Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an American masterpiece of the musical theater. The show debuted in 1979 and was based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond.However, the story goes all the way back to London in the 1840’s when it first showed up in a periodical named The People's Periodical and Family Library. The story was produced in book form in the 1850s, '60s, and '70s.
The figure of Sweeney Todd is an urban legend. There is speculation regarding a historical figure but nothing concrete. There is also speculation about cannibalism in Victorian London.
If you don’t know the story of Sweeney Todd, it's this: he slits the throats of “bad people.” The bodies are dumped down a chute to his basement. Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop is connected to Sweeney’s barber shop via a secret tunnel. Their minion, Toby, takes the bodies from the barber shop to the pie shop and butchers them, and Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies. The “gross” revenues keep their businesses from going under.
The question I had to ask myself was, would I do it? Under what circumstances would I be willing to kill people and then serve up human flesh in pies? It’s not as if Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are so desperate that they kill and eat people in order to survive.
There are several cases of cannibalism, such as the Battle of Leningrad or the Donner Party, where the only option for survival was to eat the dead. That’s a far cry from killing and selling human flesh.
After a period of reflection, I decided that there were situations where I would kill and situations where I would eat out of desperation, but that I wouldn’t kill and sell. Seems like a no-brainer, but I live in a culture based on comfort and convenience. I often wonder how I would respond if I were living in a more severe setting.
In a culture of comfort, we can look at Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett and profess, “I would never.” It would be more honest and beneficial to admit, “I just might.”
As Plato said, 2600 years ago, “There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless.” Admitting this and then addressing it saves us from becoming a Sweeney or a Mrs. Lovett should circumstances become desperate.
The notion that we would never, under any circumstances, commit atrocities is a luxurious myth provided by our context of comfort.
Sweeney Todd plays at the OB Playhouse through June 16.