Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd
Portrayed by Tod Slaughter (1936 film)
Len Cariou (original Broadway cast)
George Hearn (1982 tour)
Alun Armstrong (1993 London revival)
Brian Stokes Mitchell (2002 production)
Michael Cerveris (2004-2005 West End and Broadway revivals)
David Hess (2007-2008 Canada and U.S. National Tour)
Johnny Depp (2007 film)
First appearance Penny Dreadful serial entitled The String of Pearls (1846-1847)
Aliases The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Gender Male
Age 30s-40s
Date of birth Mid 1700s
Occupation Barber
Spouse Lucy Barker (in musical version)
Children Johanna Barker (in musical version)

Sweeney Todd is a character who first appeared as the protagonist and main villain of a penny dreadful serial entitled The String of Pearls (1846-1847). Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person[1][2] are strongly disputed by scholars,[3][4][5] although there are possible legendary prototypes, arguably making the story of Sweeney Todd an example of an urban legend.[6]

In the original version of the tale he is a barber who murders wealthy customers by pulling a lever while they are in his barber's chair which, unknown to them, is fixed to a revolving trap-door, making them fall backward into the basement, generally causing them to break their necks or skulls as they hit the ground. Just in case they are alive, he goes to the basement and "polishes them off," meaning he slits their throats with a cut-throat razor.[7] But in many adaptations of the tale, the murdering process is reversed, meaning that he slits their throats and then pulls a lever causing them to drop into the basement. After Todd has robbed his dead victims of their goods, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime (in some later versions, his friend who wants to become his lover), assists him in disposing of the bodies by having their flesh baked into meat pies, and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop. Todd's barber shop is situated at 186 Fleet Street, London, next to St. Dunstan's church, and is connected to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop in nearby Bell Yard by means of an underground passage.[6]

The tale surrounding the character became a staple of Victorian melodrama, and later a Tony award-winning Broadway musical in 1979. Sweeney Todd has also been featured in several films, the most recent being Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), directed by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp in the title role.


[edit] Story versions

[edit] The String of Pearls

The original version of the tale, The String of Pearls, is set in London in the year 1785 and concerns the strange disappearance of a sailor named Lieutenant Thornhill, last seen entering Sweeney Todd's establishment on Fleet Street. Thornhill was bearing a gift of a string of pearls (of the title) to a girl named Johanna Oakley on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie, who is presumed lost at sea. One of Thornhill's seafaring friends, Colonel Jeffery, is alerted to Thornhill's disappearance by his faithful dog, Hector, and investigates his whereabouts. He is joined by Johanna, who wants to know what happened to her lover, Mark Ingestrie. Johanna's suspicions of Sweeney Todd's involvement lead her to dress up as a boy and enter Todd's employment, after his last assistant, Tobias Ragg, has been incarcerated in a madhouse. Eventually, the full grisly horror of Todd's activities are uncovered when the dismembered remains of hundreds of his victims are discovered in the crypt underneath St. Dunstan's church. Meanwhile, Mark Ingestrie, who has been imprisoned in the cellars beneath the pie shop and put to work as the cook, escapes via the lift used to bring the pies up from the cellar into the pie-shop. Here he makes the following startling announcement to the customers of that establishment:

"Ladies and Gentlemen — I fear that what I am going to say will spoil your appetites; but the truth is beautiful at all times, and I have to state that Mrs Lovett's pies are made of human flesh!"[8]

Mrs. Lovett is then poisoned by Sweeney Todd who is, himself, apprehended and hanged. For her part, Johanna marries Mark and lives happily ever after.

[edit] Sondheim's adaptation

In Stephen Sondheim's 1979 stage musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond, Todd is reinvented as a tragic character driven by revenge rather than greed and whose real name is Benjamin Barker.

Benjamin Barker was a middle class barber, married to Lucy Barker with an infant daughter Johanna. The villainous and lecherous Judge Turpin wanted Lucy for himself and had Barker arrested on false charges and transported for life to Australia. The play begins 15 years later, when the barber has returned to London, completely transformed by his experiences: “That man is dead. It’s Todd now. Sweeney Todd.” Mrs. Lovett, a widow, owns the spectacularly unsuccessful meat pie shop below Todd’s old home. Mrs. Lovett recognises her former neighbour and tells Todd that Lucy poisoned herself after Turpin raped her, and that Turpin adopted baby Johanna as his ward. By the time Todd returns to London, Johanna has become a young woman and falls in love with a sailor, Anthony, with whom she plans to elope.

In the Sondheim musical, Mrs. Lovett takes in an orphan boy, Tobias Ragg, after Sweeney kills Toby's previous master, Adolfo Pirelli, a former assistant of Todd who tries to blackmail Todd by revealing his true identity (it was a capital crime for a "lifer" to return to England). After Turpin escapes his grasp, Todd swears revenge upon the entire world, resolving to kill as many people as he can; Mrs. Lovett then suggests they turn his victims' remains into pies. Mrs. Lovett's pie shop becomes incredibly successful.

