Search This Blog

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sweeney Todd, Valjean, and American Justice

Yesterday, Sondheim and music lovers in the USA got the happy news that that NY Phil's Sweeney Todd will be broadcast "Live from Lincoln Center" in September. It doesn't take much for me to get excited about when it comes to Stephen Sondheim's music, but this qualifies. On the same day, on Facebook and in our staff meeting, there is buzz about Pope Francis's praise of Cardinal Walter Kaspar's book on mercy, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.  Of course, it also makes me start thinking about meaning and one thing leads to another...

OK, so here’s a discussion I’d like to see happen: Dick Cheney, Jimmy Carter, and Desmond Tutu, after an evening watching Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, meet on the air with Bill Moyers. “Gentlemen,” says Bill, in his best “Li’l Abner Goes to Yale” voice, “you’ve just spent five hours watching some geniuses of musical theater create what you might call a public theology of revenge from material that's over a century old, and they have two quite different takes on it. Some of us think there are parallels to be drawn between these two shows and the current situation in the world. Discuss.”

Moyers would never dabble in such a pedestrian insight into popular culture. Cheney might not participate because Les Mis is of French origin. But it occurs to me that both it and the Sondheim musical are dealing with the problem of revenge, of the human response to evil, particularly evil perpetrated by those in authority upon those who are their constituency. Both stories spring from a different world; Les Mis from mid-19th century France and the wake of one of the French Revolutions, and Sweeney Todd from the Dickensian England of workhouses, overpopulation, and the severely overspent economy of an outdated class system and empire. 

Of course, there are significant differences. The protagonist of Les Mis, Jean Valjean, is not completely innocent, he did in fact steal bread in order to feed his starving family. Escaping from prison, he is befriended by a curate who shows him a kindness by inviting him for dinner. That night, Valjean robs the curate of some silver. When Valjean is caught by the policeman Javert, the curate lies for him, telling Javert that the stolen silver was a gift. On the strength of this kindness, Valjean builds a new life, becomes the mayor of a small town, and the narrative is truly launched. Javert, who has brought himself up from the slums on the strength of his career, continues to look for the escaped prisoner that is Valjean. Javert represents what Americans generally think of as justice; Valjean has committed a crime, and he has to pay for it. Into the scenario, though, the free mercy of God appears in the action of the cleric. Valjean is allowed to see the bishop’s act as redemption; he feels his life now has a new and higher purpose. He leaves his crime and his life in the past; Javert does not think this is “fair,” and continues to seek “justice” upon him. Of course, anyone familiar with the story knows this highly oversimplifies the plot into just one of several streams. But follow this stream out is exactly what Hugo (and the adapters) do: in the end, there is an apotheosis of Valjean as he joins the martyrs and his loved ones in heaven, while Javert, unable to forgive or find forgiveness even after his life is spared twice by Valjean, commits suicide by plunging into the Seine. We feel relief at the death of Javert, relief for him, even as we keep hoping that this time, this performance, he’ll relent before his fall. The question is, has justice been done? Well, that's one question. The other might be, does it matter?

Sweeney Todd, known before his imprisonment as Benjamin Barker, is different from Valjean in that he is a genuine innocent, even a naïf, the victim of the abuse of power by a powerful judge who has him sent away on a trumped up charge in order to seduce Barker’s wife, Lucy. We only know Barker’s life in flashback and shadow, in his memory and that of a neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, who is now his landlord and who has kept the tools of his trade, his barber’s razors, while he was in prison. (Note - if you don’t know the show, do not let your first exposure to it be the crazy Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter rivers-of-blood vehicle. Go for the vintage Hearn/Lansbury stage version, which at least contains the Ballad of Sweeney Todd, which is only heard instrumentally in the movie. Otherwise you’ll never know that the play is about “to seek revenge may lead to hell, / But everyone does it, and seldom as well / As Sweeney, as Sweeney Todd...”) Having escaped from a prison ship, Barker returns to London as Todd. Discovering from Mrs. Lovett that his wife was raped by the judge and then took poison, and that his daughter Joanna is now his ward and soon-to-be bride, Todd lays in wait, planning his revenge on the judge and his beadle. When the judge eludes his grasp the first time, Todd, mad with rage, chooses to “practice on less honorable throats,” and the bloodbath begins, with Mrs. Lovett taking the bodies to turn them into a profitable business selling “the best (meat) pies in London.” In this show, Joanna does indeed escape, but only after the horror of discovering the secrets of the barber and the pie shop. But Todd’s vengeance backfires in a way: a bawdy beggarwoman who has nipped at the heels of many who cross her path during the show turns out to be his wife, Lucy, and in a moment of panic and unknowing Todd kills her as he waits for the judge to arrive for his shave. By the end of the musical, Todd’s rage and revenge have taken dozens of lives including his own and Mrs. Lovett’s. The musical, already dark and only blackly humorous, lost what little humor and light it had in the transition to the screen. But here, I’m mostly concerned with the aspects of justice and revenge, and how they provide templates and paradigms for the way that we think life ought to be fair.

