on 4 August 2016
Benjamin Britten transforms the slightly Gothic ghost story by Henry James into a modern story having to do with children and their drama of being children in the hands of adults who do not understand their psychology. Obviously Benjamin Britten understood children a lot more than Henry James. Yet this modernization has limits and Benjamin Britten knows it since with his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, he nearly erases the Indian connection of the parents of the children and he presents the uncle at first as a “guardian” and “only relative” and it is incidentally that Miles and later the Governess will call him, each of them two once, the “uncle”. In fact the opera in the prologue insists on the description of this man as being “a young man, bold, offhand and gay . . . he, so gallant and handsome, so deep in the busy world . . .” This erases too the traumas of these children that were present though mostly unused in Henry James. We thus move from two children who have been traumatized by life and uprooted several times in the last two years of their young life (6 to 8 for Flora and 8 to 10 for Miles) to a more common story of two children in the hands of some supposedly professional employees in the upper classes where parents do not spend much time with their children.
The second remark I want to make here is that the couple Miss Jessel and Peter Quint is less dramatic than in Henry James, at least in their past. Miss Jessel has a duet scene with Peter Quint in which she levels her accusations at Peter Quint from the past, that he had seduced her and then rejected her. It is not a scandal like in Henry James’ story but it is a superficial and opportunistic affair at least on Peter Quint’s side. The real criticism that comes from Mrs. Grose is the fact that Peter Quint does not hold is subservient and inferior position but he is “free” with everyone, in other words he refuses the traditional social segregation that was the rule in such big English estates. This is a great modernization of Peter Quint which then changes the relation with the children, and particularly with Miles. Peter Quint clearly says he is looking for a friend. The description he gives of it in the first scene of the second act cannot fit with a child: it is a “he” but that “he” has to be an adult. Miles can only be then a child and cannot be that friend.
“I seek a friend…
Obedient to follow where I lead,
Slick as a juggler’s mate to catch my thought,
Proud, curious, agile, he shall feed
My mounting power.
Then to his bright subservience I’ll expound
The desperate passions of a haunted heart,
And in that hour
‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’”
That last sentence is going to be the burden (two meanings actually: repeated sentence in a song and load) of the duet with Miss Jessel. But Miss Jessel is not looking for a friend but “a soul to share my woe.” And what she says is quite clear:
“I too must have a soul to share my woe
Despised, betrayed, unwanted she must go
Forever to my joyless spirit bound.
‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’”
It is quite obvious that does not apply to children, both Flora and Miles. Both are too young to be such confidants or friends or souls to share woes. That’s what the original recording with Peter Pears captures better than the more recent recording directed by Daniel Harding. It all revolves around the last sentence uttered by Miles: “Peter Quint, you devil!” as a friendly challenge from Miles who is going to let himself die to go back to Peter Quint and thus trick and trap the Governess with his own death, and the understanding he got with him when sung by Peter Pears and he does what he is required to do, but as a hostile accusation when sung by Ian Bostridge under the direction of Daniel Harding, but then why does he throws himself in the Governess’s arms and dies?
But a musical choice by Benjamin Britten changes the meaning of the whole tale. He decides to have four sopranos for the four women and these four sopranos are very close in range. In fact only Peter Quint is different since he is a tenor, and thanksfully Miles is also captured as different not because of his range since in both recording he is a male treble, as they say today, hence in the same range as sopranos, but in both cases they are males and the harmonics of their voices are male and those of a young boy who still has his treble voice, maybe a future countertenor. Only Quint and Miles stand out of the rather homogeneous soprano range of the four women. They are not exactly the same since they are human but when they sing one on top of the other, and up (to three at the same time, you cannot differentiate them, at least not easily. This choice is a choice since he could easily have had four female singers with slightly different ranges from mezzo-soprano to alto and soprano. He did not because he wanted it like that so that when the various female voices are mixed you understand Benjamin Britten rewrote the story as a story of women confronted to a world of men.
