The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend

By Hand, Richard J. | Gothic Studies, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend


Hand, Richard J., Gothic Studies


The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend, by Robert L. Mack (London: Continuum, 2007), 375pp., £25 hb; ISBN 978-0-8264-9791-8.

Sweeney Todd presents a fascinating and probably unique story in terms of its origin, legacy and cultural reinvention. An extremely potent urban legend, it still has advocates, most notably Peter Haining who, in his own 1993 study (revised in 2007), insist that it is a true story. An anonymously published 'Penny Dreadful' in the 1840s The String of Pearls was inevitably dramatised and George Dibdin Pitt's play became a favourite melodrama on the Victorian stage. In the twentieth century it continued to have a stage life, most prominently with Stephen Sondheim's 1979 'Musical Thriller', but significantly the 'demon barber' transfers efficaciously to the screen with interpretations by a surprisingly diverse range of actors including: Moore Marriott (1928): Tod Slaughter (1936); Freddie Jones (1970); John Miranda (1970); Ben Kingsley (1998); Ray Winstone (2006); and, in the screen adaptation of Sondheim, Johnny Depp (2007). Sweeney Todd is perfect material for the screen for the very reasons that make it such a challenge for the stage: film can fully exploit the potential of this tale of terror with its close-up shaves, mechanical chair and butchery and its all-important variations in locale with its everyday barbershop and bakery concealing its basement of horrors.

The dreadful partners in crime Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett have become icons of horror: not like the 'Transylvanian' monsters made so popular by the golden age of Universal Pictures and beyond, but as icons of 'possible' horror. As such they have joined the sepulchral pantheon inhabited by the real figures of Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper or 'inspired by fact' constructs such as Norman Bates. Interestingly, while the fortunes of Frankenstein and Dracula in their incarnation as popular culture icons may have waned somewhat, Sweeney Todd becomes a very apt monster for our own times. Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004) with its eclectic mix of Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde may have flopped at the box office, but contemporary horror has triumphed with the two Hostel films (2005 and 2007), the four Saw movies (one per year from 2004 to 2007) and numerous other examples of unlikely but nonetheless feasible horror into which Todd and Lovett would fit comfortably.

Sweeney Todd is a story that continues to survive as a fine source for adaptation. There are countless allusions, echoes and exploitations of the story. This probably explains why for someone like Peter Haining the story has become true: a myth so rich that it must have a basis in fact, a legend that seems belittled if it is merely fantasy. Robert L. Mack's excellent book demonstrates how the adaptive flexibility and resonance of the story of Sweeney Todd rests on two key components and the shocking interweaving of them: the serial killer and cannibalism. The handsomely designed Continuum publication says it all: the cut-throat razor on the front cover and the meat pie on the back. What Mack proves, with detailed cultural and historical research, is how the Sweeney Todd story itself is an adaptation that taps into anxieties that are as ancient, yet prevalent, as they are deep-seated.

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