A Close Shave

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BOOKS FEBRUARY 27, 2008

A Close Shave

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

(DreamWorks)

Foreigners

By Caryl Phillips

(Knopf, 235 pp., $24.95)Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author

By Edward John Trelawny

(New York Review Books, 308 pp., $12.95)

I.

As Sweeney Todd croons to his razor, "My friend, my faithful
friend," more in love with its sharp blade than with Mrs. Lovett,
his partner in crime, you may find yourself wondering what it is
about opera and its ubiquitous vengeful barbers. It could even be
said that the trickster barber, who unsettles the order of things,
presides over the birth of the modern operatic tradition. Figaro,
the cheerful factotum of the city in Rossini's Barber of Seville
and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, seems a far cry from Alban Berg's
crazed Wozzeck and Sondheim's bloodthirsty Sweeney Todd. It is one
thing to shave one's former master, as Figaro does, to keep him off
the scent of a tryst under his roof; but it is quite another to
butcher clients for meat pies until your real enemy, the judge who
sent you to an Australian prison in order to seduce your wife,
stops by for a shave.

If barbers, at least on stage, have become more barbarous with the
times, it remains the interesting case that all these resourceful
barbers are really in the business of settling perceived social
wrongs. As Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd puts it with grisly (or
gristly) irony: "How gratifying for once to know/That those above
will serve those down below!" The barber's domain established
itself early on in the popular imagination as a place of friendly
gossip and high-spirited music, as in the barbershop quartet. But
it just as frequently has served as a stage for humiliation and
other varieties of male trauma and un- angelic avenging.

A part of the reason is rather banal: the sheer discomfort of
shaving. Byron compared the curse of the daily shave to the ordeal
of childbirth, the biblical punishment for original sin. Women are
"condemn'd to child-bed," he proclaimed in Don Juan, "as men for
their sins/Have shaving too entail'd upon their chins. " Not that
the pain of each occasion was equal, he conceded, but the sheer
frequency of shaving added up over time: "A daily plague, which in
the aggregate/May average on the whole with parturition." Byron
shaved not only his beard, but his brow as well. "At twenty-five,"
he told his friend and fellow adventurer Edward John Trelawny, "the
hair grew too low on my brow, I shaved it, and now at thirty-five I
am getting bald and bleached."

But there is also the danger of entrusting oneself to an underling
with a deadly weapon in his hand. Who else does society allow
regularly to put knives at people's throats? Cicero mentions a
Roman general who taught his daughters to shave him, so as not to
place himself in the hands of potential enemies. The scholar Eric
Sundquist quotes Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Boston abolitionist
who served as literary mentor to both Emily Dickinson and Emma
Lazarus, speaking in a similar vein in 1858: "I have wondered in
times past, when I have been so weak-minded as to submit my chin to
the razor of a colored brother, as his sharp steel grazed my skin,
at the patience of the negro shaving the white man for many years,
yet [keeping] the razor outside of the throat."

The African American writer Charles Chesnutt, in his story "The
Doll" in 1912, picked up this fantasy from the black barber's point
of view: "One stroke of the keen blade, a deflection of half an
inch in its course, and a murder would be avenged, an enemy
destroyed!" The fear of blacks armed with razors seems to have
struck deep in America, where the barber's trade was among the few
open to African Americans. Meanwhile, the plot of the barber tempted
to slit his unsuspecting enemy's throat migrated south, reappearing
in the Colombian writer Hernando Tellez's frequently anthologized
story of civil strife "Lather and Nothing Else" and (slightly
modified) in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One of These Days."

The double-edged experience of getting a shave, combining
comfortable intimacy and dire peril, is perfectly captured in the
famous shaving scene in Melville's novella Benito Cereno, first
published in the anti-slavery magazine Putnam's in 1855. Captain
Amasa Delano of Duxbury, returning from Canton aboard the sealer
The Bachelor's Delight in 1799, has encountered the grim relic of a
Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, in the harbor of a "small,
desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the
long coast of Chili." Captain Delano boards the Spanish ship and
hears a tale of woe--disastrous gales followed by equally
disastrous calms--unaware, such is his innocence, that a slave
mutiny is the real cause of the travails aboard the San Dominick.
Puzzled by certain seemingly incompatible details, Delano begins to
question the forlorn Spanish captain Benito Cereno, but is
interrupted by Cereno's diminutive black manservant, Babo, who
announces that it is shaving time: "Why not let Don Amasa sit by
master in the cuddy, and master can talk, and Don Amasa can listen,
while Babo here lathers and strops."

