La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Not Seeing, Not Knowing

Britten's fascination for the unspoken

Klaus Bertisch
Reading time
13 min.

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma … The Turn of the Screw is among the most ambiguous works of the twentieth-century operatic repertoire. In the latest staging at La Monnaie, director Andrea Breth deliberately leaves the door to easy, unambiguous answers closed. But dramaturge Klaus Bertisch has gone in search of keys anyway: in the original novella, in the composer’s private life, in the subtext of the libretto and even in the set design.

Benjamin Britten’s secrets

Today, in the early twenty-first century, homosexuality is widely accepted and it is openly known that English composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and tenor Peter Pears (1910–1986) had a relationship. But when The Turn of the Screw, Britten’s ninth opera (if we include Paul Bunyan, which is perhaps more akin to an operetta), was first performed to widespread acclaim, this did certainly not go without saying. On the contrary, the love between the two artists, which developed from a platonic friendship into an intimate relationship, had to be kept secret.

Homosexual activity was a criminal offence in Britain until 1967. For most of his life, therefore, Britten had to exercise the utmost discretion, for fear of displaying his sexual preference in public. Even after his death, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, the so-called Clause 28 – in force from 1988 until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales – even prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in official statements, speeches and publications, with the result that in all spheres of public life, homosexuality was reported in purely negative terms. That which couldn’t flourish openly and had to remain unspoken could only take place secretly, be conveyed in code or simply be suppressed. In his own lifetime, the fact that Britten constantly had to restrain his emotions and feelings in public may be the reason why he often chose subjects that reflected his fascination for that which shouldn’t be spoken or shown. The operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, both composed a few years before Britten started work on the adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, are telling examples. Especially after Peter Grimes, which Britten wrote before the end of World War II and which was first performed in June 1945, it seems surprising that Pears and Britten should have decided to settle in Aldeburgh, a provincial and narrow-minded town. All the more since Peter Grimes, based on the section of the same name in the collection of poems The Borough by George Crabbe (1754–1832), was precisely an emotional indictment of village life, which was accused of stifling any deviation from the norm with malicious gossip and excessive emphasis on tradition.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears' home in Aldeburgh
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears' home in Aldeburgh © Zoer on flicker

In neither of the three operas – Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw – do we discover what actually causes the downfall. Did Peter Grimes abuse the boy entrusted to him and so bring about his death? Did Billy Budd in fact have a (forbidden) affair with his boss? Did the ghosts of the deceased servants Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw really appear to the Governess? And did they then have a harmful influence on the children in her care? We don’t know. However, these operas appear to be full of almost unconcealed hints. Without making the slightest adaptation or adding a single footnote, the text of Billy Budd can be read as one long sexual innuendo. Likewise, there are many passages in The Turn of the Screw that are ambiguous, to say the least. Scene 6 of Act 1, ‘The Lesson’, contains a veritable arsenal of seemingly innocuous words and Latin expressions which, on closer inspection, however, prove to be brimming with phallic symbolism. In the same scene, Miles’s mysterious Malo song, which recurs several times, is heard for the first time. Its meaning is ambiguous. ‘Malo’ can refer to a character trait (from the Latin malus, evil, bad), but we can also read it as an innocent text about a tree (malum, apple, apple tree). It is a fascinating, multilayered song that remains inexplicable.

The ambiguities underlying the Turn of the Screw

So what truly matters is what is not said or shown in the story. With Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, characters appear who have actually died. Are they ghosts, therefore, or are they real? For Andrea Breth, the director of The Turn of the Screw, they are primarily characters that she has to stage because they actually appear on stage. It is suggested that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel have sprung from the Governess’s imagination: after all, when, mainly at the start of Act 2, they seem to speak independently (Henry James never allows them to speak at all!), the Governess, as a nameless protagonist, is always on stage, and what takes place may be a product of her imagination.

Britten was brilliantly inspired when he asked his librettist Myfanwy Piper (1911–1997) to have the ghosts appear as singing figures and provide them with text they were deprived of in James’s novella. This enabled Britten to break away from the form of the original (a narrative with three different first-person characters) and find his own dramatic form. Nor can it be a coincidence that Britten assigned several characters the same voice type, adding to the confusion. In many passages, the Governess’s vocal lines are interchangeable with those of Miss Jessel and even with those of her pupil, Flora. Incidentally, the same holds for the roles of Peter Quint and the Prologue. Andrea Breth’s staging makes the most of this situation on several occasions. These are not corrections, but theatrical means that fit the general mood of the work and even lend it strength. In fact, the roles of the Prologue and Peter Quint have been assigned to the same singer in the most diverse productions. Britten composed both roles for Peter Pears, although this was more on practical grounds, as equal treatment of the two characters is unthinkable in terms of content. After all, these are two very different characters. Any ambiguity would be lost if viewers were to identify one with the other. But the play on the same vocal types becomes really exciting when at times we are left in the dark about who is saying or singing what. This uncertainty about who is actually singing heightens the dramatic tension. In this context, it is also interesting that the Prologue and the Governess are nameless. The Prologue (an amalgamation of two narrators in James’s novella) tells the story without actually intervening himself. His anonymity is consistent with his function and with a neutral narrative perspective. With the Governess, things seem different: she is like a mirror to the other characters. She is nameless because her fate is universal. Indeed, her destiny, her imagination, her fantasies are those of all the lonely and neglected women of the time who were seeking employment. Her name, therefore, is of no significance.

