Horror Attends the Tale of Sweeney Todd

This essay argues why Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be classified as horror.

The genre of horror as art, particularly in film and theatre, is not one that has been taken too seriously overtime. Perhaps the reasons lie within the elements of horror; the ghastly events, horrifying words, monstrous characters, and dark spectacle. If too cliché and centering merely on the outer display of horror, an audience is apt to wave a production off as superficial and full of “cheap thrills.” Thus the complex inner workings are vital in any production based in the genre of horror. I do not mean to discredit the importance of spectacle at all, but rather to reinforce the importance of a plot based spectacle.

The linking of horror and art, in fact, goes back to Greek tragedy. The word horror is found in Aristotle’s Poetics:  “fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of a piece…even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place” (White 1).

Though it may be the final point according to Aristotle, spectacle is completely necessary to a play. It is the production itself, everything seen and heard by the audience. The spectacle of a play can even go as far as including the plot.  When reading Wheeler’s stage directions and Sondheim’s song lyrics, it is easy to envision the dark and morbid tale about the “demon barber of fleet street.” From the beginning of Sweeney Todd, the spectacle is utilized for entertainment purposes, furthering the inner workings of the plot, and asserting the themes of horror.

When an audience fills the house to watch the production or a reader sits down to read Sweeney, there should be no surprise regarding the subject matter. From the title alone, audiences should not expect to be filled with thoughts of rainbows, cheery songs, and happy faces. The play is set in 19th century London and begins with the representation of a grave being dug. Then, there is an unexpected “deafening shrill sound of a factory whistle.” It is just the prologue and already this foreboding display demands attention. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. /His skin was pale and his eye was odd” (Wheeler 23). With the entire company onstage, one man steps forward to separate himself from the rest. This action of solitary separation is a motif that repeats itself throughout the play. Even though Sweeney works with Mrs. Lovett, he murders his victims alone. The crazy beggar, which is actually Sweeney’s wife, is always shooed away and set apart from the rest. The perverse and monstrous actions of the characters set them apart at various times throughout the production. This physical and emotional separation is observed through the songs and speech of the actors as well as the actual actions taken.

The thrilling entertainment presents itself not only in the actions of horror but through dark humor and the part comedic and ironic situations Sweeney’s “clientele” are placed in. It is not so shocking to the audience when Sweeney actually begins his murderous plight; but the first time Todd’s razor is lifted and used to murder Pirelli (Wheeler 81), it is difficult not to react to the gruesome act. Whether the reaction is squeamish, excitement, or any other emotion depends on the person; a reaction is inevitable. The playwright could have excluded the murder scenes and left it up to the imagination; but instead, the actual bloody depiction is included for entertaining and thrilling the observers.

Sweeney Todd seems to be a simple story: a man turns into “a moral monster isolated from the community by disease rather than united to it by depravity, one whose actions were fundamentally unnatural, inhuman, and incomprehensible” (Black 780-781). However, the story is more than a tale of mass murder. Sweeney is not the only monster evident, and, arguably, he may not be the worse. As Mrs. Lovett retells the story of Benjamin Barker and his wife, Lucy, the actors reenact the past, constructing a visual flashback to accompany Lovett’s song (Wheeler 37-40). Judge Turpin, a dreaded monster, may be blamed for instigating all of the murders on Fleet Street. He exiles Sweeney and physically defiles Lucy. This evidence gives the audience reason to sympathize with Sweeney Todd and raises the question: if such dastardly things happened to me, would I turn into a monster like he did? There is a sense of similarity to be seen between this monster and the average human being. Just how far can a soul be pushed before going mad and committing the heinous act of murder?  Nevertheless, Sweeney is still a monster, but certainly not the only one.

The moral, physical, and social degradation of the vile characters in Sweeney Todd supports the horror genre: “Perhaps the least obvious fear to be found in horror film, but also the most encompassing, is that of being cut off from others, of being rejected by those around one” (White 11). This quote refers to horror as seen in film, but is most certainly not limited to the film medium. The degradation faced by the characters in Sweeney Todd is not only provided by but also festers in the unruly and malcontent society of 19th century London. We see London in the midst of the industrial revolution, a dirty, poverty stricken, crime filled era. These horrors incite emotions and once again raise the question: what if this happened to me? Themes of disbelief are prominent and we tend to say things such as: How can this tale be true, and even if it was that would never be something I would do. If it were not something recognized by our subconscious, we would not need to reassure ourselves.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics of Sweeney Todd are powerful, shrill, and demanding. They demand an audience to listen to this horrifying story of murder and all of the monsters that are a part of it. Now that you are listening to the story, spectacular elements of horror will be implemented to ensure that this gruesome story is seen. The play concludes with the company singing the familiar “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” with one of the last lines “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it, and seldom as well” (Wheeler 204) serving as a reminder to the audience: true horror lies within every one of us.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 1982 Tour Cast, starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney Todd.

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Works Cited

Black, Joel. “Murder: The State of the Art.” American Literary History 12.4 Oxford University press, 2000. 780-793

Duff, Oliver. “Hair-raising tale of olde London town: SWEENEY TODD: FACT OR FICTION?” The Independent (London) 3 Jan. 2006, first edition: NEWS 14,15.

Headrick, Charlotte J. “Performance Review: Sweeney Todd.” Theatre Journal 58.3 Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2006: 477-478.

Mollin, Alfred. “Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd.” American Music 9.4 University of Illinois Press, Winter, 1991: 405-417.

Wheeler, Hugh and Sondheim, Stephen. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 2001.

White, Dennis L. “The Poetics of Horror: More than Meets the Eye.” Cinema Journal 10.2 University of Texas Press, Spring, 1971: 1-18.

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About Boris

Boris enjoys reading, writing, traveling, performing, roller derby, and costuming in addition to immersing herself in a variety of horrific worlds via literature, art, video games, comics, music, haunted attractions, and cinematic adventures. From zombies to slashers, creature features to B-movies, and psychological thrillers to supernatural stories, Boris is into many different subgenres of horror.