The not-so-cuddly cuddy is a cabin on deck outfitted with objects
reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition: a "thumbed missal," a
"dented cutlass or two," and "two long sharp-ribbed settees of
Malacca cane, black with age, and uncomfortable to look at as
inquisitors' racks, with a large, misshapen arm- chair, which,
furnished with a rude barber's crutch at the back, working with a
screw, seemed some grotesque Middle Age engine of torment." Despite
these sinister furnishings, Captain Delano is lulled by the
apparent intimacy of master and man:

There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him
for avocations about one's person. Most negroes are natural valets
and hair- dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to
the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal
satisfaction.... And above all is the great gift of good-humor. Not
the mere grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a
certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture;
as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.

Delano imagines himself at the theater, observing the "play of the
barber" on the stage of the ship. In an interesting article titled
"Staging Revolution in Melville's Benito Cereno: Babo, Figaro, and
the 'Play of the Barber,'" Jennifer Jordan Baker argues that
Melville, a great enthusiast of opera, is explicitly evoking Figaro
in the scene.

This harmonious idyll is interrupted by a slip of the razor, as
blood drips onto the Spanish flag that Babo uses to catch the
lather. But a slip of the pen interrupts the scene as well, as
Captain Delano muses on how "those hypochondriacs, Johnson and
Byron--it may be, something like the hypochondriac, Benito
Cereno--took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire
white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher."
Though not quite a servant to Samuel Johnson, Francis Barber was
indeed black, but Byron's longtime valet, William Fletcher, was
white.

Writers make mistakes, of course. Keats thought that Cortes
discovered the Pacific. Saul Bellow thought that Stanford White
designed the Ansonia Building. Melville himself, as befuddled as
poor Benito Cereno, once or twice in Moby- Dick mentioned that the
Pequod circled Cape Horn on its voyage to the Pacific, when in fact
Ahab took the eastern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In Benito
Cereno, a taut novella in which Melville tried to get so many
details right, why did he get the little detail about Byron's
servant wrong? What was it about the figure of the vengeful barber
in particular that elicited such confusion?

II.

At the time of Byron's death in Greece in 1824, there was a black
man in his entourage, but his name was not Fletcher and he was not
a manservant. He was a groom named Benjamin Lewis. According to
Fiona MacCarthy, in Byron: Life and Legend, Lewis "spoke some
French and Italian; cookery and horses were his special areas of
expertise." When Byron summoned Trelawny to Genoa in the summer of
1823, amid preparations to take part in the Greek war of
independence, Trelawny traveled across Italy on horseback to meet
him. "Forwarding my traps to Leghorn," he wrote in his Records of
Shelley, Byron, and the Author, "I was soon on the road to Genoa.
My sailor-groom had returned to his family, and I engaged an
American-born negro to fill his place."

Trelawny seems to have cared more for his horses than for Lewis,
whom he never mentions by name. Byron, by contrast, was impressed
with Lewis. He was concerned about how his own Italian servants
might respond if he were wounded in Greece. "My Italians have never
lost sight of their homes before, they are men to look at, but of
no use under any emergency," he told Trelawny, "your negro is worth
them all." To which Trelawny responded: "But you have your ancient
page, Fletcher." Byron: "He is the worst of them, grunting and
grumbling all the morning, and fuddled at night."

Trelawny records that Byron, during the voyage to Italy, "persuaded
me to let him have my black servant, as, in the East, it is a mark
of dignity to have a negro in your establishment. He likewise
coveted a green embroidered military jacket of mine; which, as it
was too small for me, I gave him; so I added considerably to his
dignity." It is interesting that Trelawny considers Lewis mere
decor for enhancing Byron's "dignity," comparable to the green
military jacket; and yet it was Lewis's competence, specifically in
times of danger, that Byron mentioned. Lord Byron shaved for the
last time on April 13, 1824, as he was dying of a fever in
Missolonghi. Fletcher gave a detailed report of his master's last
days to Trelawny. For the entry of April 13, he dictated the
following: "His usual purgatives, with pain in his stomach; got up
late and shaved."

So, did Melville confuse Benjamin Lewis with William Fletcher? It
seems possible that he did. He may also have been familiar with
Shelley's description of Fletcher: "like a shadow he waxed & waned
with the substance of his master." In a passage from the end of
Benito Cereno that served as the epigraph to Ralph Ellison's
Invisible Man, Melville describes Babo as Benito Cereno's shadow:
"'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and
pained; 'you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?'"
Ellison did not include Benito Cereno's answer: "The negro."

