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Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd

Special to The Times

There is seemingly nothing on the subject of the tale of Sweeney Todd -- from its roots in reality, to its finding its way into folklore and subsequently literature, and then onto innumerable stages and the screen -- which Robert L. Mack has not explored in “The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend.” It is an immensely detailed and far-reaching book that might be considered the last word in program notes to Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s stage musical and its movie version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, which opens Friday.

“Todd’s story has been told by many different people and in many different forms, but the essential outline of his narrative is straightforward enough,” writes Mack, who, despite his wide scope of inquiry, has a gift for crisp exposition in a nutshell:

“Driven by motives ranging from simple greed in most early versions, to a complex scenario of carefully exacted revenge in subsequent retellings, Todd is a barber who routinely murders the patrons of his Fleet Street shop -- on some occasions slitting their throats, on others stabbing, strangling, or bludgeoning to death with his bare hands, but almost always making use of his ingeniously constructed barber’s chair in the process. After dramatically hurling his chosen victims head-over-heels into the dank and inescapable basement . . . he then disposes of their bodies by transferring them to the nearby premises of Mrs. Lovett, who turns the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies (veal, her customers are often told).”

This book not only tells you all about the real Todd -- yes, there actually was such a barber executed in 1802 -- and the various literary and stage versions of him, but all about barbers, pies and cannibalism.

The author goes into the last topic in great detail, ranging through the centuries and throughout the world. We learn of 18th century explorer Capt. James Cook’s surprisingly tolerant and culturally relativistic views on it and that the great French essayist Montaigne considered Europeans’ condemnation of it hypocritical in view of some of their own barbarous practices. Mack even takes on one of Britain’s most sacrosanct myths regarding a great national hero, who for the British is the epitome of purity and nobility:

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“Some revisionist accounts of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition of 1911 . . . have gone so far as to suggest that the surviving team of Scott, Oates and Bowers are very likely toward the end of their ordeal to have resorted to cannibalism. The absence of any photographic record of their actual fate -- the absence of any ‘deathbed’ photographs of the polar heroes -- represents a curious lacuna in the otherwise meticulous valedictory record of photographs. . . .” So there is indeed a lot more to this book than Sweeney Todd -- the story, the legend and their progeny.

Which is not to say that these centralities do not get their due. The actual Sweeney Todd may have lived in the 18th century, but the story has always had a decidedly Victorian air to it. Mack informs us that “the earliest documented appearance of Sweeney Todd as a figure in England’s criminal or literary history [took place] in 1846" as a “penny blood” and throughout the rest of the 19th century, the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street snowballed to become a staple of theatrical melodrama.

The whole business seems so Dickensian and it is fascinating to discover in this book that indeed Dickens did write about the legend without mentioning Todd’s name before the “barber’s earliest appearance in English fiction . . . in the pages of Edward Lloyd’s ‘The People’s Periodical and Family Library in 1846-7.’ ” In “Martin Chuzzlewit,” his novel published in 1843-44, there is a reference to “the dens of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis.” The story of Sweeney Todd as we know it has been a steady success for more than a century and a half: Just imagine how much more compelling still it would have been had Dickens decided to give it the full measure of his inimitable treatment!

This book examines why this harrowing story has been so perennially popular, instead of something from which people would recoil in horror. Mack, who teaches at the University of Exeter in England, is convincing when he cites no less a writer than George Orwell, who explored the topic in his 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder”:

“For Orwell, the contrast between -- and the possibly sudden and violent intrusion within -- the comfortable . . . setting of domestic respectability by an act of carefully planned, impassioned, and yet ruthlessly determined murder made for many (if not most) English readers a close to perfect form of entertainment.”

That is the beauty of this book. You don’t only get everything you might ever want to know (and some things you might not!) about Sweeney Todd, but also the benefit of all that wisdom from the great writers invoked by the author in his successful quest to give maximum context to a classic.

Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”


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