Thursday, October 4, 2018

What the heck is The Turn of the Screw really about?

By Jonathan Dean 

What the heck is Britten's opera, The Turn of the Screw, really about? Something terrible happened at Bly, and something appalling happens to the characters in this opera; but what was it? Will someone please tell us what is going on!?

No, we won’t! 

Ever since Henry James’ novella appeared in Collier’s magazine, serialized over the course of several months in early 1898, the many, many unanswered questions of this story have intrigued, frustrated, tantalized, and infuriated readers, not to mention those who encounter the story as translated into opera, TV, and film.

Are the ghosts real? Is the Governess crazy? Why was Miles expelled from school? Should we believe Mrs. Grose, when she describes Quint as truly despicable? How did Miss Jessel die? Was she pregnant, and if so, who was the father? What did the kids witness? What do the kids understand? Was there a crime, and if so, who was responsible?

But The Turn of the Screw is not a mystery, it’s a ghost story. Mysteries typically answer the questions they pose—including “Whodunit?”—by the end. Not only does The Turn of the Screw fail to answer any of those questions, its very lack of clarity is perhaps the point.

As poet Brad Leithauser wrote of James’s masterpiece in The New Yorker, “The book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity. It is rigorously committed to lack of commitment.”

Because this work of art is completely open, it functions as a bit of a Rorschach test. People have a tendency to find in it whatever issues they happen to bring into the theater with them

Some examples of how the work is interpreted:

The “No sex, please, we’re British” take:
Perhaps what happened at Bly wasn’t quite so dire, at least not by 2018 standards. Perhaps the kids learned about the birds and the bees due to the fact that their former Governess was carrying on an affair with a colleague. And Miles may have been expelled from boarding school because he dared discuss sex with his classmates. In Victorian England, the stigma of such an affair might very well destroy both Jessel and Quint, as seems to have happened. Which was worse for the kids—witnessing that whole sorry story, or having to pretend it never happened?

The Freudian view:
Or was the Quint-Jessel affair not a problem until the kids’ new Governess made it one? Early twentieth-century psychoanalysis often diagnosed a condition known as ‘sexual hysteria,’ that is, severe psychological problems arising from the sexual repression demanded of well-bred women in those days. (Even the word, ‘hysterical,’ is misogynist. Etymologically, it derives from ancient Greek “hustera,” or uterus, thus equating “the condition of having a uterus” with “an excessive and chaotic emotional life.”) In the opera, the Governess sees her first ghost when she’s alone in the park, fantasizing about an imaginary visit from the children’s uncle, on whom she seems to have a crush. Does that mean the ghosts are manifestations of her own suppressed libido? Or her nightmare-visions of what Flora and Miles will become, if she fails to protect their (or her own) innocence?

The relevance of #MeToo:  
Anyone who isn’t currently living in a cave, with a blindfold on and earplugs in, will get the sense that Bly is haunted by traumatic memories of some monstrous evil. (The exact details—rape, murder, incest, child abuse, self abuse, molestation, etc.—are left to the audience’s imagination, making the evil far scarier.) Ghosts may not really exist, but memories certainly direct and control all our lives, both repressed memories of trauma and fond memories of those we loved and lost. Are the ghosts scars in that sense, memories of people whom we loved, who hurt us, or both?

The 12-step reading:
As the opera unfolds, the Governess sets herself the job of freeing the kids from their malicious tutors in evil. She believes the ghosts are controlling the kids from beyond the grave, puppet-mastering their bad behavior. But stopping that bad behavior isn’t so easy, because now these kids are addicts: ashamed of what they’re doing, aware it’s destructive and wrong; but unable to stop. And as anyone who’s ever tried going cold turkey knows, it’s isn’t as easy as “Just say no.” (That’s true whether we’re talking about addiction to sex, drugs, a bad relationship, drinking too much Diet Coke, or just checking your iPhone every time you breathe.) The Governess is a kind of social worker, who appoints herself the duty of freeing these kids from their addiction. But it’s impossible to break someone else’s bad habit for them, and she ends up fixating on it obsessively. Isn’t that another kind of addiction?

The “love that dare not speak its name” take: 
Benjamin Britten, who composed the opera, clearly identified with Miles, the perfect little English boy who’s good at his lessons and plays the piano so brilliantly. But Miles/Benjamin also fantasizes, late at night, about a visit from the handsome valet who used to work for his uncle, despite a maternal figure who would probably prefer he be dead than gay. In some ways Quint mentors Miles the way W. H. Auden mentored Britten: the poet helped the composer accept his sexuality and find his voice as an artist, although eventually Britten felt it necessary to sever all his ties with Auden (who tended to be domineering). In both cases, student was transformed by teacher; but for better or worse?

Stage director Peter Kazaras, in a recent interview with Broadway World, rejects the either/or approach, common enough in Turn of the Screw criticism, which posits that ‘EITHER the ghosts exist, OR the governess is crazy.’

"It’s the wrong question to ask,” says Kazaras. “The death of art is reductivism ...You ask that in order to get yourself off the hook: ‘They’re ghosts; or it’s all in the woman’s mind. So there’s nothing we can do.’ As a society we’re all culpable for lack of involvement and empathy.”

One lesson we all can take away from The Turn of the Screw: if you see something, say something. For the Governess, the first indication that all is not well is the letter from Miles’s school, expelling the boy. Her response is the worst possible choice:

Mrs. Grose: What shall you do then?
The Governess: I shall do nothing.
Mrs. Grose: And what shall you say to him?
The Governess: I shall say nothing.
Mrs. Grose: Bravo!

Unlike Mrs. Grose, let’s not applaud that decision. Avoiding confrontation with the people in your life is usually not the answer. If we learn nothing else from The Turn of the Screw, may it at least encourage those who speak up as soon as they perceive a problem.

The Rorschach test is a psychological test in which subjects' perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning.