trends than melodrama, possibly naturalism. While Sweeney was a classical melodrama in structure, they could still enjoy it because it was “flavorous.” Secondly, it seems that treating serious matters, such as murder and violence, comically was key element in promoting success of a piece like Sweeney Todd – like a way to lighten it up, or to compensate for its horror images. Still according to the ad, the play “probably was not ever regarded as representative English entertainment, even in the 1842 of its original production, but the English stage was a somewhat more polished institution than the American in those days.” So, again, there was an interesting mixture of violence and comedy that had been used for decades of years as a formula in Sweeney Todd that seemed to work very well, both with English and American audiences that had somewhat different characteristics from one another. The review went on, “At all events, its tale of a murderous barber who drops his customers through the floor to the cellar, there to make them into veal pies—even in those days the Englishman had his sense of humor—furnishes not a few laughs as it is acted at the Frazee at present.” It was also indicated that the producer of this Broadway performance had made sure to present details of the period probably to go after authenticity.

Here and there, particularly in a scene in a madhouse, the old melodramatic flavor shows up through, and the story actually holds for a few minutes. Chiefly, however, Sweeney Todd is of interest as an exhibit of what we escaped. It has been produced by Wendell Phillips Dodge with much care and due attention to the period.

A notice two weeks prior the premiere, said that the production would be presented “in faithful imitation of the manner of their production at Covent Garden and the Britannia Theatre in London two hundred years ago.” I wasn’t sure of which Sweeney Todd version the writer compared the Broadway production to. Could it be that he made a mistake about the time because Dibdin-Pitt’s Sweeney was first produced in 1840s, (about 80 years before the Broadway one)? I would rather he did.

The Horror Thus Told, and Retold [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 3]

Melodrama has come to be associated with “indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and schematization; extreme states of being, situations, actions; overt villainy, persecution of the good and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plottings, suspense, breathtaking peripety” (11-12), and Sweeney Todd legend embraced all of the criteria. It tells the story of a murderous barber who sets a trap for his customers in order to kill them. In some versions of the story, Sweeney does not kill his victims randomly. He returns to London to take revenge against people who had put him in prison. He traps his unsuspecting victims using a trap door and a trick chair, and then slits his victims’ throats with his razor. To make the image even more gruesome, his accomplish, sometimes referred to as Mrs. Lovett, makes meat pies from the carcasses of Sweeney’s victims and sells the pies to her customers. Following Freudian idea of “pathogenic trauma,” Brooks explained the experience posed by such unpleasant images.

Subjected to horror, virtue must undergo an experience of the unbearable. Melodrama is similar to tragedy in asking us to endure the extremes of pain and anguish. It differs in constantly reaching toward the ‘too much,’ and in the passivity of response to anguish, so that we accede to the experience of nightmare. … Virtue can finally break through its helplessness, find its name, liberate itself from primal horror, fulfill its desires. We awake from the nightmare (35). states that Todd is the English-version bogeyman, “the character older children call upon to frighten their friends and younger children. Unruly youngsters are cautioned against misbehaving with threats of being attacked by Sweeney and served up in a meat pie.” The horror has lived throughout centuries, exploiting fears of “being attacked while vulnerable, and being served up as food or unknowingly consuming someone else.” Brooks, commenting on Victorian novels, stated that “The nineteenth-century novel needs such theatricality… to get its meaning across, to invest in its renderings of life a sense of memorability and significance” (13). So, in the case of Sweeney Todd tale, the gruesome images, and the human fears evoked in it, guaranteed its life in the minds of people from generation to generation.

