Monday, July 18, 2016
A light pantomime about a poor sooty boy chimney sweep
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – THE LITTLE SWEEP - 1949
This opera for children cannot be approached
in any way if we do not have in mind the two poems by William Blake, the
Chimney Sweeper, one in the Songs of Innocence (1789) and the other in the Songs
of Experience (1794). The two poems have contradictory meanings on the basis of
the same description of a hateful and bleak occupation for boys under ten.
The first poem’s conclusion is:
“Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and
So if all do their
duty they need not fear harm.”
Good boy indeed who
knows his duty. The second poem’s conclusion is
"And because I am
happy and dance and sing,
They think they have
done me no injury,
And are gone to praise
God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven
of our misery."
This chimney sweeper
shows some kind of childish happiness that hides well the real bleak misery
If we keep in mind this contradictory message
from the most empathetic English poet ever, we can then get into the opera
whose libretto was written by Eric Crozier. In that opera Benjamin Britten
plays on the strong image of Blake’s first poem of these boys being locked up
in black coffin of soot and their being freed by an angel.
“That thousands of
sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them
locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel
who had a bright key,
And he opened the
coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green
plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and
shine in the sun.
Then naked and white,
all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds
and sport in the wind.”
Benjamin Britten, or Eric Crozier, uses the
image of the coffins many times: stuck in the chimney, then hidden in the toy
cupboard, spending the night there, and finally being moved out of the house
and onto his liberation in a travelling chest. Every time the boy is liberated
in a way or another, the last time is a promise though, by the children of the
house who plot that whole procedure, hence playing the role of the angel and
led into that by three girls along with three boys, a perfect David’s star,
from two families, the Brooks (two girls and one boy) and the Cromes (two boys
and one girl), one triangle point up representing the light of divine truth
poured down into the human cup and one triangle point down representing the
human cup receiving the divine light.
Now we can look at the story, the way it is
told. Note at once we are inside the home of an upper class family who can
afford to have a nursery-maid and a housekeeper. This situation is very
traditional in children’s literature in England. Let me cite Peter Pan
(1902) and Mary Poppins (1964) for two famous examples, one before this opera
and the other after. But there are many more. In other words the formula used
here is the formula of many Yuletide pantomime using traditional elements that
all children have in common to build a new story, a new plot, or just an
evocation of the traditional story. But of course this opera is not a
pantomime, nor a simple musical and we have to look at the music slightly more
The introduction is a dynamic – and kind of
joyous – opening that seems to treat the fate of the sweep-boy, Sam, as
something light after all. We are told the boy has been sold by his own father
to the sweep master Black Bob who is said to be cruel. There is here a
contradiction between the bleak words about an even bleaker reality – that does
not exist any more and hasn’t for a long time – and the light joyful music.
Actually this is a characteristic of this opera: the music is never tragic or
even dramatic. That’s really a pantomime that brings joy and dynamic
entertainment to children. And Humpty Dumpty can have as many great falls he wants he will always be put together
again, at least by the audience since all the king’s horses and men cannot do
The second track shows us the heartless
housekeeper as opposed to the sentimental nursery-maid who is full of empathy
and pity for the sweep boy who is crying out of fear since it is his first
chimney. The next track provides first a clear picture of the sweep master and
of his assistant. They are both ruthless and just effective: the boy is
prepared and sent up the chimney. Then we have the six kids playing hide and seek.
It is within that game that they hear the sweep boy calling for help because he
is stuck in the chimney. Then they help him by pulling him down on the rope
attached to the boy and down he comes with soot and stones. This last action is
punctuated by a pulling song that sounds like some old sailor song with its
burden “Pull O! Heave O!” When Sam is calling for help the situation plays on
the basic fear of all children that has to do with claustrophobia, the fear of
being locked up and stuck in some small space, and of course the fear of the
dark. But once again the music is always light, even when it puts forward the
ruffian sweep master and his assistant.
The next track is only some in-between moment
when the children take charge of Sam after they have pulled him down from the
chimney. This unimportant scene, both dramatically and musically is there to
introduce the next track which is extremely important. The children plan Sam’s
escape, or what they want everyone to believe is Sam’s escape through the
window whereas they hide him in the toy cupboard. Sure enough the housekeeper
is only interested in getting the chimneys swept and there are six more,
whereas the sweep master and his assistant are only interested in catching the
boy and teaching him his duty, and here we think of course of the first poem by
William Blake. If everyone did their duty there would be no problem in our
society. This situation works very well because of the color of each character
in the music he uses and the words of course. From the urgent conspiratorial
coloration of the children and their nursery-maid to the forbearing and
forbidding tone of the housekeeper and to the naturally strict tone of the
sweep master and his assistant who menace the boy with a termination that would
deprive them of their profit making apprentice like tarring and feathering him.
The scene finds its dynamism in these contrasting elements.
