30 September 2007

The Turn of the Screw

There was an excellent production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw on BBC Radio 3 tonight. The opera raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship and differences between music and literature. Britten obviously chose the Henry James novella because it chimed comfortably with his interest in the theme of violated childhood innocence. And the music is magnificent. But the problem is that his version is an interpretation which conflicts with literary evidence. For in the opera, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint actually have singing parts - whereas in the text of the novella there is no evidence that they exist at all. Everything is mediated via the feverish imagination of the governess. There is no external evidence for the existence of the two ghost-like figures at all - only what the governess herself relates. You need to read very carefully to perceive this instance of the 'unreliable narrator', But the truth is that it's the governess who oppresses and tyrannises Flora and Miles - to the extent that they actually complain about her, and ultimately she frightens Miles to death. Read it again if you don't believe me.

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