The horrifying story of the demonic barber, according to a writer named Peter Haining, who claimed to have had an extensive research on Sweeney Todd, was based on a real life event. Although Haining paid meticulous details to the history of Todd and his murder cases, he was not able to show reliable sources, and so most scholars dismissed his accounts in his book The Real Sweeney Todd, which was published quite recently in 1993. However, though, some sources, such as, have taken his words as truth. According to Haining, as cited from the website, “there is little romantic or even dramatic about the life and times of Sweeney Todd. He was an amoral, bitter man who lusted for money and he was not averse to killing to get it.” Various versions of the story appeared and it has been revived over centuries – Sweeney Todd, the musical adaptation by Stephen Sondheim being the most current one for the stage and film (the 2007 film version of the musical has been out. It was directed by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leading roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett). About this latest version, a reviewer, Ken Mendelboum, had a say, as quoted in George Reddick’s essay “Early Incarnations: Sweeney Todds,” after a London production of the musical that had received negative reviews. “The British had in the past tended to view the Sweeney legend as a horrific jest, and this special goes out of its way to demonstrate the serious, operatic approach to the material chosen by Sondheim, Prince and librettist Hugh Wheeler” (16). This also shows how the same material has been tailored for particular audiences. When it was taken to the United States, it underwent a process to fit the American audiences. And so when it was taken back to England, from which the original tale came, it lost its original taste.

The original Sweeney Todd play was brought to the Frazee in Broadway and opened in July 1924, reaching up to 67 performances in total in the season. This version was written by George Dibdin-Pitt who adapted the Sweeney tale based on the penny dreadful series. Some believed the original story was written by Thomas Prest, a horror and crime story writer; some others believed it was written collectively. In Reddick’s essay, Christopher Bond, who wrote the stage adaptation in 1969 (from whom Sondheim then adapted it into his famous musical), said that Dibdin-Pitt’s version “was roughly equivalent to the more preposterous tabloids. ‘Alien Bonked My Mother-in-Law!’ ‘Vicar Eats Royal Gerbil – Shock Horror! Etc.’” Ethan Kanfer also said a similar thing about Bond’s impression on the Dibdin-Pitt’s version, which he said to contain “plenty of gore but little story,” that made him want to add more flesh to the characters and gave them appropriate speeches based on their class. Reddick argued that Bond was not totally correct about it. According to him,

Dibdin’s Pitt’s own version of the story from the 1840s is a substantial departure from the original A String of Pearls, however. That original story remained in a relative obscurity until recently. In 2005, Wordsworth Editions published it in book form for the first time, and it’s a surprisingly entertaining read. Not at all the short, simplistic, tabloid-esque show that Bond mentions, though that description does fit the stage melodramas, A String of Pearls is somewhat pulpy, almost Dickensian thriller.

The Murderous Barber at Large [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 2]

The original play about the murderer barber Sweeney Todd was written by George Dibdin Pitt in 1840’s, under the title of The String of Pearls, or The Fiend of Fleet Street. According to some sources, the tale of Sweeney Todd might have appeared first in a British penny dreadful called The People Periodical in 1846, entitled The String of Pearls, arguably written by Thomas Peckett Prest. As many other one-cent penny dreadfuls, the Todd story was serialized and added with melodramatic aspects, such as a love interest between the characters, to guarantee repeat customers, who were mostly teenage boys. Following the success of the circulation of the story, a stage adaptation by Dibdin-Pitt appeared for the first time at the Britannia Theatre. The New York Times noted that the original play was first performed in London at the Old Britannia Theatre in 1842 (other sources said 1847 was the year, which made better sense because the penny dreadful version of it did not appear until 1846) and “was reviewed at The Time by no less a dramatic critic than Charles Dickens (NY, July 13, 1924, p. x1).” Dickens was also known for his interests in horror and urban legends as reflected in his novels, such as The Pickwick Papers. Although it was not specified what Dicken’s review said about that particular play, a couple of notices in The New York Times clearly stated that different versions and sequels of the same material had been produced in theatre, marking the popularity of the crime melodrama. The Internet Broadway Database recorded that Dibdin-Pitt’s Broadway Sweeney Todd production opened on July 16, 1924 and closed on September 13 of the same year, with a total of 67 performances. The 2-act play was set in “Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, parlor in the house of Jasper Oakley, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, the bakehouse, chamber in the Madhouse at Bedlam, Blackfriar’s Bridge, and ‘Old Bailey’s’.”

