The Demon Barber

15 Mar

Sweeney Todd—the ‘demon barber’ who is alleged to have slit the throats of his unsuspecting customers before dropping their bodies into a cellar that connected to a nearby pie shop—is one of the most famous Londoners of all time. Since he first entered the public scene in the mid-nineteenth century, his exploits have chilled and fascinated readers and audiences all the world over. Whether in print, on the stage, or in films, the name of Sweeney Todd has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the English dictionary. The general outline of his story, as it first appeared in the pages of nineteenth-century periodicals, and as it subsequently played itself out in a seemingly endless succession of melodramas on the Victorian stage, is straightforward enough. A prosperous London barber in the days when men were compelled regularly to bare their throats to be shaved by comparative (and often disreputable-looking) strangers, Todd routinely murders the unsuspecting patrons of his Fleet Street ‘tonsorial parlour’. Making use of an ingeniously constructed barber’s chair, he dramatically hurls his victims head over heels into the basement of his shop before robbing them. Occasionally, if the drop from the chair to the stone floor below has not already done the job for him, Todd is compelled to ‘polish them off’ with his razor. He then drags their bodies (via an ancient network of subterranean passageways) to the convenient cellar of the nearby premises of Mrs Margery Lovett, who transforms the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies. The clothes, walking sticks, hats, and other personal items belonging to Todd’s unlucky customers are hidden in the barber’s house; their otherwise ‘unusable’ remains are secreted within the mouldering and long-disused vaults beneath the neighbouring church of St Dunstan’s. Todd’s greed and increasing bloodlust inevitably gets the better of him, and his murderous activities spiral out of control. Thanks to the combined efforts of a well-known local magistrate, a team of Bow Street Runners, and an enterprising pair of star-crossed young lovers, the pair are eventually captured and brought to justice before the bar of the Old Bailey. The relatively simple outline provided by this frankly ghoulish tale of terror has demonstrated itself to be peculiarly accommodating, however. Each generation has been compelled to make use of what might best be described as the ‘mythic’ elements inherent in the macabre story—its resonant themes of avarice, ambition, entrepreneurial capitalism, and cannibalism—effectively to mirror its own particular concerns. Todd’s presence continues to haunt our storybooks, novels, plays, and our airwaves and works of musical theatre; his figure can often be found creeping, only barely disguised, through related collections of folklore and local legend.


No sooner had Sweeney Todd made his first formal appearance on the stage of English fiction, than he appeared suddenly to be everywhere at once. The ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ strode the boards of the late-Victorian and Edwardian theatre in the manner of a blood-splattered, razor-wielding colossus. The serendipitously named actor Tod Slaughter famously brought the character to life on cinema screens in 1936, although Slaughter’s eye-rolling interpretation of the role was not the first ‘Sweeney’ to appear on film (nor, of course, was it to be the last). The twentieth century, quite apart from a seemingly unstoppable series of revisions of Todd’s story as a stage melodrama, witnessed the re-emergence of the barber as a feature of popular musical-hall entertainments, as well as versions of his tale on radio, in elaborately illustrated graphic novels, and children’s books. In 1959, the well-known composer Malcolm Arnold, with choreographer John Cranko, even reinterpreted the story as a Covent Garden ballet. The continued popularity of Todd’s story well into the twenty-first century, as we shall see, owes a particularly great debt to the American composer Stephen Sondheim, whose spectacular ‘musical thriller’ based on the story premiered in 1979. The story of the original, rip-roaring serial publication that first launched Todd’s career is no less fascinating than the history of its many successors. Strikingly, the character of the demon barber made his first appearance in English in the pages of an eighteen-part serial that did not even bear his name in its title. The story that we today know as ‘Sweeney Todd’ originally appeared, rather, as The String of Pearls: A Romance. This penny dreadful was published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical and Family Library, issues 7–24, 21 November 1846 to 20 March 1847. It was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer, though Thomas Peckett Prest has also been credited with it; possibly each worked on the serial from part to part. Other attributions include Edward P. Hingston, George Macfarren, and Albert Richard Smith. In February/March 1847, before the serial was even completed, George Dibdin Pitt adapted The String of Pearls as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: “I’ll polish him off”. In 1865 the French novelist Paul H.C. Féval (1816–1887), famous as a writer of horror and crime novels and short stories, referred to what he called “L’Affaire de la Rue des Marmousets”, in the introductory chapter to his book La Vampire. A version of this story is related by the author Jacques Yonnet in his book Rue des maléfices (1954). This version is set in late medieval (1387) Paris, at the corner of the Rue des Marmousets and the Rue des Deux-Hermites. The familiar plot of the barber and the pastrycook who sell pies made with human flesh is followed, the dénouement following one of the victims’ dogs alerting neighbors and the gendarmes. The two confess, and are summarily burned alive; the houses where the crimes took place are then razed. Whether this version of the story is based on The String of Pearls or its dramatisation, or a much older tale alluded to by Féval is unclear. In any case, it may well be the source for some recent versions that move the tale from London to Paris.