The children were so effective in their
planning that even Rowan, the nursery-maid falls in the trap and you can imagine
her surprise when the children show her Sam in the toy cupboard and they
convince her to help make him escape his chimney sweeping fate. And the first
thing to do is to give Sam a bath. Here we have a song that is supposed to be
sung along by the audience. This song is like a hymn in church and is fast
leading to a light joyful song about the new Sam, clean and bright and a short
discussion among the children. Sam thus tells us on a dutiful tone that he was
sold by his father, his father who broke his hip and cold not work any more.
Since there was no food, they had to sell their son. And Sam proudly admits
that he is going to be nine next birthday. The music emphasizes the logic of
the situation for Sam who accepts to be sold since it was a way to save his
parents from starvation. He just does not ask for how long, and it was a way to
provide Sam with a livelihood, even if it is a hard job.
All these contradicting elements, and the fact
Sam is crying, as we have seen, though the children haven’t, when he is about
to go up a chimney is in sharp contrast with his assuming the positive
motivations of his parents as well as his own, lead to the next scene. The
children are planning a solution: to have Sam put in the travelling trunk on
the following day that will accompany the Crome children going back home. A
typical children’s solution since that will not solve the problem of Sam’s
parents, nor the problem of Sam’s future: what will he do? And what will the
Crome parents say and do? But suspend your disbelief for an instant.
Especially with the housekeeper who comes
complaining about her feet, her joints and the chimney sweeps accusing her of
hiding their apprentice, and she scrutinizes the room and finds all kinds of
wrong things though we are surprised that she does not see the soot here and
there. She just sees some soiled or un-tidied elements, particularly the toy
cupboard that she wants to set it in proper order right now. Luckily the music
saves us and introduces the most improbable event: Juliet, one of the girls,
has just fainted. And that plays the trick. The house keeper is fooled and she
takes Juliet to her room to look after her. So the music gives us some joy
after the fear of Sam being maybe discovered.
That’s when the audience is invited again to
sing along, this time the Owl’s song that will shift the action from the
evening to the morning, hence cover the night. By the way this is a practice in
church with hymns, but it can also be a practice in pantomimes with some
popular songs that are sung along by the audience. It is a lullaby of sorts
built on four animals, an owl, a heron, a turtle and a chaffinch with their own
songs or cries and then the four cardinal points given in cross formation
(north, south, east, west) like a sign of the cross actually, brings the four
cries or songs together in some kind of chorus. Soothing and at the same time
attractive to children with the animals and their songs. This lullaby brings breakfast in the morning
With breakfast comes the announcement of the
liberation of Sam who is going to be sent away in the travelling trunk of the
Crome children. This is so nice and yet so unrealistic that we could smile
slightly. The tone of the music is very soft and slow just as if we were here
still in the illusion of the lullaby, in a world suspended in mid air, in the
sky of a child’s imagination where and when everything is possible just because
the child wants it. Sam is also presented with a present from the three Brook children,
three half-crowns. This leads to another moment of empathetic emotional
suspension of reality. But things have to speed up now.
A little bit of drama first with the coachman
and the gardener who cannot lift the trunk and require it to be emptied first
when the children decide to help and with their help the trunk is lifted and
set on the coach. And the opera can end with the coaching song and Sam going
away to an unspecified future that is to be seen as a liberation all bright and
joyful for the audience.
So this opera is a pantomime for children but
there is on e element that is typical of Benjamin Britten. The main character,
Sam, the little sweep is once again an uprooted stranger where he finds
himself. He is uprooted from his family that sold him into this apprenticeship
because they could not feed themselves and tale care of him: Tom Thumb is not
far in our memory. Then he is uprooted in this apprenticeship he has not chosen
and is fearful to him, an apprenticeship of crawling up dirty chimneys in the
soiling soot and the fear of claustrophobia. He is a stranger to his master and
his assistant, a stranger that has to be exploited for their own benefit which
means their own survival in a society where they represent nothing, except a
dirty chore that has to be done every year. But he is also uprooted among the
children among whom he finds himself, a stranger that can be welcomed by the
children but is not welcome for the grownups around, though the parents are
absent and the nursery-maid is drawn into the plot. In this environment where
he is a stranger he spends most of his time locked up in a toy cabinet and then
in a travelling trunk. And that’s the last uprooting of this boy who is sent
away in a trunk, on a coach, with three children to a family who do not even
know he exists yet. He is in other words vaporized into a daydream.
We have here the themes of the boy sacrificed
in a way or another in this society, and of the stranger who does not fit and
cannot fit, even after a bath, a breakfast and with three half crowns, in this
world and has to be sent away in a trunk on a coach, into a daydream. This end
sounds so much like sweeping the soot under the withdrawing room’s carpet. It
might make children in the audience dream along thanks to the music that takes
them on a little pink cloud but it remains an illusionary daydream.
When my mother died I
was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
A little black thing
among the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"--
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.
"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."