The story of Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera Owen Wingrave is of a military cadet who suddenly rejects the life of a soldier. He has to face the extreme disapproval of his traditionally military family and the taunts of his girlfriend that he lacks courage. Seeking to prove her wrong he succumbs to the pressures all around him (encapsulated in a family ghost) and dies. Henry James’s original was not much of a ghost story, frankly, and what he handed on to Britten proved less successful than Britten’s great Jamesian adaptation, The Turn of the Screw. Critics tend to consider Owen Wingrave, not in its superb music, but as an operatic whole, one of Britten’s lesser works.
FT critic Andrew Clark wrote of the 2007 production at the Linbury Studio at London’s Royal Opera House, staged by Tim Hopkins, that ‘The Wingrave family is a caricature. Owen’s fate is sealed from the start. I don’t see Owen Wingrave as a pacifist tract – Britten was too clever for that – nor as an opera as a gay coming-out. It’s just one-sided and melodramatic.’ In his June 7 review of the latest London production, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) June 7-12, 2013, directed by Kelly Robinson, Clark both changed his mind and did not. The opera still invited too black-and-white a presentation of the conflict, but the material seemed in tune with Britten’s pacifism. Perhaps the new production would have been better staged in 1939-42 than in response to today’s war in Afghanistan. As Clark began and effectively ended, ‘When you weigh up the possible reasons for Owen Wingrave’s muted success, the fact that Britten wrote it for television is of least consequence. It has much the same exquisite craftsmanship as The Turn of the Screw , also based on a Henry James story, but not the same ambiguity. There are the goodies – the characters who believe in freedom of conscience – and the baddies, who believe in obedience to a military ideal.’
Actually when weighing up the pros and cons of Owen Wingrave I don’t think either the televisual history nor the pacifism are the most productive roads to go down. Myfanwy Piper, when she wrote the libretto, found that, compared with Turn of the Screw, and in the words of her inspired recent biographer, ‘there was more need to invent, to search for words and events that would give Britten the vehicle for his musical ideas, and which would unfold, with sure-footed inevitability, the drama of the tale.’ (See Francis Spalding John Piper, Myfanwy Piper Lives in Art (2011).) It is perhaps some of those inventions need undoing, where the music will bear it.
For the one-sidedness that comes under attack does seem to be embedded in Piper’s libretto, albeit for understandable reasons. When Piper was transforming Henry James’s 1893 story into a text to inspire Britten the year was 1968. The Vietnam War was escalating with more than half a million US troops engaged, Richard Nixon was elected US President, while in August the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. Piper saw the story of Owen as strongly anti-militaristic and a suitable vehicle for Britten’s own feelings as a conscientious objector.
Piper of course didn’t feel her approach was melodramatic, but she was aware that it was a difficult story to dramatize. James made his own attempt in The Saloon, 1907, which Bernard Shaw then turned down for production on the London stage (see Spalding again). Shaw worried that Owen’s death meant that his noble intentions as a pacifist went unrewarded, and this was dramatically unsatisfying. Piper rejected the idea that the drama might be saved with an injection of optimism. For her the message of the tale was focused in Owen’s Hymn of Peace of Act II scene 1. This in Britten’s music was to be, and indeed became for most critics (following Donald Mitchell) the moment when conflict was transcended in a moment of great beauty. Yet, as the opera’s climax, it surely came too early, with Owen’s death several scenes away.
The Robinson production tried to duplicate the power of Owen’s Peace Hymn with a strong visual climax in the last scene. Sir Philip Wingrave, having damned his grandson in life, emerges to mourn, and here silently to embrace him, in death. He makes a single utterance. More music, more express sorrow, would have helped.
A feature of the original story that Robinson played up was of the sacrifice of Owen.
She did not win plaudits for having the action played out on a long thin tongue of a platform. The decision to stage the show in the traverse, Alexandra Coghlan wrote online, was ‘a device that seemingly adds nothing a more classic presentation couldn’t have achieved, and leads inevitably to half the cast singing with their backs to you at any one moment. That may work just about for professionals, but for smaller student voices whose resonance isn’t yet fully focused it just means that words and sense in this already baffling tale are lost.’ Clark was also not impressed. Yet the narrow stage was so evidently designed to make a journey towards transcendence through sacrifice at least make sense. It was like watching players in the nave of a church. In Act II the nave culminated in the big, once grand, now oppressive family home. Paramore was its name, and there it hung over the scene at the far end of the have, up a steep flight of steps, leading, as it were, to an altar, or a pyre. Perhaps the problem for the humanistic age of Britten and Piper, and still today, is that James’s story is pagan mystery at best. Robinson lit Owen’s corpse in blue and white. She made it glow, but did nothing to signify some passing over into the life everlasting.
