Eating Flesh and Drinking Blood: Hearing Jesus While Creating Sweeney Todd
My school is opening our production of Sweeney Todd tonight. It's a show I've struggled with since I first saw it a few years ago. On the one hand, it's horrible, grotesque, violent, and dark. On the other hand, it is all of those things in service of a compelling story with a theme that I truly believe in.
If you're unfamiliar, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber named Benjamin Barker who returns to London after escaping an unjust imprisonment overseas. This is during the Victorian era, when transporting criminals out of the country was common enough practice in the British empire. Having been saved from a shipwreck, Barker adopts the name Sweeney Todd and, since it's been 15 years, hopes to find his wife, Lucy, and now teenaged daughter, Johanna, and reestablish his life.
He is almost immediately recognized, however, by a pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, who was secretly in love with him before his troubles began, and who kept his barbering tools all these years as a keepsake of her obsession. She explains that Judge Turpin, who condemned Benjamin Barker, did so to get him out of the way, in order to woo Lucy. When Lucy resisted him, he lured her into a vulnerable position and had his way with her. Depending on how the production is staged, this is either an implied sexual assault or an overt rape. Regardless, it's clear the judge is a very, very bad man.
As Mrs. Lovett tells the story, Lucy then fell into despair and eventually poisoned herself. As for Johanna, the judge adopted her, presumably out of guilt for destroying both her parents, and raised her as his ward.
Believing that his family is now out of reach, Sweeney swears vengeance on Judge Turpin and his accomplice, Beadle Bamford. Mrs. Lovett returns Sweeney's razors to him and he sets up a barber shop in an empty room above her pie shop. There he looks for opportunities to lure the judge and the beadle into his shop and do away with them.
Various events conspire to repeatedly raise Sweeney's hopes and then dash them. He is recognized by a rival barber who tries to blackmail him. Anthony, the sailor who rescued Sweeney, meets and falls in love with Johanna, then enlists Sweeney's help in a plot to get her away from the judge, who has decided to marry Johanna in order to protect her "from the evils of the world" (Anthony doesn't know Johanna is Sweeney's daughter). Sweeney's first (and in his view, only) opportunity to kill the judge fails when Anthony bursts in, which also foils the rescue plot. Mrs. Lovett seems to vacillate between supporting Sweeney and delaying his desire for vengeance (she is still smitten with him and, like everyone else in this show, is only working her own angle). There is a filthy old beggar woman who keeps turning up at inconvenient moments, and Tobias, the young boy who worked for the rival barber develops a juvenile crush on Mrs. Lovett, which gets in the way.
By the end of act 1, Sweeney has been so bruised by the violence and abuse of others that he breaks. He has already succumbed to violence when he killed his would-be blackmailer. He seems to feel no remorse for this, but it presents him with a problem: what to do with the body. Mrs. Lovett proposes a novel solution, which is of course what the show is best known for. There's a meat shortage, you see, and hers have hitherto been the worst pies in London. Sweeney has never behaved scrupulously, but now he embraces violence as a basic fact of human history. He sings:
What's the sound of the world out there?
Those crunching noises pervading the air!
It's man devouring man, my dear!
And who are we to deny it in here?
And then later:
The history of the world, my love —
Is those below serving those up above!
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below!
Mr. Todd has become the embodiment of injustice: the avatar of the casual violence of humanity towards itself. His and Mrs. Lovett's actions are shocking, unconscionable, but they provide cheap, hot, delicious food for the masses. Business booms for Mrs. Lovett, and Todd misses his family less and less with the passing of each murderous day. But his peace is due more to a deadening of his emotions than any true healing, and the stench of Mrs. Lovett's ovens at night troubles the city. The people don't know they're feeding on each other, but as far as anyone can tell, they also don't care to know.
In the end [spoilers], Todd gets his revenge, but in taking it he destroys what he had most hoped to regain. You see, Lucy was still alive, as Mrs. Lovett well knew, but Sweeney doesn't learn it until after Lucy has died by his hand. He then tosses Mrs. Lovett into her own oven before allowing a now insane Tobias to execute him with his own razor. Anthony, Johanna, and Tobias survive, but none of them comes through untouched by the events.
Perhaps you see what I mean. It's awful, but only as a mirror of some truly awful realities that exist in our own world. The play seeks to open our eyes to the casual violence (personal, cultural, systemic), that haunts our daily lives. Far from celebrating Sweeney, it warns us against the perils of taking judgment and vengeance into our own hands. But it equally warns us about the danger of considering ourselves too righteous, or of ignoring our complicity in the violence of the systems around which our everyday lives are structured. It condemns the hypocrisy of the rich demanding service from the poor instead of abasing themselves in service to the poor. It shows the folly of pretending to moral correctness while participating thoughtlessly in a society that allows such injustices to persist, and demonstrates the way our own abuses of others come back to destroy us, and also those around us.
So this is the show that I've been immersed in bringing to life for the past few months, and deeply for the past few weeks. And this is the context in which I heard these words this morning:
I am that bread of life.
Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.
This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:48-58)
Shocking. Violent? Difficult. A reversal of everything in the show, but thematically consistent, as though Sweeney himself had become the first and only filling of Mrs. Lovett's pies, which brought not horror but redemption, and an end to cruelty instead of its perpetuation. It's an opposite but parallel proposition. We eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God in order to end violence and injustice, though his violent suffering for our wrongdoing seems the ultimate injustice. To do so is troubling—not easy to comprehend or accomplish. The disciples of Jesus' time reacted understandably. They said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?"
Who indeed? But, I think Sweeney is helping me hear it with new ears.