Sweeney Todd: A Murderer Obsessed With Revenge Towards Society
In the epilogue to the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber on Fleet Street, Mrs. Lovett says that “everyone seeks revenge, like Sweeney, but other people seldom do it as well”; this seems to suggest that Sweeney is to be admired. This line raises the question of whether the audience is supposed to feel good or bad about being like Sweeney. Perhaps the play is merely presenting a neutral, though highly exaggerated portrayal of a natural human desire; the desire to get back at the world when things go bad. Or perhaps the musical is saying that although Sweeney's murders cannot really be justified, the feeling behind them can be.
This paper will discuss the background context of the musical and how Victorian life could influence the storyline and characters. Moreover, it will cover historical, social, economical, the cultural and technical aspects of the musical Sweeney Todd. Lastly, this paper will also include further analysis on Sweeney Todd’s desire for revenge and the characters around him and how he becomes a serial killer out of corruptive circumstances.
During the 19th century, London grew enormously to become a global city of great importance, and the capital of the British Empire. It was the largest city in the world from about 1825, and has the world's largest port, and was the heart of international finance and trade. While the city grew wealthy as Britain's holdings expanded, 19th century London was also a city of poverty, where millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums. As the capital of a massive empire, London became a magnet for immigrants from the colonies and poorer parts of Europe. A large Irish population settled in the city during the Victorian era, with many of the newcomers being refugees from the Great Famine of 1845-1849.
The Victorian society was divided into nobility Upper Class, Middle Class, and the Working Class. The Victorian Upper Class consisted of the Aristocrats, Nobles, Dukes, other wealthy families working in the Victorian courts. The Upper Class was in a powerful position giving them authority, better living conditions, and other facilities. Many Aristocrats did not work as for centuries together their families had been gathering enough money for each generation to live a luxurious life. However, there were a number of aristocrats who managed large industries like mining or shipping.
The Middle class was the next in social ranking. The Victorian period was very prosperous for the middle class. Middle-class people also owned and managed vast business empires. The middle-class population at the very start of the Victorian era was limited to a few. The Industrial Revolution in the mid-century of the era brought about drastic changes in the standard of living of the Victorian Middle-Class people.
Due to the revolution, the industrial workers got jobs thus improving their living conditions slightly. However, the unskilled workers who were placed below the skilled one remained unemployed and were vulnerable to the exploitation of the upper class. The working class was the worst affected class in the Victorian times. Lack of money resulted in a negligible food supply. For some working families, the living conditions were so wretched that they required their children to work in order to bring home some extra income to survive. Poverty stricken families living during Victorian London lived in crowded, unkempt, slum houses, or were homeless, endured poor sanitary conditions and often were forced to subject their children to work in harsh conditions away from their parents.
In act one of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber on Fleet Street, Anthony Hope, a young sailor, and Sweeney Todd enter the desolate London docks. They both express their feelings about being back in London. Anthony is genuinely happy to be back in the city, but Todd's response is full of grim irony when he sings 'No Place Like London.' He describes London as a hell hole; “There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of London.” Sweeney further goes on to say that the privilege sits at the top and make fun of the poor as if they were at the zoo, and politics and greed has turned the London he knew before as beautiful into a filthy replica. Sweeney’s description of London does share common similarities to how the slums of London actually were in the Victorian Era. Homeless people littered the crowded streets, alleyways on West End were dark and most crimes were pick-pocket and shady exchanges. These are the people who Sweeney calls “vermin” since they were many to be found scurrying and begging just to survive. Anthony doesn’t share Todd’s attitude and instead has a sense of innocence about him that makes London seem like it’s his first true step towards achieving “manhood.” With Anthony, there is bright side to Todd’s cynical perspective; he is kind and generous and sees the best in others regardless of the situation, and it is how he befriended Todd and is blind to see him as the deranged, murderous man that he is. His naivety changes out of love for Joanna where he realizes that corruption, power and jealousy can drive a man like Judge Turpin to send her to an asylum where you can purchase locks of hair from Fogg, sheared from the women of your choosing. Saving Joanna at the cost of lying, threatening and leaving another man to die was the corruption of Anthony’s innocence in London.
Steven Sondheim has called Sweeney Todd a “black operetta”, and this musical, which won eight Tony Awards after it premièred on Broadway in 1979, is indeed a dark humorous affair. Sweeney Todd is considered a musical, but the richly orchestrated, highly structured score places the piece, which is inspired as much by classic Gothic fiction as horror films, in the proximity of grand opera. Victorian life influences the musical based on the setting that Sweeney Todd was written in by Hugh Wheeler, and although Sweeney Todd is entirely a fictional character his story carries with it remnants of the infamous serial kill Jack the Ripper, who was famous in London for his style of murder around this Era. The musical captures real life depictions of the social classes, and how such a rich place like London with all its ports, railroads, and bridges can still be demographically split as was Wheeler’s intention.
