I have some Catholic reflections on the haunting use of the traditional Latin requiem chant Dies Irae in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the musical by Stephen Sondheim, which was more recently turned into a movie by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp. (Warning: There will be spoilers ahead).
I’ve heard various commenters remark about the use of the Dies Irae in the production due to its association with wrath, judgement, and death, which of course are present in both the Gregorian chant and the horror musical. The chant speaks of Doomsday, the Final Judgement, and the end of temporal-spatial reality, when all mankind will be made to give an account of their deeds. The musical deals with a wronged barber in London who is done in by the corrupt aristocratic establishment and returns from his imprisonment to deal out revenge to his enemies.
However, he comes to the conclusion that, in fact, everyone deserves to die, and as such pours out his wrath and vengeance on mankind as a whole, murdering whoever he can get his hands on. He lifts his barber’s razor and cries “At last, my arm is complete again”, eerily signifying that he is entire self is poured into the act enacting vengeance and judging humanity, even as he admits that he is just as much a part of the “great black pit” that deserves to be done away with. Rich and poor alike are part of the same chain of being which the disillusioned barber believes should be cut.
The rest of the story follows the bloody path of self-destruction as Sweeney murders his fellow men, and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett uses their corpses to bake meat pies. Indeed, it might be considered the fruit borne of a world where the dignity of human beings is stripped through the ruthlessness of the class system, where, as Sweeney points out, “there are two kinds of men and only two…the one staying put in his proper place, and the one with his foot in the other one’s face.”
Perversely, Sweeney seems to believe this type of purging will be his “salvation”, which he sings in the jarringly brilliant number “Epiphany”, as he challenges men to come and sit in his barber chair and be “welcome to the grave.” He has, in some sense, taken upon himself the task of avenging angel; perhaps this is why he is called the “demon barber”. He some primal form of justice that a dysfunctional society fears, something which breaks through protective boundaries and demonstrates the sheer ugliness of the human condition unleashed.
But getting back to the Dies Irae, in keeping with the theme of judgement, it seems that Sweeney has taken on the role of God on the Last Days, although he himself admits that he is not immune from deserving of death and, by the end of the story, he receives his “just reward”. The simple fact is Sweeney has no right to meet out vengeance on a sinful world since he is a sinner himself, part of the same pit of depravity he despises, and in trying to claim a divine prerogative, he puts himself even further down into that black pit than those who he claims to judge.
Ultimately, this leads him to inadvertently murder his own wife, who he originally set out to avenge at the beginning of the plot. He swings his razor high, indeed, severing throats and his own humanity, but in the end it does nothing to bind up the brokenness of mankind. Perhaps this is because, in his entire quest for salvation, he forgot the most important mystery of all: Mercy.
Indeed, I find it interesting how most commenters on the use of the Dies Irae almost entirely focus on how “scary” it is in its lurid introductory descriptions of the Apocalypse, but completely forget to comment on the second half, which is almost completely dedicated to repentance, redemption, and divine mercy. Indeed, the entire purpose of the build-up is to lead to this place of humility and supplication, which is the only way to prepare ourselves for the Last Things.
It is said Sweeney served “a dark and an angry god” in his insatiable quest for revenge. Perhaps the answer for him was pulsing through the background of the entire narrative. While Sweeney was right in his assessment of all humanity being sinful and sullied, and that death hangs over us all, he was unable to retrieve the key to the prison, which can only be found through the mercy of God upon humanity, and the mercy of human beings towards each other. This is the crux of the Christian message.
“I sigh like the guilty one,” says the chant. “My face reddens with guilt. Spare the imploring one, O God, You who absolved Mary and heard the robber, give hope to me also.”
Too often in our modern world, there is a reluctance to admit our universal tendency towards sinfulness, unless it is framed in some type of sociopolitical language. The chant, and the musical for that matter, make the issue glaring. We are all connected in this condition, and if left to our own devices, we will crash and burn. But Christians believe that God could not leave us to our own self-destruction, but redeemed us by “pitching His tent” among us in the person of Jesus Christ, who we see explicitly forgiving sinners over and over again in the Gospels, be they prostitutes or publicans or thieves or even the crowd jeering at him suffocating on a tree.
“Remember, Merciful Jesus, that I am the cause of your journey, lest you lose me in that day. Seeking me, You rested tired. You redeemed me having suffered the cross. Let not such hardship be in vain.”
This solidarity with the human condition, as One sent forth from the Father to gather the scattered, heal the sick, and restore to divine friendship those fallen away in sin, is culminated in the Passion on the Cross. All forms of dysfunction fed upon Christ in His final hours, until He sunk into the lowest depth of the mortal experience, and was swallowed by the jaws of death. Yet death itself could not contain Him, and broke open to bear the first fruit of the New Creation. In the same way, the gruesome pies made of Sweeney’s victims seem nothing more than a sad parody of the Eucharistic Sacrament, which we eat unto life everlasting.
“Kneeling and bowed I pray, heart crushed as ashes, take care of my end. Tearful that day on which from the glowing embers will arise the guilty man who is to be judged…Then spare him, O God.”
During the song movie version of “Epiphany”, Sweeney kneels in a puddle in the muddy London streets, singing how his wife Lucy “lies in ashes”. Tragically, he cannot see past the despair in any way but by stoking the fires of his fury and incinerating others. He creates a hell on earth, and hardens his heart against the only thing which might have been his true salvation…mercy, given and received. But who knows the fate of any soul, even one like Sweeney Todd? For he too, as a human being, made in the image of God, has a share in solidarity with Christ, and he too might possibly receive the mystery of salvation through innocent blood poured forth to take away the sins of the world. We do not know, but perhaps we can dare to hope.
As the prayer runs, “O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”