Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sweeney Todd: A Theological Consideration

No, I'm not kidding. Saw the Tim Burton version of what I consider the greatest musical ever written (a play about a serial killer barber and cannibalism set in a Dickensian vision of London, with music by Stephen Sondheim. What's not to love?), and while I consider this Burton's best movie (it's ideally suited to his talents, and yet restricts some of his more idiosyncratic excesses), I was actually thinking about it this morning in terms of that quote at the top of the blog:

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton
Rather a stretch, isn't it, to consider this musical in light of "the central doctrine of Christianity"? Well, perhaps....

...or perhaps not. The structure of "Sweeney Todd" is what I consider the typical American musical, which is to say: it's a love story. (Quick, think of a great American musical which isn't! I'm sure there are some obscure and bad musicals which have almost nothing to do with romance, but anything notable come to mind? Mine, either.) But the entire story (movie/play; there are slight changes between them in the storyline, so I'll focus on the movie, which I just saw and found rather improved for not being quite the Victorian pastiche the play was) is about misplaced love.

Start with Todd, which is where the story starts. He tells Anthony his story in song, about the "barber and his wife/And she was beautiful!/A foolish barber and his wife/She was his reason and his life!/And she was beautiful!/And she was virtuous!/And he was naive." The wife catches the eye of the true villain of the story, Judge Turpin; a man who, the movie makes clear (and the play not quite as clear; a song excised before the Broadway production illustrated just how perverse and deviant Turpin's ideas of "love" are; in the movie, Turpin presents to Anthony his collection of erotic literature from around the world, much to Anthony's, and our, discomfort) has mistaken lust for love (and I mean here, throughout, romantic love).

When Todd meets Mrs. Lovett, we learn with him more about the Judge's idea of love: after Todd was sent to Australia, Turpin lures her to his house where he rapes her during a costume ball. The party-goers, Mrs. Lovett (don't neglect that name!) tells Todd, thought she must be feeble-minded, and so watch the rape with sophisticated, not to say perverse and evil, delight. Before the play is over, everyone is villain, because everyone misunderstands the true nature of love.

Anthony, of course, sees Johanna, and it is for both of them love at first sight. Judge Turpin notices Anthony's attention and warns him away, but Judge Turpin keeps an eye on his ward through a hole in her bedroom wall (we are left to imagine he has observed her at other times than sitting primly in her bedroom windowseat), and announces to his beadle his plans to marry his ward, in order to "protect her."

There is more than a little selfishness in this play, which is perhaps the best opposite of love there is. Todd nurses his grief and injustices until he is a perfect monster of revenge. Even as he sings a love song to his razor blades, Mrs. Lovett sings a love song to him, one Todd is oblivious to, and there we see together two misdirected loves. Todd's only "friend" is his set of razor blades; Mrs. Lovett has apparently loved Todd from afar ever since he was the barber Benjamin Barker. Todd mourns Lucy, especially after Mrs. Lovett tells him about her rape and how she took arsenic afterwards, but as Todd has said to Anthony's question about Lucy at the beginning of the story: "All that was many years ago/I doubt that anyone would know." Many years ago, yet he nurses it still. His love for her has perverted into hate for Turpin which, when it seems he has lost his one chance to get Turpin into his barber's chair for vengeance, turns to hatred of all humankind. Todd's love is for Todd's hatred and lust for revenge.

And then there is the young boy, Toby, the assistant to Signor Pirelli who is himself the first victim of Todd's razor, just as Toby will make Todd the last. By the end of the story the boy sees Mrs. Lovett as his salvation, little thinking that she is as responsible for murder and horror as Todd is. He loves her as a child loves his mother, and while she is hardly a mother figure, she's the closest he's ever known. He tells her that: "Nothin's gonna harm you/Not while I'm around," and "Demons are prowlin' everywhere, nowadays/I'll send 'em howlin', I don't care, I got ways," the simple assurance of a child in a world of horrors he almost, but not quite, takes for granted. His is one of the closest to a clear moral vision the story supplies.

