Monday, October 10, 2016


Feudalism still exists in some families


The libretto of this opera is rather simple, maybe too simple. We are at the crossroads  between the past and the future in an old feudal noble family. The main quality of this libretto is the fact that the main hero is not alone but surrounded by others with whom he is systematically compared.

First his friend and co-student in military art Lechmere under the authority of their military instructor, Coyle; Lechmere is enthusiastic about becoming a soldier whereas Owen Wingrave refuses to do that in spite of the tradition in his family. I must admit that the name “Wingrave” is rather surprising for a serious subject: soldiers are all people who only win graves for other people and for themselves.

The instructor is against Owen’s choice of course, since it is his trade to train him to be a soldier. His wife is rather more open to Owen’s decision not to become an authorized and encouraged if not lauded killer. The emphasis is put on that side of the argument. Owen will be accused of being a coward but he refuses the accusation: he does not refuse to be a soldier because he is afraid of dying, but because he refuses to kill, even enemies.

Then he is confronted to his family in the family castle which is, we are revealed, haunted by an older case of the same type when a father punished his son who refused to fight against a friend who had insulted him in a way or another by locking him up in a certain room. The boy is killed by a blow to the head and the father dies on his son’s dead body in the aforesaid room.

Everyone in the family is against Owen’s decision. Owen has no freedom of choice. He is supposed to do what his family has decided he should do. He is to be a soldier, like it or not. He is predestined to be a soldier by the century old tradition of his feudal family.

That goes as far as a confrontation with the head of the family, an uncle or something, who disinherit Owen. He becomes an outcast. His own friend Lechmere then at once courts his girlfriend Kate Julian who is yielding to the courtship with no charm at all but with speed and greed. Yet she wants to provoke Owen and she dares him to spend the night in the haunted room and she locks him in it after he accepts the dare.

Yet, strangely enough, Lechmere in the middle of the night comes to Coyle and his wife to tell them what happened and the dare that Owen accepted. They all rush to the room where they find Kate who was having some kind of pangs of conscience and the truth is clear: the curse of the room has worked. Owen is dead. The opera ends up strangely with an exclamation from the uncle “My boy!” that could be interpreted in many ways and the narrator brings up the idea that one cannot escape one’s destiny and Owen died a soldier fighting against a curse in the family. Fighting against the curse but losing and dying.

This ending is too schematic to really know how Owen felt. We are missing a scene: the confrontation of Owen with the ghost and the curse. This story was initially written by Henry James and it is one more ghost story and his version has to be examined and compared to the libretto.

But this libretto shows several simple ideas that make the ghost story an extremely bleak family story. The haunting son and father are not seen as ghosts at all but is seen in a portrait in the hall showing the father and the son when they were alive and in harmony, so before the crisis. The ghost story is then nothing but a family story to keep the sons in line with their duty.

The second element is that it is the girl, Kate, who dares Owen to dare the ghost and the curse. Once again the girl, young and “innocent,” at least as innocent as the paper on which a crime story is printed, is the agent of the death of the young man. It is the same pattern as in the Turn of the Screw. The girl believes in the curse because it is the way to bring Owen back in line and thus back to her, and that reveals her greedy nature, her possessive nature.

The strangest part is the role of the friend Lechmere. He at first took advantage of the situation and then was taken by some remorse as if he wanted the girl but not over a body. We can’t really say the young man is a real friend since his pangs of conscience are very distant as for the cause of them. He does not give a damn about Owen. He just does not want Kate with the haunting guilt that she is forever going to experience: she killed her own betrothed.

This opera is supposed to be anti-military. This side of the story is certainly not the most important side. It is the denunciation of any family rule that does not leave the children, here the sons, free to choose what they want to be, become and do in life. There you have a vast theme in Benjamin Britten’s operas. Owen becomes a rejected outcast and stranger in his own family because he wants to be free and choose his own future. That’s a lot more interesting than being against war even in 1970 when an indecent monstrous war was going on in Vietnam, especially since the vast majority of the drafted GIs and of the casualties were black or from ethnic minorities, certainly not from the big families who managed to keep their sons away, to protect them from becoming soldiers. But did the other draftees have any choice at all? They had to go and accept death as the main reward for it.


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