If Only Angels Would Prevail: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd

If Only Angels Would Prevail: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd March 3, 2014

The Pope Francis bookclub post will run on Wednesday, since the chapter seemed apropos for the beginning of Lent.

In a time when Hollywood is producing gritty remakes of well nigh everything, it might be appropriate to look back at one of my favorite works on how to live in an irrevocable corrupt world.  Today, at Ethika Politika, I’m discussing the tragic love that the Demon Barber of Fleet Street still bears the Moral Law in Sweeney Todd.

Bond’s Sweeney, when confronted by bloodshed, has a tendency to sound like an office worker, supremely distanced from his work, discussing his killings in the language of necessity. When contemplating Johanna-in-disguise’s imminent death, he uses only the passive voice, saying, “Here’s another must complete the score … He forces me to hurry … he must die.” This Sweeney avoids statements that would acknowledge his own agency like “I will” or “I choose.” Instead of the Demon Barber promised in the title, Bond’s Todd more closely resembles the little Eichmanns described by Hannah Arendt. There is a banality to his evil that lets him see it as separate from himself and his identity.

Ultimately, Bond’s Sweeney believes that he can shuck off his Sweeney persona as easily as he put it on. After the murder of the Judge, Todd sheathes his razors and declares, “Now that my vengeance is assuaged I long to see Johanna.” This line could never be delivered by Sondheim’s Sweeney. Unlike Bond’s murderer, Sondheim’s Sweeney understands that the evil he embraces will warp him and prevent him ever seeing his daughter again. In “Epiphany,” the song in which Sweeney decides he will kill at will, rather than only destroying the Beadle and the Judge, he declares, “We all deserve to die./And I’ll never see Johanna/No I’ll never hug my girl to me—finished!” Although most of the song is performed in a desperate rasp, in these sections, the music drops into a resonant register and is sung more sweetly, symbolizing the humanity Sweeney is putting aside. His decision to kill sunders him from his morally pure daughter.

Read on…


In order to adapt the essay for the web (it’s based on a paper I wrote in a college Sondheim seminar), I ended up getting rid of a digression in the footnotes, so let’s just say it’s exclusive content for you blog readers.  After saying that “The mass of people at the pie shop richly deserve the Greek epithet of ‘mere bellies.'” I was pleased to be able to cite the source in which I learned that phrase: Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art.

I loved Hyde’s book, was pleased to get to cite it, and couldn’t resist adding some quotes in my footnote.  So, here they are for you:

[1]“At the beginning of Hesiod’s Theogony, the Muses come down from Mount Helicon and speak to the poet… and address [him] with scorn—‘Shepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies!’—and go on to point out how different are those who live on the high mountain: ‘We know how to say many falsehoods that look like genuine things, but we can also… proclaim true things.’

“The Muses believe human beings are unlikely to tell the truth because they are ‘mere bellies,’ ridden by their appetite.”  (excerpted from Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde, p. 66).


[2] “Trickster lies because he has a belly, the stories say; expect truth only from those whose belly is full or those who have escaped the belly altogether.” (Ibid, p. 77).

Turns out that the “mere bellies” epithet has some interesting connections to Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death (which would make for excellent Lenten reading, if you’re interested), but I’ll hold off on that point for its own post.


DarwinCatholic is praying a novena for Ordering Lives Wisely by St. Thomas Aquinas, that will end on Ash Wednesday.  If you’d like to join her and me, you can find the prayers here.

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