Johanna's is the other, and here the movie is superior to the play. In the play, Anthony goes to Fogg's Asylum to rescue Joanna, under pretence of being a wig maker's apprentice looking for blond hair of a certain shade. When Anthony confronts the asylum keeper with a gun, the director senses Anthony's reluctance to shoot, and Anthony drops the gun in despair. Joanna, however, takes it up, shoots, and they make their escape. She has lived the horrors of the asylum, if only for a few days, and she will do what must be done, what innocent Anthony cannot bring himself to do.

In the film, Anthony is bolder, and leaves the asylum's doctor to the tender mercies of his charges (who descend upon him like the Furies). Back in Todd's shop; well, here's the dialogue from the script:

Don't worry, darling, in those
clothes, no one will recognize you ...
You're safe now.
(She picks up the largest razor, looks at it, an eerie echo of
her father.)
(darkly ironic)
Safe ... So we run away and then all
our dreams come true?
I hope so...
I have never had dreams. Only
Johanna ... When we’re free of this
place all the ghosts will go away.
She looks at him very intensely:
No, Anthony, they never go away.
She's right, of course. Robert L. Short, in his work on theology and the comic strip "Peanuts," used a few cartoon panels to explain original sin. Lucy leaves Snoopy with a balloon, and strict orders to hold it until her return. Snoopy clamps it in his mouth, falls asleep sitting so still, yawns, and releases it. In the last panel, he's walking down the railroad tracks with a stick and bundle over his shoulder, thinking: "You make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life." Yes, and eating sour grapes sets your children's teeth on edge.

All of this misdirected love ends up as it must: Todd murders the beadle and the judge, but also murders his own wife, now a mad street person (interestingly, in the play she's also clearly a prostitute, but none of this is hinted at in the movie), and nearly murders his daughter (whom he doesn't recognize, having never seen her except as an infant). When he realizes the mad woman was his beloved Lucy, he gives Mrs. Lovett a fitting end, tossing her into the giant oven where she cooks her meat pies. Her young protector, hiding out in the cellar bakery and now himself quite mad, having seen the body parts and realized where the meat for the pies is coming from, slits Todd's throat as the barber grieves over the body of his dead wife.

There is no redemption here, no salvation, no Aristotelian recognition of responsiblity, so it isn't even appropriate to call this grim tale a proper tragedy.* In the play, when Toby reappears to slit the throat of a grieving Todd, his hair has turned white, the hoary Victorian chestnut that indicates a frightful shock. In the movie, Toby emerges from the sewer as grim faced as Todd and Lovett, his face powder white, his eyes blackened as a prize-fighters. If the sin is not genetic, it is certainly as contagious as a virus.

It seems, here, that sin is not in the genes; but love is. Augustine posited sin as passing down, father to son, mother to daughter, through the act of procreation, and so we all were "sinner[s] in our mother's womb[s]," in the words of the Psalmist. Sin is not, however, the general state of the world in "Sweeney Todd." Evil comes from the institutions, from the fact that the history of the world, as Todd sings to Lovett, "is those below serving those up above." Love is genetic. Joanna knows love, not perversion; Anthony, despite having sailed the world, has beheld only its wonders, not "the misery of man" Todd responds he has seen. Anthony is an innocent, even more innocent than his beloved. In this he is like Todd. Sin, however, is contagious, and Todd catches it from Turpin, as Toby catches it from Todd. Toby is an innocent, too, despite his appetite for gin. That appetite is foisted on him by, again, the system. He is not born a gin drinker; he's made into one, at far too early an age. But he is born seeking love, and when he finally has a mother figure to give it to, even if that mother figure is the cannibalistic Mrs. Lovett, he does so unreservedly. But he learns, as does every character in this play (except, perhaps, Anthony; but undoubtedly that's another story), that if you don't love, you're dead; and if you do, they'll kill you.

Everyone in this story loves the wrong person, or for the wrong reasons. Todd's love for his wife turns him into a monster; Turpin's lust for sex makes him as monstrous as Todd, and the origin of the evil in the story. Mrs. Lovett loves a man long dead (as Todd declares Benjamin Barker to be), and cannot see past her own fantasies to recognize the monster Toby describes to her when he promises to be her protector. Anthony loves Joanna and the idea of love itself, and while Joanna loves Anthony, she is neither so idealistic, nor so in love with an idea, as he is. Toby's love is closest to Joanna's; having never known a world in which he could dream, he doesn't even have nightmares, just a child's trust and a heart searching for a mother to finally imprint on. When he does love Mrs. Lovett, he doesn't really love her, either, but only what she's done for him, only the relative kindness she has shown him, the first he's ever known. His trust, however, his naivete, keeps him from seeing her for what she is, and like every other character in this story, he loves his idea, rather than the person. This is the fatal error of the story, and leads to the Grand Guignol ending, with Todd kneeling, throat slit and dripping blood, over the similiarly bleeding corpse of his wife.

