The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

13

Owen Wingrave

OWEN: I cannot forget them, the bully and the boy stalking their way to the room which saw their deaths ... Walking, walking — these two: the old man and the boy, for ever in each other's company.

Myfanwy Piper, Owen Wingrave, Act 2, Scene 1
My destiny is ... to die in harness.

Britten, to Sidney Nolan 1

In 1954, the year in which The Turn of the Screw was completed, Britten wrote to Eric Walter White that he had just read another short story by Henry James with 'much the same quality as the Screw'. 2 This story was Owen Wingrave, a tale which James had written for the 1892 Christmas issue of The Graphic, and which was republished in the collection, The Wheel of Time, in 1893. Thirteen years after he had first encountered this tale, Britten asked Myfanwy Piper to adapt it for his next opera, a 'television opera' commissioned by the BBC. 3 Her primary task was to develop characters only superficially sketched by James and to fill out scenes from mere hints in the original. Although she was aware that James had himself dramatised his short story, in a play entitled The Saloon, Piper was later to claim that she had not utilised this text. However, in an undated letter to Britten, she wrote: 'I have been reading & rereading Owen Wingrave & the Saloon & have come to several conclusions ... I agree there are some good things in the Saloon — & some bad ones too' (BPL). In addition, a spiral Notebook containing Piper's early ideas for the libretto reads: 'Look up Shaw's letter of rejection of 'The Saloon' for the stage ... about Dec 1908 or Jan 1909 ... Kate's red dress good for colour T.V. I think. Exchange between Coyle and Wingrave Saloon Page 657. excellent' (BPL). Evidently The Saloon, in which James had expanded ideas merely sketched in his original narrative, was a useful source text.

In many ways, Owen Wingrave, set in a country house which is home to supernatural presences, is a companion piece to The Turn of the Screw. The

____________________
1
Sidney Nolan in interview with Donald Mitchell, 11 June 1990; quoted in HC, p. 512.
2
HC, p. 508.
3
The televisual character of the opera does not seem to have affected the aesthetic or emotional discourse contained within the work. However, the narrow visual focus did exacerbate the effects of inappropriate casting and the over-literalism of the producers in the 'ghost scenes'.

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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