Monday, July 18, 2016


A light pantomime about a poor sooty boy chimney sweep


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 warm;
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 inside.

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 closely.

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 it.

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 quite naturally.

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.


William Blake
Songs of Innocence: 1789
The Chimney Sweeper
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.

Songs of Experience:1794
THE Chimney Sweeper
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."

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