Friday, 16 October 2009

Peter Grimes as a paedophile

So I imagine you can tell that I've finally had a hiatus in the hurly-burly. I've properly started my new job, and the flipside is that I finally feel that I've got some real time off. I'm still learning the music for tomorrow's concert, but hey. The new I Fagiolini website is almost there, I'm done with NCT projects (wish I'd seen my Baby Show banners - I've never designed anything two metres wide before!), and at this very moment I can't remember anything else I'm meant to be doing.

So, then. I went to see Peter Grimes at English National Opera back in May - May! Good grief. There's a good review of it here to refresh your memory. My memories are that the sets were very ugly and some of the costumes ludicrous - Auntie and the nieces came off particularly badly - but that the music was just sublime (and at least First Niece was allowed to be standing when she sang her top C). There were moments in the score I'd never heard before, and my favourite parts - 'Mister Hobson, where's your cart? I'm ready'; 'What harbour shelters peace?'; 'Who can turn skies back and begin again?' - made me cry in a way that opera very rarely does (I'm normally dry-eyed while darling A sobs next to me). However, this is all digression as the point of this post was to discuss what seemed to be a throw-away remark by the director, David Alden, in his programme notes. He was discussing Grimes's character, and how dark he can be painted, I think.

"I'd like to see a production where he's played as a straight paedophile," he said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "though I wouldn't want to direct it." And my question is - what the heck is he talking about? Is there some weird operatic convention that Grimes a paedeophilic? Because I can't see any evidence in the libretto or the action. As I understand it, paedophilia means literally 'liking for children' and is used to mean that you have a specifically sexual interest in them. It's not a term to bandy around lightly.

Firstly, then, I think you'd have to push it to show that Grimes is interested in sex at all. It's a rare production that shows him any closer to Ellen than the touch of hands that's required by the libretto. I should think even a clumsy hug might be pushing it. When Grimes sings about her, he focuses on the respectability that she's going to bring him. That's his goal: social acceptance. In this production I really noticed that passion with which he sings about money. When he dreams about fishing the seas dry, it's so that he can earn money, always money. "They listen to money, only to money!" so money can silence the gossip, he fantasises. I reckon a sexual analysis would get less out of all this than a Marxist one.

Secondly, you'd have to show that Grimes is interested in children, and there again I think you'd be struggling. His whole problem is that he's using the apprentices as orphans because they're cheap - money again - without considering that they're children. He's blind to their physical needs, continually demanding too much of them, refusing time off.

Yes, he's abusive - he's violent, he shouts, he pushes them around - but that has nothing to do with paedophilia that I can see, except for being another kind of child abuse. He's rough and unthinking. He seems in fact to be someone who's almost abnormally uninterested in children. He just wants to get the job done. He's a workaholic, if you like.

The use of the term seemed to me careless. And this isn't something to be careless about. I suspect the term is often bandied around when Britten is discussed, partly because there's an equally careless association of paedophilia with homosexuality which so far as I can see has no justification at all (if male homosexuals fancy little boys, shouldn't male heterosexuals fancy little girls?). There's an interesting flipside to the current paranoia about paedophilia, I think. If anyone (well, anyone male) who wants to be with children must be showing they have an unhealthy sexual interest in them, isn't that asking why on earth anyone would be interested in children otherwise? Isn't that saying there's nothing interesting about children? Do we really believe that?


Anonymous said...

Beck, keep writing!! Love, Iona xxx

Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary?

Beck said...

Oh pooh! That is rubbish, isn't it! Is that Iona? I think you may be my only really keen reader, in which case (and in any case) we should just have more conversations! I've got at least three blog posts written in my head....

Anonymous said...

Well then it would seem that you have (at least) two keen readers.