In the musical's climactic scene, Todd finally kills Judge Turpin, as well as a deranged and purportedly old beggar woman — who turns out to be none other than Lucy, Todd's long-lost wife. When Mrs. Lovett confesses that she didn't tell him Lucy was still alive because she loves him, he throws her into the roaring bake oven. As Todd grieves over his wife's body, Toby, enraged after discovering the secret of the meat pies and Sweeney's murder of Mrs. Lovett (whom he loved like a mother), sneaks up behind him and slashes Todd's throat with Todd's own razor. Todd dies with his wife's body in his arms.

[edit] Literary history

Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in eighteen weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7-24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren and Albert Richard Smith.[9][6]In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, The String of Pearls was adapted as a melodrama by George Dibden Pitt for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: "I'll polish him off".[6] Neil Gaiman, in a promotional 'penny dreadful', identified a number of earlier texts that feed into the Todd story, some dating back to at least the late 17th century.[vague]

Another, lengthier, penny part serial was published by Lloyd from 1847/8, with 92 episodes and published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls with the subtitle "The Barber of Fleet Street. A Domestic Romance". This expanded version of the story was 732 pages in length.[6]A plagiarised version of this appeared in America c. 1852–53 as Sweeney Todd: or the Ruffian Barber. A Tale of Terror of the Seas and the Mysteries of the City by "Captain Merry" (a pseudonym for American author Harry Hazel (1814–89)).[6]

In 1875, Frederick Hazleton's c. 1865 dramatic adaptation Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: or the String of Pearls (see below) was published as Vol 102 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays.[6]

A scholarly, annotated, edition of the original 1846–47 serial was published in volume form in 2007 by the Oxford University Press under the title of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, edited by Robert Mack.

[edit] Alleged historical basis

The original story of Sweeney Todd was quite possibly based on an older urban legend.[6] In the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) by Charles Dickens, published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846-7), a character called Tom Pinch is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis".[10] A similar story, which first appeared in an 1824 publication called The Tell Tale, reported how a barber and wig-maker of the Rue de la Harpe in Paris cut his customers' throats, relieved them of their valuables and then had their bodies made into meat pies, utilising the services of a pastry cook, whose establishment was on the same street.[9][6] A late (1890s) reference to the urban legend of the murdering barber can be found in the poem by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson - The Man from Ironbark.

Claims that Sweeney Todd was a real person were first made in the introduction to the 1850 (expanded) edition of The String of Pearls and have persisted to the present day.[6] In two books,[1][2] Peter Haining argued that Sweeney Todd was a historical figure who committed his crimes around 1800. Nevertheless, other researchers who have tried to verify his citations find nothing in these sources to back Haining's claims.[11][12][13] A check of the website Old Bailey at [1] for "Associated Records 1674-1834" for an alleged trial in December 1801 and hanging of Sweeney Todd for January 1802 show no reference; in fact the only murder trial for this period is that of a Governor/Lt Col. Joseph Wall who was hanged 28 January 1802 for killing a Benjamin Armstrong on 10 July 1782 on the isle of Gorée, West Africa, and the discharge of a Humphrey White in January 1802.[original research?]

[edit] On stage and screen

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1979). The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. F. Muller. ISBN 0-584-10425-1. 
  2. ^ a b Haining, Peter (1993). Sweeney Todd: The real story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Boxtree. ISBN 1-85283-442-0. 
  3. ^ BBC Press Office (2005-08-12). Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd. Press release. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2005/12_december/08/todd_making.shtml. Retrieved on 2006-11-15. 
  4. ^ Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact or fiction?". The Independent (London). http://news.independent.co.uk/media/article336235.ece. Retrieved on 2006-11-15.  (Full text)
  5. ^ "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. http://www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/index.html. Retrieved on 2006-11-15. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Robert Mack (2007) "Introduction" to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  7. ^ "straight razor" in North American English
  8. ^ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert L. Mack (2007). Oxford University Press: 280
  9. ^ a b "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" PBS.org. URL accessed 11 February 2006.
  10. ^ Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (1982). Oxford, Clarendon Press: 495
  11. ^ BBC Press Office (2005-08-12). Man or myth? The making of Sweeney Todd. Press release. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2005/12_december/08/todd_making.shtml. Retrieved on 2006-11-15. 
  12. ^ Duff, Oliver (2006-01-03). "Sweeney Todd: fact or fiction?". The Independent (London). http://news.independent.co.uk/media/article336235.ece. Retrieved on 2006-11-15.  (Full text)
  13. ^ "True or False?". Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert. KQED. 2001. http://www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/index.html. Retrieved on 2006-11-15. 

[edit] Further reading

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street edited by Robert Mack (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199229333
  • Robert Mack (2008) The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend. Continuum. ISBN 0826497918

[edit] External links

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