However he came fully to be conceived—whoever it was that first gave to the constituent features of Todd’s narrative a local habitation and a name—the Demon Barber is to some extent the product of the collective national psyche. Matthew Kilburn no doubt comes closest to the more nebulous ‘truth’ that lies behind the legend of Sweeney Todd when he asserts that the barber is “perhaps best described as a personification of early nineteenth-century fears of the anonymity of urban life built around some recorded events and older fictional or legendary sources.” The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a particular manifestation of a legend that could perhaps lay claim to being as ancient as urban civilisation itself. Sweeney Todd is arguably not so much an ‘urban legend’—as that term is generally understood—as a rural legend. His tale is a sustained narrative expression of that peculiar, communal anxiety that manifests itself whenever an individual is surrendered to and swallowed by the greater cosmopolitan crowd; those people who chose to leave the safety and familiarity of their extended ‘families’ in smaller, close-knit rural communities are liable to ‘disappear’ in the big city. In Sweeney Todd, such individuals not only disappear, they are literally consumed; they are eaten up. What had once been metaphorical has become real. It is no mere accident of circumstance that Sweeney Todd himself emerges into life at the precise historical moment when the world city of London is perceived even by its most ardent champions to have swollen forever beyond the bounds of control—when it has become a metropolitan entity that is dangerous and non-negotiable. It is particularly striking, too, that although the original serial narratives and dramas relating to Sweeney Todd quite clearly describe him as a late-eighteenth-century figure (the action in Lloyd’s novel, again, is very explicitly set in August 1785), his status in the popular imagination is that of a conspicuously Victorian figure; time has transformed Todd into the natural companion, in fact, of ‘Jack the Ripper’ (fl . 1888–91).

Most recently Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a 2007 musical period slasher film directed by Tim Burton and an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical of the same name. Having been struck by the cinematic qualities of Sondheim’s musical while still a student, Burton had entertained the notion of a film version since the early 1980s. However, it was not until 2006 that he had the opportunity to realize this ambition, when DreamWorks announced his appointment as replacement for director Sam Mendes, who had been working on such an adaptation. Sondheim, although not directly involved, was extensively consulted during production. Depp, not known for his singing, took lessons in preparation for his role, which producer Richard D. Zanuck acknowledged was something of a gamble. However, Depp’s vocal performance, despite being criticized as lacking certain musical qualities, was generally thought by critics to suit the part. The film was released to largely positive reviews from critics. The film was chosen by National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2007 and won numerous awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor – Musical or Comedy, as well as the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Bonham Carter was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and Depp received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Although it was not an outstanding financial success in North America, it performed well worldwide, and produced a soundtrack album and DVD releases. Ghoulish as the tale of this demon barber is, it has clearly held a strange fascination for generations of readers and theatre and film-goers alike!

To be fair, even had it never occurred to a composer such as Sondheim to write a musical about a murderous barber and his cannibalistic, pie-making accomplice, and even had Tim Burton’s production never been green-lit by Hollywood producers understandably wary of selling such a film to Middle America’s proverbial ‘Mr and Mrs Front Porch’, the seemingly slight and often spurious connections such as that which links the demon barber via cockney rhyming slang with members of the London Metropolitan Police Flying Squad (aka ‘the Sweeny’) would still have done much to keep the Fleet Street legend alive in English popular culture, at the very least. Sweeney has always been hard at work somewhere within the British imagination, and (for all the truth of Sondheim’s observation that until 1979 very few Americans ‘had ever heard of Sweeney Todd’), the barber’s influence can in fact clearly be traced in now classic American horror stories such as Stanley Ellin’s chilling Speciality of the House (1948), and Charles Beaumont’s Free Dirt (1955). In 1973 the popular British comic magazine Shiver and Shake first chronicled the adventures of one ‘Sweeney Toddler’ (continued in Whoopee!), and in 1996 the writer Frank Palmer produced the first of a series of detective thrillers featuring the character of one Phil ‘Sweeney’ Todd. The popular British comedy duo the Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett) included a sketch featuring one ‘Teeny Todd’ (played by Corbett) in their Sketchbook series, airing first in March and April 2005. Modern purchasers of straight or ‘cut throat’ razors may be disconcerted to find such items not infrequently marketed as ‘Sweeney Todd’ blades, and there are even restaurants that carry Todd’s name on their menus, and advertise a speciality in home-made meat pies. The modern novelist Neil Gaiman, who with artist Michael Zulli in the early 1990s contemplated an ambitious illustrated novel devoted to Todd’s story, to be published as an ongoing ‘work-in-progress’, commented in a 1997 interview that he was at times baffled by these sorts of allusions, and by the many different versions of the myth that had been handed down to modern readers and audiences. “I kept reading version after version of Sweeney Todd,” Gaiman remarked of the more faithful references of the tale and its characters: “here is a couple of Victorian plays, over here would be some Penny Dreadfuls, here’s something from the 1930s. There’s always Mrs Lovett, there’s always Sweeney Todd, there’s always a judge. But after that it becomes so amazingly fluid, and I think that was what attracted me.” However one chooses to define such an ‘attraction’, the simple fact remains that audiences and readers at the beginning of the twenty-first century are likely to greet the name of Sweeney Todd with a smile of recognition, and more than a passing familiarity with his gruesome story.

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