The legend of Sweeney Todd first spread in the Victorian England, long before it was put in print in the penny dreadful series. It was the age when melodrama had become extremely popular. For some people, melodrama was considered trashy because it usually lacked literariness, in the form of sophisticated language, and relied heavily on sensations. Some expressed their concern over the corrupted minds of young people by such “tasteless” readings. An article written by an unknown writer published in New York Times, on October 17, 1897 addressed this issue and proposed persuasively the need for a literary reform. It came as a result of a social reform conference, in which a number of participants expressed the need to reduce the intake of “trashy and evil” books by young people and replace them with good books. “There is an inky foe to be faced. Books which a decent man blushes to look at in the presence of an animal,” said Rev. Dr. Arthur Edwards who participated in the conference. He specifically mentioned Sweeney Todd, The Ruffian Barber as an example of a piece that was potential to do harm to the young minds. What he didn’t take into account was that melodrama, apart from its sensational nature, exercised the ideas of morality, in which end the good would always win. According to Brooks, melodrama:

regularly rehearses the effects of a menacing ‘primal scene,’ and the liberation from it, achieved through articulation and a final acting-out of conflicts. Desire achieves full satisfaction in enunciation of the integral psychic condition. Morality is ultimately in the nature of affect, the strong emotion is in the realm of morality: for good and evil are moral feelings (54).

When Villains Rule [Tracing Sweeney Todd – part 1]

Sweeney Todd and other murderous characters not only had lived in the Victorian tales, they also inhibited the English stage. England seems to be a place where tradition to narrate stories of hideous murderers has been cultivated and revived throughout centuries. Among the legendary notorious villains are, Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes, Maria Martin, and Sweeney Todd, or the demon barber of Fleet Street, who, according to Charles Morgan in his 1928 essay, “together with others equally villainous or ill-fated, have not only supplied the writers of penny-dreadfuls with their material, but for a hundred years and more have held the English stage.”

Shakespeare coined the term “violent delights” – a sensation that makes a crowd of people come to see violence, particularly in the context of entertainment industry (Duncum 21). As critics of more recent eras often used romanticized vocabulary when talking about violence in popular entertainment, the same kind of “delights” must also hold true, at least partly, with the 19th century crime melodramas that often depict gruesome images on the stage. This paper attempts to find out the audience’s reception of the particular subgenre of melodrama in the 19th century theatre. It addresses more specifically crime stories that were based on actual events. What was the social and political background that helped enhance the popularity of crime melodrama? Following what Leah D. Frank says in her essay “Hissing the Original Sweeney Todd”, “much of the fun of melodrama comes from the fact that good always triumphs and retribution is swift and sure,” I’d like to know how the notion of morality was conveyed through crime melodrama, what visual images were actually presented on the stage, and what artistic or theatrical devices were used and what effects did they intend to create?

Villainous characters are often depicted as central characters in novels and plays. Many stories put the names of the villains as titles as if to promise their eternal threats on order and humanity. Central to melodrama is the battle between good and evil, and at the end the good always wins. Putting a villainous character forward before the good one already exposes an active threat or danger challenging to be overcome. And the more dangerous he or she is, the more tensions will be raised in the audiences’ minds as their sense of relief is being withheld. Peter Brooks in The Melodramatic Imagination says that, “in the clash of virtue and villainy, it is the latter that constitutes the active force and the motor of the plot. If to what we have said about dramatic structures we add a consideration of affective structure, our starting point must be in evil” (34). Sweeney Todd, a villainous character of a play of the same title, is the active agent of the melodrama to stir the peace of life and engulf it with darkness before he is finally overcome.

Despite the ultimate triumph of virtue, it was the moment of evil triumphant that fascinated. The force of evil in melodrama derives from its personalized menace, its swift execution of its declarations of intent, its reduction of innocence to powerlessness. Evil is treachery in that it appears to unleash a cosmic betrayal of the moral order and puts all appearance into question (20).