Friday, October 3, 2014

Douglas Messerli "The Piper's Son" (on Britten's The Turn of the Screw)

the piper's son

Myfanwy Piper (text, based on novella by Henry James), Benjamin Britten (composer) The Turn of the Screw / Los Angeles, Los Angeles Opera, the production I saw was a matinee performance on March 20, 2011 I suggest above, Britten's powerful opera, The Turn of the Screw, is quite different from both the film version and, even at times from James' original. In James' novella and Jack Clayton's The Innocents, for example, the ghosts may or may not be manifestations of the governess' imagination; or, at least, we can never be certain. But, while in the Britten version the phantoms may still be in the mind of Miss Giddens (Patricia Racette, who is given no name in the opera), they are, on stage, very corporeal, singing and moaning, with the children appearing to see them or hear them and responding to their commands. The specters clearly, in the Britten work, have an influence of their charges even beyond death. And Britten strongly suggests that the greatest part of that influence has to do with sexuality, not only between the former valet Peter Quint (William Burden) and former governess, Miss Jessel, but with Quint and the young boy Miles (credibly sung and performed by 12-year old Michael Kepler Meo) and Miss Jessel and Flora (Ashley Emerson).

     Consequently, Britten's carefully structured two acts of eight scenes each explores not just the psychology of its characters, but their metaphysical encounters with good and evil. The question of innocence, so central of the film version, is embraced, accordingly, within the larger question of the battle between these forces.     It is clear from the very first scene, when the Governess, charged with all responsibilities concerning the two children, expresses her anxieties, that she will never be up to the task. She is too young and untried to take on the battle with the unsavory forces of history represented by Miles and Flora's short past. In this society of the fin de siecle (which is, one must recall, the period in which this "ghost story" was written), forces are moving in two opposing directions; with Victorian conventions still in full force, the unspoken dominating over the open and honest presentation of sexuality, the era also saw a rise of unconventional behavior represented by and in literary figures created by Wilde, Huysmans, Schnitzler, Zola, Shaw, etc.

     The children's seemingly perfect behavior creates a sense for the two women, Governess and Housekeeper, that everything is as it should be, while we witness, through Britten's cunning music and Myfanwy Piper's text, that something is terribly wrong. From the first moment of their obedient bows and curtseys, we suspect there is something amiss, our first real clue being the news of Miles' dismissal from school. In Britten's work the reasons for that dismissal are even vaguer than in James and the film, but the fact that he will never be allowed to return hints at the gravity of the situation, and Britten allows our imaginations to take us where we want.

     Mrs. Grosse, who cannot quite say what she has seen except to suggest that it was terrible and not to her liking, also hints as something more evil, perhaps, that what the reality was. And, in that sense, like the busybody housekeeper in Wuthering Heights, she helps to create the hysterical atmosphere which defeats any logical solutions the Governess might have come to.

     But then, there are those visitations, and Quint's banshee-like cries for Miles in Britten's Act I, Scene 8—cries to which Miles does respond—that seem to make it quite apparent that the relationship he had with Miles was more than a simple case of bad influence. His ululations come from a deeper place than a simple relationship between a young master and servant. And so too does Miss Jessel's sad soliloquy in Act II, Scene 3, in which she bemoans both her loss of love with Quint and Flora, indicating something far more serious than a Governess-pupil encounter.

    Even greater revelations, however, come in the form of how the children play. While it may at first seem totally innocent, the children's haunting song of "Tom, Tom the Piper's son," with, in the Los Angeles production, Miles astride his sister with a whip, is more disturbing, I feel, than even the presence of the ghosts. We recognize almost immediately that there is something almost sadomasochistic about the game, and that it obviously is connected to something sexual of which children should have no knowledge. Moreover, the subject of that song, Tom, the son of the piper, has been naughty, is beaten, and "howls through the streets." There is also the suggestion in the word piper, moreover, that Miles must eventually "pay the piper," that he must eventually face the consequences of his acts, and, along with that, the underlying story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who, when the city refused to pay for his services of removing rats, turned the children into rats.

     Similarly, Britten's hidden joke of Miles' Latin lessons, wherein Miles sings Latin words that all pun on sexual body parts,


                                            amnis, axis, caulis, collis,

                                            clunis, crinis, fascis, follis,

                                            fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis,

                                            panis, piscis, postis, mensis,

                                            torris, unguis and canalis,

                                            vectis, vermis, and natalis

                                            sanguis, pelvis, cucumis,

                                            lapis, cassis, manis, glis.


while the Governess, apparently not terribly knowledgeable in Latin, smilingly listens, points to a world far more evil than the one the Governess has ever imagined.

     Miles' strange "Malo" song, with its references to "malo," a variation of bad or evil, "naughty boy," and an "apple tree" reveal that Miles, himself, recognizes the condition of his world, and expresses his fears for his own condition, that he is bad because he has eaten of the tree.     If James only hints at these possibilities, Britten projects them, plays with them, and through them makes a case for why the situation must come to the close as it does in all versions. In the battle between good and evil—even if we can describe the Governess as representing good—she is no match. Her absurd belief that by speaking something you can exorcise it (not entirely different, of course, from Freud's methods) does not deal with the possibility that evil can swallow up the truth and spit it out. Those so many unsaid things about life at Bly house may have silenced any truth forever.

     Although Miles may recognize Peter Quint as the Devil with his last words, the Devil has stolen the boy from the living as surely as if he was an obscene lover. The Governess, in her battle to "win over" Miles, to transform him, did not know enough to love him as the boy he was.

     Finally, it is evident that the composer may have been drawn to these concerns because of his own inclinations, particularly his love of young boys, sensitively revealed in John Bridcut's Britten's Children. Although Britten lived for years with his singer-partner Peter Pears, he also became close friends and a father-like figure for dozens of 12-14 year-old boys, showering them with gifts and letters. Many of these boys came from children's choruses, and for some of them he wrote roles in his operas. Only one boy, 13-year-old Harry Morris accused him of possible sexual molestation, claiming that Britten entered his bedroom in Cornwall where the composer had taken the boy on a sailing trip; charges were never filed.

     Britten chose the young singer, David Hemmings (later a noted actor) for the role of Miles and, according to friends, was obviously obsessed with the boy, an adoration which Hemmings, strikingly handsome at 12, readily accepted. But Hemmings later insisted that Britten made no sexual advances. It is apparent, nonetheless, that Britten very well knew what Quint might have felt for Miles, and understood the ramifications of such involvements. And, to my way of thinking, it is why Britten was so focused on those aspects of James' tale.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2011

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (April 2011).


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