Fletcher's name may also have occurred to Melville as a complement
to Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson's manservant. "Barber and
Fletcher" sounds a bit like "Beaumont and Fletcher," the team of
Elizabethan playwrights. (Beaumont's first name happened to be
Francis as well.) If it was Barber that suggested Fletcher,
however, we may wonder why Melville was thinking of Francis Barber
in the first place. If we imagine him blocking out the shaving
scene in Benito Cereno--the morose master submitting his neck and
chin to his barbarous barber, Babo--we might ask instead how
Melville could have avoided thinking of Francis Barber, the most
famous black servant in British literary history and,
coincidentally, named Barber.

In Walter Jackson Bate's great life of Samuel Johnson, Francis
Barber figures as a sort of afterthought in Dr. Johnson's
household. Having listed the various figures in Johnson's
"makeshift family" in 1756--Miss Williams, a Scottish maid, a cook,
"possibly the roughly silent apothecary Mr. Levet," and so on--Bate
gets around to Barber:

Finally there was Francis Barber, a black youth of twelve or
thirteen, who as a child had been brought to England from Jamaica
(1750) by Colonel Bathurst, the father of Johnson's close friend
Richard Bathurst. Colonel Bathurst, who hated slavery, had in
effect given Frank Barber his freedom when they left Jamaica (he
had obviously brought the child to England only because he was an
orphan), and in his will (1756) reasserted this lest Barber have
trouble in the future. After sending him to a school, which Frank
disliked, Colonel Bathurst asked his son Richard to take over
responsibility.

Richard Bathurst, having troubles of his own, "transferred Frank
(now about ten) to Johnson," with the idea that Barber might ease
Johnson's loneliness and serve as his valet. Johnson had little use
for servants, however--"the mere idea of a personal servant for
Johnson was laughable," Bate remarks. It is unlikely that Barber
ever shaved Johnson. Instead, Johnson treated Barber as an adopted
son, sending him back to school and arranging an apprenticeship with
an apothecary. In July 1758, Barber ran away to sea and joined the
navy, where he served aboard the Stag (a name oddly like the
Bachelor's Delight) for two years before Johnson, pulling strings
in high places, bailed him out, apparently against Barber's will.

Barber returned to Johnson's household, and eventually married a
white Englishwoman. In his will, Johnson, to the shock and dismay
of his solicitor, John Hawkins, made Francis Barber his principal
beneficiary. Hawkins's own biography of Johnson is particularly
hostile to Barber and his wife, Elizabeth, reporting that Barber
"picked up one of those creatures with whom, in the disposal of
themselves, no contrariety of color is an obstacle." Johnson
welcomed Elizabeth into his household, however, while advising
Barber to curb his jealousy over his "eminently pretty wife."

Caryl Phillips develops this Othello aspect of Francis Barber's
character in "Doctor Johnson's Watch," the first of the three
stories of black men in England that constitute Foreigners, a deft
fusion of documentary research and imaginative reconstruction that
also includes portraits of the boxer Randolph Turpin and the
Nigerian stowaway David Oluwale. As in Flaubert's Trois Contes,
presumably a structural model for Phillips, the first story in
Foreigners is about a servant. In an extended scene, Johnson chides
Barber for angrily leaving a party where servants have flirted with
his wife: "Then will you go back and fetch your wife instead of
abandoning her like some woman of the night? Will you be a man and
protector for the woman that you stood up for in church, the woman
that you professed your love and affection for?" "Doctor Johnson's
Watch" is told from the point of view of a friend of Johnson's who
is researching an article about Francis Barber for the Gentleman's
Magazine, and wishes to return Johnson's watch, sold by Barber to a
pawnbroker, to its rightful owner.

Racial alienation and squandered liberty are the principal themes of
Phillips's poignant tale. Francis Barber, financially dependent on
Johnson's largesse, sinks into poverty and domestic disarray after
his master's death. The narrator visits the chaotic household of
Barber's wife, and learns that Barber himself is gravely ill. When
he locates "Johnson's disheveled negro" in a workhouse infirmary,
Barber, a human wreck, has this to say:

Perhaps I would have been better served committing to a life at sea,
or returning to my native Jamaica. Perhaps it would have been more
profitable for me to have established for myself the limits of my
abilities rather than having them blurred by kindness, dependence,
and my own indolence. And when presented with real liberty....
Well, look upon me, sir. Look liberty in the face. What see you?

In Phillips's treatment, Francis Barber, former slave and sailor in
His Majesty's Navy, is depicted as an Othello figure--jealous,
alienated, and alone- -but without the tragic grandeur.

III.

