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).

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