Essay on The Turn of the Screw - Henry James and Benjamin Britten

Essay on The Turn of the Screw - Henry James and Benjamin Britten

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Pliny says that in the desarts of Africk, you shall meet oftentimes with fairies appearing in the shape of men and women, but they vanish quite away like phantastical delusions. John Aubrey's apparitions don't often behave like ordinary phantastical delusions. The Laird Bocconi appeared to his friend Lord Middleton imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Worcester, under three locks. My Lord Middleton asked him if he were dead or alive. He said dead, and that he was a ghost; and told him, that within three days he should escape, and he did so, in his wife's clothes. When he (the ghost) had done his message, he gave a frisk, and said:

Givenni Givenni `tis very strange,

In the world to see so sudden a change.

And then gathered up and vanished. Most ghosts when they have done their message don't give frisks and recite impromptu verses; most ghosts adopt a sober and reserved demeanour. Aubrey does, however, mention another which appeared not far from Cirencester in 1670, and which being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad, returned no answer; but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang, thus becoming my favourite ghost in the history of English belles lettres.

When ghosts appear not far from Cirencester we know how to deal with them; but what about when they appear on the stage? How do we interpret the stage direction Enter the Ghost? Some people feel very strongly about that ghost in Hamlet: he must appear; at least he must in the early scenes up on the battlements. But what about later on when only Hamlet sees him? The Queen can't see him in the bedroom scene; ought we to? Enter the Ghost, it says in the text, so he probably ought to come in; but if he does, wh...


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...; in the scene in the schoolroom Miss Jessel talks to herself as much as to the Governess. They have one resource, however, which was denied the novelist. Britten's music suggests a troubled brooding world, a Bly which is inhabited by ghosts even before one steps onto that crenellated tower. James was familiar with the work of the Society for Psychical Research: both his father and brother were members. Britten had his own agenda: he knew what the story meant for him and presented his view with the extraordinary means at his disposal. He said that a chamber opera was best adapted for the expression of intimate feelings. The strength of the musical presentation of those feelings, the evocation of mounting tension as the horrible story unfolds, compensate for the loss of James's astonishing ability to seem to be saying one thing one moment and denying it the next.

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