It’s true that James’s buried a hint of reconciliation in his last sentence: ‘He looked like a young soldier on a battle-field.’ Later, as Spalding noticed, he changed it (for the worse, to my mind) to read ‘He was all the young soldier on the gained field.’ But Owen Wingrave by Henry James was not a Christian story. In fact it’s hard to find any hint of human reconciliation and religious transcendence in the text, altered or not. The final sentence about the anti-soldier appearing as a perfect soldier again appeared for artistic effect, not to save humanity. James’s toying with it made it all the more mannered.
It’s a web of difficulties and challenges, moral and artistic, that together James, Shaw, Piper, and Britten plunge us into whenever Owen Wingrave resurfaces. Who could doubt the beauty and power of the music, and David Matthews’ chamber orchestration of Britten’s score only enhances it. Yet the plot, oh the plot. And still the work, since its first stage performance at Covent Garden in 1973, is invariably hailed as morally as well as musically gripping. So what’s going on?
In truth James’s original story is ambiguous to the point of moral abandon. It’s written with an erotic and aesthetic flamboyance that seem to follow from the moment James remembered being inspired to write it by sitting next to a beautiful young man on a park bench. ‘A tall quiet studious young man had sat near him and settled to a book with immediate gravity.’ He knew he had to dramatize the moment. (Again, thanks for this to Spalding.) James found the flesh to put on his drama in histories of war and recusancy. But I suggest that the underlying drama, from the moment of itself inspiration, wrote itself as something else, somewhat against the grain of what its dramatist overtly intended.
The vehicle for James’s moral abandon is Spencer Coyle, the head of a military cramming establishment, who can’t help admiring the brilliant and handsome young Owen. The all-round mediocrity of his fellow student Lechmere only points up the extraordinariness of the young dissenter. Coyle is in danger of slightly losing his head around Owen and uses Lechmere to steady himself. He ought to side with the family, but he finds its principal representative, Owen’s aunt Miss Wingrave, ‘coarse’ and the whole family ‘vulgar’. Owen is so fine and ethereal. It is Mrs Coyle, herself avowedly in love with the exceptional young man, heterosexually and maternally, who becomes the reader’s only moral beacon. Coyle himself displaces the passion he is barely aware of on to pedagogic concerns for Lechmere, whom he forbids to spend a night in the haunted room. All the while Owen, as innocent as Coyle, is about to embark on a night of self-destruction.
Although the ghost story is historically grounded, one might well see the haunted room as the site of a haunting act of consummate sexual love, for once and never again fully expressed. Parts three and four of the story, which become Act II of the opera, are a scenario of a mildly protesting innocence, which comes in Owen’s case of not quite having his feet on the ground and in Coyle’s because of his marriage vows and teacherly decency. Yet something haunts them. Enter Kate, Owen’s presumed sweetheart. In James’s tale great ambiguity and little love surrounds Kate, who yet earns a gasp of recognition from the author by virtue of being extraordinary. Neither Lechmere nor Coyle can quite be sure whether she loves or hates their dear Owen; and it bothers them, and leads to semi-coherent exchanges of dialogue. She seems to treat Owen as a plaything. In the Jamesian story, which covers two nights at Paramore, the second of these nights is an enactment of three-way erotic jealousy, with Coyle, Lechmere and Kate all competing for Owen, while he himself remains asexual and oblivious.
One signal for this interpretation is the name of the house, ‘Paramore’. Why call it so, if not to make it the place of some Tristan and Isolde like yearning, transposed to a mainly homoerotic milieu? (Owen’s name is of course also encoded. Owen means ‘young warrior’, and this is the story of a young man who must win a grave.)
There are reasons for Kate’s strange ways, which interfere with the both the homoerotic tendency of the narrative suggested by Coyle and Lechmere and the moral thread followed by Mrs Coyle. Kate is dependent on the Wingrave family for her well-being and home. Her father died in battle, as did her uncle, who was Miss Wingrave’s fiance, and by that route she and her mother, Mrs Julian, have found shelter in this grimmest of places where all life-affirming passions are thwarted. Kate, Coyle discerns, is a wild creature with nothing to lose. She voices what others would not dare say and does what others dare not do. Does she confront Owen with his frustrating (a)sexuality? I think so.