© Bernd Uhlig

From victorian times to today

Both James’s novella and Britten’s opera were of course heavily influenced by the Victorian era, which, according to the libretto, is when the events are set. This was a period of great economic prosperity in Britain, a period of industrial revolution. The lower middle class and the working class were beginning to rise, and the gap between rich and poor was wide. It was also a time when great poverty meant that many women were looking for work. Across the country, a great many governesses were angling for work. British society being divided between those living ‘upstairs’ and those ‘downstairs’, in their daily lives they often had to suffer their master’s sexual impositions. The Governess’s decision, at the beginning of The Turn of the Screw, to go out on her own with no idea of her future prospects is by no means to be underestimated. And to further underline the ambiguity of the text, when Peter Quint is described by Mrs Grose as a ‘valet’, that position often involved the ‘servant’ providing sexual services to the master. Subordination was, to be sure, a typical feature of Victorian society.

Today, however, it is not enough to reproduce that late-nineteenth-century era as such on stage. We have formed a specific image of it since the emergence of this work – both novella and opera – thanks to the knowledge with which we approach stories, people and developments. We know now that ghosts don’t exist. Thanks to Sigmund Freud’s discovery and description of psychoanalysis, we have insight into the workings of the human psyche. So it is a question of rendering a vague, seemingly realistic reality on stage, as the events in this work are not real precisely. The story we are told is the vision of the Governess. She is performed as a third-hand narrator, namely after the character of the proprietor in James’s novella (the Prologue in the opera), who in turn has heard the story from another person – a confession, as it were, whose written version, albeit in faded ink, he has painstakingly managed to decipher. Perhaps it is precisely the ‘faded ink’ that prevents us from believing this account: the text cannot be fully untangled and is therefore questionable.

In Scene 1 of Act 2, librettist Myfanwy Piper quotes from ‘The Second Coming’, an incantatory poem by W.B. Yeats (1865–1939) about change that announces a turning point as something negative. The time of youth, of innocent children’s games is gone. It also appears clear that it is impossible to escape the forces of a different order. A new power must and will arise, which will then be in control. The cheerful life of innocence is over! Miles and Flora are in fact not as innocent as we expect children to be. The sweet little ones have entered puberty and have their own games, their own opinions, their own will. They don’t live up to the expectations imposed on them and, since the young and naive Governess has never been able or allowed to experience her own desires, she conjures up substitute figures who embody the evil we actually don’t want to see in children: Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are like catalysts of initiation into a new existence. W.B. Yeats’s poem – a dark, apocalyptic vision – is perhaps the only sign that could illuminate a thought of death.

The inestimable significance of doubt

Even so, the opera and novella are not so much about the harmful influence that two deceased characters might exert, as ghosts, on the pupils of an absent proprietor, but about how one person’s imagination can go so far as to affect reality or alter it to such an extent that, in the end, only a break with the object is possible. The death of a character changes the situation in an instant. In this sense, Britten’s opera works much like a Hitchcock film, building up tension endlessly, only to arrive at a surprising and unexpected plot twist. Miles’s sudden death takes spectators completely unexpectedly. That the harmful influence of adults on the children’s world would be a central theme in Britten’s work remains an open question. Perhaps the composer suffered from the trauma of World War II and from having to conceal his homosexuality, but his art consists precisely in neither expressing this unequivocally in his works nor in showing its destructive power on young Miles and Flora. Ghosts are a product of the imagination that can exert its influence on a character. But what matters most is stimulating that imagination and creating surprises, rather than serving up unambiguous interpretations that leave little or no room for personal reflection or interpretation. The process is reminiscent of the work of the French painter Balthus (1908–2001), who in many of his canvases painted young girls in sexually provocative poses without ever showing whether a sexual act had actually taken place. A sophisticated dream-like atmosphere pervades most of these paintings. Suggestion – something may have happened – is always more captivating than the depiction of an explicit act. It appears from the characters portrayed that childish naivety often goes hand in hand with shrewd calculation and is not necessarily synonymous with innocence.

© Bernd Uhlig

A story unfolds therefore that is not so much rooted in everyday reality or influenced by reality – and one that in no way evokes the Victorian era for contemporary viewers – but rather a spectacle that fires the imagination, a spectacle about youth and old age, life and death, stability and novelty. A work that raises more questions than it provides answers. Reading James’s novella, it is perfectly normal for images to appear before the reader’s inner eye that anyone can or should imagine for themselves. The same should hold when attending a performance of this opera by Britten: rather than deliver an unambiguous message grounded in a period document, we wish to confront the audience with what may be unsettling possibilities. Accordingly, in Andrea Breth’s staging in a set by Raimund Orfeo Voigt, images are shown that are not real. Spaces open up and visual constellations appear that are suggested by the spirit of the work but don’t prevent viewers or readers from engaging their own imagination. Sliding walls reveal both expected and unexpected things before immediately hiding them again – a symbolic echo of the confusion generated by the narrative, as it were. Above all, this also reflects Britten’s basic theory of the unspoken. In Andrea Breth’s work, imagination and a detailed reading are not mutually exclusive. The changes on stage follow the train of thought, reveal surprises before immediately veiling them again. New ideas also provide hope for change. Thus, ‘not seeing’ and ‘not knowing’ in the composer’s system don’t refer purely to the dark side of humanity. Rather, as a result of such an opera experience, they can sharpen our awareness of what deviates from the ordinary and the normative. We must be careful not to condemn what we don’t know. That is another thing this work tells us.

Translation: Patrick Lennon