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).

Crimelibrary.com 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 Crimelibrary.com, have taken his words as truth. According to Haining, as cited from the Crimelibrary.com 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.

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