And this world of women has two dimensions: one towards Peter Quint and the other towards Miles. The guardian is more or less on the side of Quint since he is his master but also he is an adult, whereas Miles is a child. Three women, Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose and Flora are on the passive side of this composite woman whereas the unnamed Governess is on the active side of this composite woman. The passive side accepts its fate, social position, and even victimization to the point of Mrs. Grose becoming the protector of Flora when victimized by the Governess, and she takes the girl away from the Governess. This Governess becomes the torturer, the dominator, the controller, in fact the power and control freak of the story. She fails to impose her authority onto Flora who rebels and is taken away by Mrs. Grose. But she succeeds in a way with Miles since she brings him to the point where he will reject his connection to Peter Quint but this subservient submission will cost him his own life, as an escape in Peter Pears’ rendering and as a victim of the ghost Peter Quint in Ian Bostridge’s rendering. I personally think the original recording with Peter Pears if better.
To do this I am going to first analyze the description Peter Quint gives of himself as for his connection with Miles and children in general. Then I will consider the three songs the children introduce in the opera. Finally I will wonder what the pentacle symbolism is I will point out in the opera, corresponding to the meaning of Quint (five or fifth, like Carolus Quintus, in Latin, Charles Quint, in French, or Charles the Fifth, in English).
Miles! [eight times]
The lights fade in on the front of the house and the
tower. Quint is on the tower, Miles in the garden
below him, in his nightgown.
I’m here, oh, I’m here!
I’m all things strange and bold,
The riderless horse
Snorting, stamping [twice] on the hard sea sand,
The hero-highwayman plundering [thrice] the land.
I am King Midas with gold in his hand.
Gold, oh yes, gold!
I am the smooth world’s double face,
Mercury [thrice]’s heels
Feathered with mischief and a god’s deceit.
The brittle blandishment of counterfeit.
In me secrets, half-formed desires meet.
Secrets, oh secrets!
I am the hidden life that stirs
When the candle is out;
Upstairs and down, the footsteps barely heard.
The unknown gesture, the soft, persistent word,
The long sighing flight of the night-winged bird.
Miles! [twice, which makes twelve with the eight from the beginning]
This scene has a mirror-like structure: Quint’s eightfold call for Miles, Miles’ double answer “I’m here,” then at the end in reverse order Miles’ assertion “I’m here” only once and Quint’s double call for Miles. That structure makes the exchange absolutely self-contained. Quint describes himself in three stanzas that tell Miles what he is bringing to him and the mesmerized if not more response from Miles. First, strange adventurers and plundering for gold and one reference to King Midas who is remembered by any kid who has a classical education that includes Latin and Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold.. And Miles brings the magic word “gold” up to three repetitions. Note here we are dealing with this number three as being a reference to the Christian Trinity, but it is also one basic element in all children’s tales: repeating three times one phrase may bring some magic and often catastrophic event. Think of “Bloody Mary” or “Beetlejuice.” Though five is also important since it is a pentacle, hence a diabolical symbol and here you can think of “Candyman.” What ten year old boy would not be attracted by adventure and gold.
Second, Mercury and all possible lies and treachery, double-face reality, all that is black and white at the same time, good and evil, sweet and sour, etc. Here again a ten year old boy enters the age when he knows things are not all what they look like, that there are opposed elements and that very often these opposed elements are merged into Janus-like beings. And the magic word here is “secrets” that Miles brings to three repetitions again.
Third, the night and the beings of the night, the creatures of the dark, those mysterious and frighteningly attractive birds of the night like bats of course and all they transport in our imagination: they can fly in pitch dark night, they can find their way without using their eyes but ultrasounds, they can get entangled in your hair and they represent an attractive but dangerous could we say friend? And this time Quint’s single “bird” is repeated only once by Miles. He is hypnotized, which does not mean necessarily unconscious, etc. In fact he is only mesmerized. Of course an adult can use this easy fascination in a child, a boy, to lead him to something wrong. But Quint does not do that. There is no real element that tells us without any doubt that the relation of Miles with Quint was anything more than this mesmerized imagination any ten year old child has.
The opera does not really insist on the fact Quint is a way for Miles to find a replacement for his dead father, but at the same time it is obvious when he tells the governess later on that he wants to go back to school to be with his “own kind.” He needs a male figure to find his balance in this world and that’s exactly what Quint gives him and what the Governess will take away, what he builds in his mind with the memory of Quint and that the Governess will pervert and take away.