One thing you will notice in this description, if you know the play, is that "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is missing. That ballad serves as the Greek chorus in the play; introducing the story and explaining the feelings of Todd as the story progresses. At the end, the ballad underlines the "moral" of the story:

Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,
Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.
Sweeney waits in the parlor hall,
Sweeney leans on the office wall.
No one can help, nothing can hide you--
Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?
Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney's weeping for yesterday,
Is Sweeney!
There he is, it's Sweeney!
Sweeney! Sweeney!
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!
He served a dark and a hungry god!

(sharply to Mrs. Lovett)
To seek revenge may lead to hell.
(coldly to him)
But everyone does it, if seldom as well--
--As Sweeney...
As Sweeney Todd...
The Demon Barber of Fleet...

The ghosts begin to disappear ... fading into the shadows of
the bakehouse ... leaving Todd and Mrs. Lovett alone...
... Street!
All of that was in the script, too, but excised from the movie. Movies can do things intimately that plays cannot. In the play, when Todd finishes his ballad to his razors, he raises his hand with a gleaming razor in it and declares in a near scream: "At last, my arm is complete again!" Johnny Depp does it quietly, alone in his garrett, and it is even more chillling because we seem to be standing right beside him, not watching him in the middle of an empty stage, in the glare of the spotlight. One way is not right, one way wrong; both work well for the different media. The movie excludes the ballad entirely, and the ghosts of Todd's victims, the people who populate the streets of London. Morality and redemption are not on offer, even though Todd sings of it in the movie, in his angry declaration of his soon-to-begin murderous spree:

You, sir, too, sir--
Welcome to the grave!
I will have vengeance,
I will have salvation!
But he doesn't, of course; because he doesn't love. He did love, once; and for that, he had to die. As almost everyone in the story does. But memory and loss have replaced all feelings for him, and he has become a solely possessive creature, incapable of taking what is offered to him in the here and now, or of giving up any portion of that self he has self-created. In the most beautiful ballad in the play, as he casually slices the neck of one customer after another, Todd thinks about the daughter he has never known:

And are you beautiful and pale,
With yellow hair, like her?
I'd want you beautiful and pale,
The way I've dreamed you were...

And if you're beautiful, what then,
With yellow hair, like wheat?
I think we shall not meet again--
(He quietly slits the
Gentleman's throat)
My little dove, my sweet...

Goodbye, Johanna,
You're gone, and yet you're mine.
I'm fine, Johanna,
I'm fine!

You stay, Johanna...
(He quietly cuts the
customer's throat)
The way I've dreamed you are.
(Todd notices dusk outside
the window)
Oh look, Johanna-,
(Pulls the lever and the
customer disappears)
A star!(Tossing the customer's
hat down the chute)
A shooting star!

And you'd be beautiful and pale,
And look too much like her.
If only angels could prevail,
We'd be the way we were.

Wake up, Johanna!
Another bright red day!
(He slits the customer’s
We learn, Johanna,
To say...

As the note continues, he pulls the lever and the customer
disappears down the chute...
The moral focus of the story is in that song. Todd is doing what he's doing for an idea of a child he's never known, a woman he has, by his own admission, all but forgotten (he can only tell Mrs. Lovett his Lucy had "blond hair.") "If only angels could prevail/We'd be the way we were" he says to Johanna, but it isn't angels he relies on, it's the demons Toby warns Mrs. Lovett about. And there's the theological crux of the story, too: "If only angels could prevail," but since they will not save us, we must provide salvation for ourselves. "I will have vengeance, I will have salvation." Todd will, of course, have one, but not the other, and the reason is not just because he confuses the two. Having chosen that course, he is, of course, right: "We learn, Johanna/To say/Goodbye."

