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).

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