It’s just about plausible in the Piper version of the story, that she directly goads Owen into spending a night in the room haunted by the family ghost, to prove he has ‘courage’: But are we persuaded she is just another one of the military clan? Surely she wants proof of his virility in this asexual fastness she is condemned to live in.
In James’s story it is a concatenation of rivalries and portions of reported speech that drive Owen to repeat what he has already done of his own volition, namely stay a night in that room and emerge unscathed. Lechmere wants to take the dare too, to impress Kate, but other than that it’s never clear what is at stake, even when Owen says he feels one of the ancestral paintings coming to life, and we accept that there is, cobbled on to this erotic story, the tale of a family haunted by its too manly past. You can, I think, read it like an end-of-the-bourgeoisie story, like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. In that novel, published just eight years after James’s story, the last scion of the house refuses to become a businessman and turns in on himself. Art and philosophy, perhaps also metaphors for Mann’s suppressed homosexuality, eventually kill him and the reputation of his solid family too.
On the second night at Paramore Lechmere wants to copy Owen, but Coyle dissuades him. But then Kate, like some ancient Fury, steps in to demand the repeat of the deed. The young man must prove himself.
The name of the house means ‘For Love’. What would we do for love? This question is not asked of the passive characters Miss Wingrave and Mrs Julian, whose lives leave them no scope for erotic manoeuvre. Nor does it apply to Sir Philip, who has love to give but who is locked up in a drama of his own, as between father and son. But what would I do for love, pour l’amour, is surely the question for the active characters in James’s tale and the clue to the way they behave. Helping us along, Mrs Coyle’s immediately designates the atmosphere at Paramore as ‘uncanny’. Here is a castle, a fortress, a great house, dedicated in name to love and yet in practice comprising a place in darkness, radiating wretchedness and foreboding. This is the word that Freud will use, in German unheimlich, borrowing from E.T.A. Hoffmann, to make many journeys into the erotic-fearful psyche. Freud wouldn’t use it until 1919, when he would list as its English synonyms ‘uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly, and, of a house, haunted’ and further define it as ‘concealed, hidden, something one doesn’t want other people to know about and wants to conceal from them’. But perhaps James already sexualized a concept he knew from Hoffmann. (Nicole Fernandez Bravo Le double, emblème du fantastique E.T.A. Hoffmann, Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges (2009) may explore this. It’s not a book I’ve yet consulted).
Undoubtedly Owen is sacrificed to the fiercely competitive-possessive ways of the world, which the cruelty of his particular family inflicts on him. But what is the vengeful ghost really after? It is rather confusing in the opera, as per the Piper libretto, to have Owen’s body discovered by Philip, although it plays up the military story. The ghost in the story also functions strangely, for if he invokes the wrongdoing of a father who once killed his son for refusing to fight, a blight on the Wingrave family history, why does he now punish the innocent Owen and not the cruel Philip? The ghost James dreamt up was on the side of the cruel establishment. It objected to disruptive passion, das Unheimliche. Logically Owen, who excited it, and toyed with it, had to die. But the ghost was also Owen’s partner in that passion, the ultimate ambiguity this piece has to grapple with.
In James’s original it is Coyle, rushing past the figure of Kate dressed in white and ‘stricken in her pride too late with a chill of compunction for what she had mockingly done’ who discovers the body. Coyle’s concern focuses our attention on Kate’s wildness. Having demanded Owen prove himself as a sexual creature, she finds he will never be hers, another tragedy in itself.
James’s last sentence, ‘He looked like a young soldier on a battle-field’ actually preserves Owen as the object of Coyle’s desire, since Coyle’s profession is to create the perfect soldier. It’s like a private joke, not the stuff on which successful works of art thrive, but where they are often buried.
It’s this eroticism that Owen Wingrave needs to rediscover, I do believe. How would that fit with the music? It’s perhaps not impossible to imagine the two forces at work here as not aggression and peace but as physical desire and a love that transcends it, a range of feeling that was very much within Britten’s compass.
In the Guildhall production I attended on June 7 I do think something of this content was latent in the staging and the casting. The cast changed on different evenings, so I can’t say whether it was consistent. But I heard Lieder specialist Piran Legg sing Owen with a mixture of jejune perkiness and melancholy bewilderment that seemed to come right out of the original story.
Marta Fontanals-Simmons was a spunky, vicious Kate and Szymon Wach a sympathetic, benignly married, only faintly troubled Spencer Coyle.
What was distracting about the Robinson production was the use of video, and the playing up of the anti-war theme, with soldiers in battle gear running hither and thither. You don’t want to watch tv when Wagnerian longing, men and a woman in competition, is unfolding before your eyes.