So Todd becomes "Töd," the angel of death; and Mrs. Lovett makes the first expression of love in the play, but she can only "love it," her idea of Todd, not the person himself (whom she clearly cannot see, not until her final scene, and by then it's too late); and "Lucy," the patron saint of light as Lucia, brings finally to light all the evil Todd has done in his perverted memory of her, while Johanna, a feminine form of John, refuses to believe in signs (semeia) even as she lives her life by them (her love for Anthony is purely "love at first sight," but there is the unanswered question of whether she loves Anthony, or simply sees him as the means for her escape from Turpin, a confusion she may yet puzzle out for herself). Just as Todd ultimately gives up his only begotten child, not for the world's salvation but simply, he thinks for his own. The two questions play themselves off throughout the play: the question of ethics (given that the history of the world is those below serving those up above, how should we then live?) and the question of salvation (if society will not save us, mustn't we save ourselves?). The moral question is never even asked. Even Toby fears only that Mrs. Lovett has made a deal with the devil, a deal which will cost her more than she can pay; as, indeed, she has. But he doesn't represent a moral vision in the story, any more than the guileless and naive Anthony does.

It is easy, at this point, to step outside the story and point to a morality which judges Todd and so save ourselves from the story's implications. And it is true the story raises questions its limited universe cannot answer, as any good story does. Does our world, however, provide those answers quite so easily? If we see the story as one working out of the idea that, if you don't love you'll die, and if you do love, they'll kill you, what does it offer us? Sweeney cannot love, once he has been sent away on false charges, and Benjamin Barker dies. Lucy and Johanna and Anthony and Toby and Mrs. Lovett do love, and only two of them survive, one by a lucky accident. It's a story; it's not the world we live in: but isn't it? It's a story, it can easily produce questions it cannot answer; but is our world any different? The central issue of the play is not love, but where love is directed: to whom, and to what purpose, what end? When Johannes de Silentio asked: "Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical," he was asking that question of precisely the universe of "Sweeney Todd:" a universe where the ethical is always teleological, just as Aristotle intended. So de Silentio was positing a paradox: a suspension of the ethical precisely to achieve a goal not contemplated, or even contemplatable, by the ethical. That, of course, would require positing yet another system, one that encompassed the ethical but was greater still, great enough to answer the question the ethical could formulate, but not provide an answer for. What do we love, and why? That is the question of "Sweeney Todd." The question should be, of course: who?

And therein lies the dilemma, and the purpose behind the statement. It isn't what we love, or that we love; it is who we love, that most matters.

*The script and the play include the tragic elements of a chorus and a seeming acceptance of responsibility by Todd, in both the final scene and the opening and closing ballad. The ballad declares that Todd "serves a dark and a hungry god," with the implicit statement that he accepts the responsibility for such service. While Todd accepts responsibility for his crimes in the play, he is defiant to the end, slamming a heavy metal door on the audience on the final note of the ballad, ending the play in clangor. The movie script has Todd unbutton his collar and offer his neck to Toby, perhaps because the boy in the film is more obviously a child than the actor in the original production, and no one wants to see a child slit a man's throat as dispassionately as it is done in the movie. Johnny Depp is more ambiguous in his portrayal than the script calls for; he leans back, his throat exposed, seemingly lost in his grief, apparently oblivious to the presence of Toby. It is an ending more Shakespearean than Sophoclean; more Othello than Oedipus Rex or Creon grieving his errors in Antigone. But even the complicity in Todd's death is unclear, and it seems more likely the sin, the contagion, is simply passed on.


  1. Thanks so much for this post. I personally very much liked Sweeney Todd, and I drew many of the same theological conclusions that you did, only, largely due to peer pressure, I kept them to myself in the fear that I was crazy to think such thoughts about a movie so bloody and abhored by so many. I believe that the message in the movie was good, although, I sometimes doubt that many who watch it even think to see what's really going on. Many of my friends who love the movie just seem to see a cool, darkly attractive movie.
    I still struggle, however, with whether it's still a good idea to watch the movie. While I LOVED the music and the atmosphere of the movie, I'm still not so sure that any message found in the movie justified such blood shed, etc. But that is another topic- and one that I struggle with not only for this movie, but other stories as well.
    Thanks again, and God bless.

  2. Anonymous3:06 PM

    What about Assassins the musical? Though kind of obscure it is really good, also Sondheim and not a love story.

    Just making a quick point.