Miss Jessel is less important though she was a substitute mother figure for Flora who is younger and confronted to two female governesses who seem to compete for control, with a third woman in reserve in the back, Mrs. Grose. And Flora will naturally choose the living one who is not a member of the competing pair. There is a lot less drama with Flora, even if Henry James in the original overdevelops the situation. Benjamin Britten reduces it to what it is for an eight year old girl: a twist in the fabric with an easy solution in store for her.
If we understand Quint’s role this way, then we can proceed. Note Benjamin Britten probably experienced this situation very often since he worked in his life a lot with groups of young boys, often, if not most of the time, under puberty like Miles. And this experience made him sensitive to Miles’ situation and dilemma.
The three songs added by Benjamin Britten, along with the Latin lesson, are very significant and rich in meaning. Note once again they are three. […]
The full critique is more than 6,000 words and you can find it at the following address:
The Turn of the Screw, from James to Britten https://www.academia.edu/s/6394c1fda3 https://www.academia.edu/27527052/The_Turn_of_the_Screw_from_James_to_Britten
Presentation of the discussion
I have to deliver a full article in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten's operas. I have listed 21 works in that field and I still have six to go. The Turn of the Screw is particularly important because of the career the opera has had on operatic stages in the world. It is also crucial because more than with any other work this one has brought a wide - and wild - critical approach of Benjamin Britten's sexual orientation which is not at stake in this opera the way I read it, within the others like The Little Sweep that also deals with children in an upper class family. It is this way I would like to submit to your discussion and I am quite open to all ideas though it is quite clear that I will not discuss in my article the sexual orientation of the composer.
The following comparison of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of this novella to the operatic stage reveals there are two oceans that are crossed: the Atlantic Ocean and the ocean of time. In spite of his life spent between the USA where he was born and where he had brother, sister, father and mother, Henry James is not English at all. This ghost story is typically American and never reaches the Gothic level British stories construct or the ironic if not sarcastic level of Oscar Wilde. It is also the time of the great debunkers of ghost stories known as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who do not believe in ghosts but do believe in criminals and murderers and know from experience that ghosts are a good cover up for a crime, still used in many TV series.
On the other side Benjamin Britten is British to the core and ghosts cannot be ghosts because the ocean of time has been crossed along with two world wars, the two successive births of globalization. We have more or less abandoned the soul in psychiatry and we have vastly replaced it with the mind and the great masters of the mind in 1955 were Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan already and emerging fast, but not yet Michel Foucault. Each one of these set the mind in one special place of the body. For Freud the mind is in emotions and impulses. For Jung the mind is heritage from the old culture we receive with our milk after birth. For Jacques Lacan it is in the conflict and construct of two essential dimensions: the basic physiological body and the concept of authority, both in their conflict and cooperation constructing a superego he called the Phallus. Michel Foucault sets the mind at the level of the consciousness of one’s sexual apparatus, in many ways like Wilhelm Reich but with a mental dimension that Wilhelm Reich never reached, tied up and locked up in the sexual drives, both penile and anal, or vaginal and anal.
But, and that’s my main point, Benjamin Britten moves away from the ghosts to deal with mental memories or constructs that replace the parents these children do not have any more, but he refuses the innuendo Henry James invested in his novella all the time in the form of extreme sexual obsession in the nameless Governess. He brings the kids back to their ages, eight and ten, and at ten a boy needs a male model and not a male sexual partner. This model is a father substitute when the father is absent or a father extension that brings into the mental father of the boy new elements to build his superego, or Phallus to use Lacan’s concept.
And Benjamin Britten shows his deep consciousness that with any maternal figure in that situation who would be too possessive and in this particular case a power and control (sexual) freak, the boy might be mentally destroyed to the point of desiring to get out of this world back into the world where his mental model is living, since Quint is dead and not dead at the same time. Simultaneously that boy, in the most innocent way, will punish the maternal substitute who dared push him into non-existence by dying in her arms, in her lap, his big death punishing the mother-torturer-executioner who dared provoke some ripples in the field of his still unawake little death without understanding that you cannot play with that impulse even with a boy of ten without running the risk of destroying him because it is castrating if you frustrate the dim satisfaction of it and traumatic if an adult takes advantage of it to satisfy his or in this case her phantasms.
This is part of a longer study due in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten’s operas, still six to go out of twenty-one.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU