Revenge tragedy in modern cinema

Revenge tragedy. If the phrase calls up thoughts of Tourneur, Kyd or Shakespeare, you’re looking too far from home. In a world where films are divided by genre, few people are aware that Tim Burton’s 2007 movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street – a cinematic adaptation of the award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim – is as perfect a revenge tragedy as those of Aeschylus and Euripides.

The story derives from a Victorian penny dreadful long since assimilated into pop culture – that of a barber who slits the throats of his customers and, with the help of his accomplice Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), makes their bodies into pies and sells them to the general public. Yet despite being marketed as a horror film, Burton’s Sweeney has more in common with the Medea or the Oresteia than with its contemporaries. Concealed beneath a scrupulously maintained atmosphere of darkness – which owes as much to Burton’s love of noir as to the plot – and the abundance of what one critic described as ‘tenderly art-directed, soup-thick, tomato-red fake-gore’, revenge tragedy forms the structure around which Sweeney Todd is built, and from which the story’s pathos and power derive.

Sweeney himself is the archetypal hero of a revenge tragedy – which is to say, a man wronged by an enemy far more powerful and prestigious than himself. In his case this enemy is Judge Turpin, the story’s villain, who has committed the most classical of crimes – the rape of Sweeney’s wife and the abduction and sexual grooming of his daughter. As a ‘man of justice’, Turpin’s legitimacy in the eyes of society makes him a dangerous foe. It is therefore easy to draw parallels between Sweeney and characters such as Euripides’ Medea, a foreign woman in a xenophobic and patriarchal society pitted against the might of two royal men. And like Medea, who vows to punish her unfaithful lover and his new father-in-law, Sweeney quickly becomes obsessed with revenging himself upon Turpin.

Due to the wealth and social status enjoyed by their enemies, however, vengeful heroes are often forced to resort to vigilantism and Sweeney is no exception. Unable to confront Turpin openly, he instead adopts the persona of Sweeney Todd in lieu of his former name and identity in an attempt to lure the Judge to his shop. Once again, the trope is age-old; in the Choephoroi, Orestes poses as a traveller to gain entrance to his mother’s house in order to kill her and her lover for murdering his father. Even Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar in order to get revenge on the suitors exploiting his wife, though his story does not end tragically. The scenes with Sweeney and the Judge are an effective mixture of old and new, and bring horror to the fore by utilising the classic thriller scenario of placing a character alone in a room with a serial killer. The twist, of course, is that this murderer is our hero and is, despite his growing madness, justified in his desire to kill the unsuspecting victim.

Like most other tragic heroes and heroines, Sweeney deteriorates mentally and morally over the course of the musical, and his progression from a position of wanting to kill the man that destroyed his family to instead revenging himself on humanity as a whole is the subject of several songs. The degeneration of the main character is a crucial aspect of any tragedy; Orestes’ willingness to murder his mother and Medea her innocent children in a form of revenge by proxy mark their descent into truly dark characters. Aided by Mrs Lovett – as Orestes is by his sister Electra – Sweeney becomes the cannibalistic serial killer of English legend, and the notorious pie shop begins selling (amongst other things) ‘A Little Priest’.



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August 2021
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