So, in a 9/11 world, in an Auschwitz-Birkenau world, in a Hiroshima-apartheid-Khmer Rouge-Idi Amin-Bosnia-Darfur-Abu Ghraib-Boko Haram world, what do we mean by justice? Which paradigm can we lay over our actions and feel like we’re doing something worthwhile to move evolution along from the Hammurabian equity of the talion law toward something that might remotely resemble agape, the love that God is, the God in whom this “Christian” nation purportedly believes? Talion serves well to stop unbridled retribution; as many point out, it’s a huge moral step forward from murderous revenge that multiplies retribution. But Jesus has put forward a different God, one who identifies with the victim; one who “lets the sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike.” Jesus posits a God who is not to be known a judge or emperor, but Father. Jesus shows us a God whose forgiveness is truly that, given before the crime, so that there is never any distance between us and God. 

And yet, the public rhetoric goes on about others being evildoers, while we publicly admit waterboarding and other forms of torture, and the humiliation, beating, and even murder of prisoners under our guard. We still end every speech with “God bless America” and we’re scandalized when a preacher takes the government to task for it. And there’s rarely a word from the high priests of American public religion that we ought to ask forgiveness from God for this evildoing of our own; it’s somehow endorsed by God because it’s being used on evildoers in retaliation for something which they, ostensibly, have done to us. 

Our hearts do bleed for Sweeney Todd, however bizarre and reprehensible his crimes, because he has been hurt so deeply. But once he begins lashing out with his razor on the throats of people unconnected to the crime done to him, we’re made to see that maybe our pity is misplaced, and really, he ought to be stopped! Our hearts go out to Javert, the ever watchful guardian of law, for his sense of honor and duty, but once his life has been given back to him by Valjean, and he chooses to “throw his pity right back in his face,” we lose some of our hope of saving him. He has not learned the lesson of mercy, that all have sinned, and that all have been forgiven, and he will not join in the great song of thanksgiving that is part of the music of the conscious universe. 

So, which way, America? Todd, or Valjean? Messrs. Cheney, Carter, and Bishop Tutu, discuss. For your further consideration, I have lifted some text from Jean Anouilh (via Louis Evely) and St. Isaac of Ninevah, quoted in an essay on "The Injustice of Grace" by Fr. Alvin Kimel.
In his book That Man is You, Fr Louis Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:
The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.
All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”
For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”
Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment. 
What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard … So the last will be first and the first last (Matt 20:1-16).
We are scandalized by the injustice of grace. It’s quite one thing for God to forgive me, but I still want him to mete out justice to everyone else. 
The seventh century ascetical master, St Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked: 
Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60) 
The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:
God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! 
The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice.
So, yes, attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. But we've got a better story. And that final scene of the film version of Les Miserables, the apotheosis at the barricades: it would have been better to have seen Javert there as well, caught in the embrace of Gavroche and Valjean, echoing that wonderful scene at the Eucharist in the unforgettable Places in the Heart. But that might just demonstrate the limits of American justice vis-a-vis the gospel. Like the crowd in Anouilh's play, even in our imagination, it is rare that we can love our enemies and wish them the eternal happiness we imagine is reserved for ourselves.