Inevitably, we read the great works of the past through the
distorting lens of our own historical moment. "In our own time of
terror and torture," Andrew Delbanco writes in his recent biography
of Melville, "Benito Cereno has emerged as the most salient of
Melville's works: a tale of desperate men in the grip of a vengeful
fury that those whom they hate cannot begin to understand." For
Robert Lowell, who was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to write
something for the American stage, Benito Cereno--"already almost
more opera than novel, the big scenes, the shrouded master, the
shaving"--seemed the perfect expression of civil rights unrest.
"For a year or so," he wrote in August 1961, "I've had a vague idea
of making an opera libretto out of Melville's Benito Cereno." A few
years earlier, in London, Lowell had been entranced with opera,
having attended a performance of Wozzeck, among other works. The
prominence that Lowell gives the shaving scene in his dramatization
of Benito Cereno may reflect his response to Berg's opera, with its
opening scene in which the underling Wozzeck shaves his abusive
superior officer.

Lowell felt he had to do something about Melville's racist portrayal
of Babo and the other rebel slaves. "How can we handle the whole
plot so as not to make it rather shockingly anti-Negro?" he wrote
his collaborator, the poet William Meredith, in March 1960. "What
I'd hope for would be something neutral, rather [like] what's
happening now, wrong blazing into a holocaust, no one innocent."
Lowell's main intervention was to give Babo a stronger voice:

Do you see this whip? When Don

Aranda was out of temper,

he used to snap pieces of flesh off us

with it.

Now I hold the whip.

When I snap it, Don Benito jumps!

Se vuol ballare, as Figaro says: "If you want to dance, dear Count,
I'll play my little guitar."

Where do our sympathies lie in a world where no one is innocent?
However clever or monstrous their revenge, it is as victims that we
first encounter Figaro, Babo, and the rest: enslaved, wrongly
imprisoned, their women treated as prostitutes or subjected to the
droit du seigneur. Sweeney Todd must be considered a very late
addition to this tradition of vengeful barbers; and Sondheim and
the film director Tim Burton seem mindful of the echoes. When
Todd's rival barber, Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), uses an
Italian flag as a barber's sheet, just as Babo uses the Spanish
flag, it may be as deliberate an allusion to Benito Cereno as the
film's ending, with Sweeney Todd's daughter disguised as a boy and
concealed in a box, is to Rigoletto.

Do these motley figures have more in common than servility and an
occasional shave? ("Everybody shaves," as Mrs. Lovett helpfully
reminds us.) I am struck by how many of them--Babo, Francis Barber,
Sweeney Todd, even Byron's servants-- are associated with travel
and the sea. They come from afar and are, in their different ways,
men of the world, cosmopolitans and "foreigners," men who are
careless with national flags and see beyond national boundaries. The
domain of the barber emerges as a kind of liminal zone, a meeting
place of wanderers and outcasts, where upper and lower classes
mingle, with consequences comic or disastrous.

I am reminded in this regard of Catherine Clement's suggestive
chapter "Madmen, Negroes, Jesters, or the Heroes of Deception," in
her book Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Clement notes the
conservative nature of opera, with its plots, like Shakespeare's,
based on the rupture and then the re-establishment of social order.
The rupture is often caused by characters, such as Othello and the
hunchback Rigoletto, who are "excluded, marked by some initial
strangeness. " Such "betrayed, wounded men", Clement argues, create
a temporary countersociety. While not exactly heroes--they are too
damaged, too vindictive, for that--"These beings set free, give
birth, and wander. Without them the limits of the world would
always be the same. With them horizons move."

But opera, comic or tragic, cannot tolerate for long such expanded
horizons: "On the opera stage they are doomed to be defeated
because the world represented there cannot put up with any social
transgression." Still, according to Clement, these hunchbacks and
jesters, black men and madmen, may be considered, in their broken
way, as harbingers of a wider world to come:

The fathers, the kings, those holding symbolic power tremble before
them. Even if it means losing everything, these characters defy the
supreme command and hold all authorities up to ridicule. They bring
rebellion; they are revolutionaries in body and flesh; they are
undefined and hazy beings, the seeds of the future.

Babo, silent at the close of Melville's novella, is given a final
speech by Lowell: "Yankee Master misunderstand me. The future is
with us."

Clement's formula is perhaps a little too pat, and her conclusion a
little too optimistic, with its blithely utopian (and operatic)
welcoming of revolution in "body and flesh." But if she is right,
or even partly right, about the course of civilization in our
post-colonial age, we may hope that the barbers of the future, to
whom we entrust our vulnerable necks, are more like Figaro, the
sweet-tempered reformer, than like Sweeney Todd, the Robespierre of
Fleet Street.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke.
His new book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, will be published this
spring by the Penguin Press.

By Christopher Benfey

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