Sondheim based his musical on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, borrowing from The Count of Monte Christo, Shakespeare, and The Revenger’s, he creates a character in Sweeney Todd that is a tragedy of circumstance and is more sympathetic. Sondheim later realized the potential of the story as a horror musical. Sondheim creates the particular mood and atmosphere of Sweeney Todd using a variety of musical devices including dissonance, repetition, ostinato, and motifs. Leitmotifs are a common operatic device that Sondheim has used in previous theatrical compositions. These motifs are heard both in the orchestration and vocal parts of the musical. This technique is often used by other composers to identify a character or emotion; in Sweeney Todd, Sondheim assigns a motif to specific characters.
Sondheim rapidly changes the pace and rhythm throughout the score which emphasizes the changeability of Sweeney Todd’s nature. Repetition is demonstrated in the ostinato that he uses in the opening ballad and later returns in the end. Sondheim explores many themes in Sweeney Todd, the main two being love and revenge. The music accompanying Todd’s memory of his wife is full of emotion and yearning and then he quickly snaps into rapid-fire muttering about the world being full of vermin. In contrast, Anthony sings in a sweeping melody of love when he sees Johanna for the first time and then when he vows to rescue her.
Critics called Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd a murderous musical classic that serves both chills and thrills. Many found the throat-cutting barber fast-paced and bloody entertainment and it has received high praise in all its adaptions and the musical as won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
Revenge is a very old topic in Western literature but differs greatly in most works when compared to Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. Although most would agree that revenge is never a good answer, it is a common theme in human nature, which allows audiences to be much more accepting of it. While revenge was typically a secondary idea in nineteenth century works, it is a key theme in Sweeney Todd. Sondheim uses his story to show the horrors and tragedies that arise when revenge takes place, and to represent the idea that even righteous beginnings can quickly turn negative, pushing the “hero” to perform unjustifiable actions to achieve vengeance and eventually becoming the villain he first set out to destroy.
Sweeney Todd is considered one of the darkest musicals in the world, and is a tale full of obsession and revenge, which is trying to show different kinds of selfish love and the cruelness of love. Sweeney Todd represents those who, without money or influence, try vainly to achieve justice from a corrupt and ruthless power structure. The conflict about family and social inequality characterize the moral obscurity represented by Sweeney Todd. In the play, Sweeney Todd began as Benjamin Barker, a successful barber who had a lovely wife and a beautiful baby named Johanna. However, Barker is sent to Australia as a laborer by Judge Turpin, who persecutes him for a crime he did not commit simply to seduce (rape) Todd’s wife and become Johanna’s warden. Barker emerges from prison a much darker and villainous man and changes his name to Sweeney Todd as a way to mask his identity and his true intentions for returning back to London. After he finds out his wife was raped and then committed suicide, he immediately begins plotting how to exact his revenge. Many would argue that his original desire to invoke revenge on the Judge was justifiable, but he quickly starts going down a very dark path simply murdering anyone he can get into his chair.
Sweeny Todd has revenge in his heart after being jailed unjustly then learning the fate of his family as a result of a corrupt Judge. He sets a course with the help of Mrs. Lovett, his accomplice. During the process of revenge, Todd perfected the art of killing people, and Mrs. Lovett used their bodies to make meat pies, meat being an expensive thing to come by in London at the time. The relationships between these characters in Sweeney Todd share a symbiotic quality of the lovers’ mutual need and overlapping lust for different things. Sweeney made practice of his desire to kill the judge and supplied Mrs. Lovett with the corpses that allowed her business to flourish and make a fortune for herself out of it. Most of their behaviors are self-serving. With this in mind, an audience member could look at Todd’s situation and understand the reasoning for every murder he committed. Todd’s family was ripped away from him unfairly after being falsely prosecuted by the upper class and most ironically, the figure of justice. The need for revenge is not a surprising stretch. Originally, it is seen that this revenge was only reserved for the Judge. Todd’s first victim, Pirelli, was killed out of what could be considered necessity when the conman both recognized and threatened Todd. From that point, Benjamin Barker officially became Sweeney Todd to the viewers, playing God and delivering justice to where he saw none. Todd’s killings may seem justifiable, and while his motivation alone could have been enough to massacre part of London, there is also the chance that both psychology and reason are at play here.
While there are definitely motives and seemingly obvious reasons for Todd’s actions, not everyone in Todd’s situation would turn into a serial killer. Even after exacting his revenge against the Judge in the end of the play, Todd’s lust for more blood isn’t quenched and the wife he thought dead he ends up killing in his obsessed madness. If Todd hadn’t been obsessed with getting revenge, his life and several other people’s lives would have been very different. He could have lived a happy life with Mrs. Lovett, but instead kills her, his wife, countless other people, almost killed Johanna, and eventually loses his own life. Every person comes with a different background and has different ways of thinking, which results in their various motivations for murders. Murder is a tragedy, but if an individual considers it is right, the person believes that there is a just cause. Revenge is simply a means to correct unfairness and those unjustly treated, and Sweeney Todd shows this way of thinking.
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