23 May 2009 ~ 1 Comment

Wicked or Oppressed: Humanity Through the Eyes of Sweeney Todd

sweeneyFor those of you who haven’t seen Sweeney Todd, as either the movie or the play, be warned that there will be plenty of spoilers following. FULL SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

First, it’s kind of funny how I first heard of Sweeney Todd. I first saw it in the Ben Affleck/Liv Tyler movie Jersey Girl. In that movie there was a parent/child talent show where each pair was asked to choose a song to perform and act out for the school. Everyone but Ben Affleck and his daughter performed “Memories” from Cats. So after hours and hours of replays of the same song, these two go on stage and perform “God, That’s Good!”. On the upper tier of the stage, the barber Sweeney Todd cuts the throats of customers, who then fall through a hole in the floor and are served as meat pies to unsuspecting customers in Mrs. Lovett’s restaurant to dispose of the evidence.
If you want to see that video clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkLSFdvrhq0

Anyway, the details of the story FULL SPOILERS AHEAD are this:

I’m assuming that you all have seen the story. If you want to remember the details, here’s a link to a Wikipedia synopsis:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_todd

In the song “Epiphany”, Sweeney states his view of mankind:
“They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why. Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one stays put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you. We all deserve to die. Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I. Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us death will be a relief.”

His simple bimodal distribution of humanity is very apt for the play. Only a few characters violate this description, and those are the most remarkable characters. Here’s an analysis of all the named characters in the play, classifying them as the Wicked and the Oppressed:

First, the clean cut ones:

Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. She’s the one who suggests putting human meat in her pies. She also deceives Sweeney, leading him to believe that Lucy is dead so that she can seek Todd’s love for herself. You can’t get much more wicked than that.
Dies by Sweeney’s hands for her crimes.

Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. He wrongfully imprisons Barker to get at his wife. He exploits Lucy to the point that she attempts suicide. He imprisons Johanna and tries to force her into marriage. Rich man, and civil officer, taking advantage of decent people–definitely wicked.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Beadle Bamford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower in the movie–you may know him as Wormtail/Peter Pettigrew in the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Wicked. He seems to have a pretty good life. Though he lives under the command of Judge Turpin, he doesn’t really seem to suffer for it. He’s well-dressed and happy enough. He helps Judge Turpin in his unethical actions. He’s wicked, though not to the extreme of his employer.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Signor Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie)
Wicked, though he’s the least wicked of the wicked. A rich man, very well dressed, who exploits the general populace by pretending to be Italian and selling them overpriced barber services as well as selling them “miracle elixir” that’s supposed to grow hair, but is really just a mix of urine and ink. Tries to blackmail Sweeney.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Lucy Barker
Definitely oppressed. Her husband is wrongfully imprisoned, then she’s relentlessly pursued by a man in power, then exploited, then takes poison, but doesn’t die. She ends up brain damaged and begging on the streets.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Now for the dual case:

Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd (played by Johnny Depp in the movie)
These two sort of follow the rules, if you consider multiple personalities to be different people. I think that Barker/Todd really believe their statement that there are only two kind of men. Benjamin Barker is the oppressed man who lost his wife and child. Desperate for revenge, but unable to bring himself to it, he creates another persona: Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is more than capable of enacting revenge on the judge, but he’s incapable of compassion and more than willing to commit mass-murder.
dies at Toby’s hands

And the really strange cases. Interestingly, the strange cases are the ONLY people who survive:

Toby:
Transitions from neutral to Wicked. His life at the beginning isn’t particularly terrible. He has a home and a job being a crier for Signor Pirelli. If I remember right, he’s a rescued orphan so his life is looking up. After that he’s taken in by Mrs. Lovett who treats him like a son. He’s suspicious of Sweeney, but they manage to coexist until near the end when Toby discovers what Todd and Lovett have been up to. He’s lurking in the sewers beneath the basement when Mrs. Lovett is killed. After that, he creeps up and kills Todd while Todd is cradling Lucy’s dead body. Murder at such a young age seems like it will make him wicked for sure.
She is still alive at the end!

Johanna:
Transitions from Oppressed to Neutral. Her life at the beginning is terrible, forced to live with Turpin as he tries to force her to marry him. But Anthony comes along and rescues her. In the end they run away together. You could argue that she’ll be Oppressed for the rest of her life because of childhood trauma, but I like to think there’s a happy ending there.
She is still alive at the end!

Anthony:
He is the most unique character, arguably the hero of the story. He is neither Wicked nor Oppressed at any point in the play. He does not perform any actions to hurt other characters, but he does not allow himself to be pushed down by other characters either. His actions only have good effects, allowing Johanna to be free, and absolving Todd’s guilt to know that his daughter will be in good hands.

Judging by all of these things, I think the story is told from Barker’s point of view (hence why most everyone fits so neatly into the two categories). In this story, Anthony is the hero because he saves Todd’s daughter.

If anyone has any thoughts on this analysis, I’d be glad to hear them! 🙂

One Response to “Wicked or Oppressed: Humanity Through the Eyes of Sweeney Todd”