Thoughts on Displacement in Britten’s Owen Wingrave

Bianca De Mario
Università degli Studi di Milano

1971, May 16thOwen Wingrave, an opera for television composed by Benjamin Britten, directed by Brian Large and Colin Graham and produced by John Culshaw, is broadcast on BBC Two England. Much like The Turn of the Screw the subject was inspired by an unusual ghost story of the same title by Henry James (1892), later adapted for the stage (The Saloon, 1910), and transposed into a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. 

I looked around among all the stories that I could think of immediately, for a story which would be most suitable to the medium television. […] It needed a story which would show individuals reacting, to show there are reactions to each other, where the events could be a personal, private kind, rather than big and public which obviously a big stage needs. 

As Britten explains in Extracts from ‘Music now’, a documentary about the opera making-of, he was attracted by the «bombshell» dropped by a young fellow in the middle of a family. This dramatic factor, generating an unstoppable chain of personal reactions, is Owen Wingrave’s ultimate decision to quit Sundhurst, the Royal Military Academy. As the last descendant of a glorious family, Owen will break the long military tradition of his family, thus precluding his financial future as heir and, consequently, the engagement with his self-absorbed fiancée Kate Julian. 

Benjamin Bitten

Before considering how the composer and the TV director draw their audiovisual portrait of Owen, it is worth considering how Henry James’s source text was positioned to influence the artistic choices of Britten and Large.

Owen Wingrave immediately shows the characteristics of a thinker, who finds peace in reading and intellectual pleasure, a noble spirit who has learned «the “immeasurable misery” of wars». He is a displaced soul in that formidable «family circle», a constellation built around and devoted to highfalutin military glory. It’s not by chance that, Paramore, the living temple of the Wingraves, with its stifling paintings and its uncanny rooms, conceals horrible secrets about the violent death of a father and his young son. Longing for justice, Owen Wingrave, bends his eyes on his mentor, Spencer Coyle, and confesses his feelings about Paramore. 

«Oh, the house – the very air and feeling of it. There are strange voices in it that seem to mutter at me – to say dreadful things as I pass. […] I have started up all the old ghosts». (chapter 3)

Constantly insulted by the suffocating circle of the living and oppressed by the portraits of his military ancestors which seem alive, Owen decides to challenge Paramore’s curse, by entering the ‘liminal zone’: the room where Oliver Wingrave lost his life, after accidentally (?) killing his son, who didn’t want to defend the family honor. Owen takes this action following a final argument with his fiancée, apparently to demonstrate that his pacifism has nothing to do with fear or cowardice. This explanation should be taken cautiously: first because James delivers the explanation by way of reported speech by young Lechmere – who, as his name indicates, is an inauthentic character addicted to flattery. Secondly because a payback for an insult would be too superficial an action for a character whose «superior wisdom» and integrity are constantly repeated. 

«To my sense he is, in a high sense of the term, a fighting man», answers Spencer Coyle to Kate, after a brief discussion. Owen’s extreme action could therefore be intended more as an act of rebellion, rather than a simple proof of courage: a revolt against Paramore and its family system, against this claustrophobic salon and a crushing past with its hereditary defects. The room is a haunted and liminal space, and Owen’s legitimate rage against his constricted life does not exclude, in my opinion, a need of freedom that exceeds – and probably demands – self-destruction. 

After these considerations, some excerpts from Britten’s opera for television (J. Barnes 2003) render this portrait of Owen’s existential displacement even more forcefully. The score by Benjamin Britten (in a sense, a displaced soul himself) is like a storyboard with the camera script, revealing a televisual composition thought.

Since the very beginning, the family’s attachment to military tradition is clear: the Prelude, with its martial theme, percussive and strict, resounds with the opening credits, with the Wingraves’ emblem on the back, then a close-up tracking shot starts on the family portraits. We are guided by the winds on this gallery and, portrait by portrait, the sustaining chord is enriched by a new note, till the tone row is reached on the image of colonel Oliver Wingrave, Owen’s father, dead on the field. 

After his confession to Spencer Coyle, Owen – interpreted by Benjamin Luxton – is sitting in Hyde Park (Act 1, Scene 2 – after the Interlude I). He is reading and thinking aloud:

At last it’s out. No doubt old Coyle will rage,
but in the end he’ll see I’m strong,
not mad or weak…
Strong against war,
unwilling to prepare
my mind and body for destruction.
One little word: no!
And I am released for ever from all the
bonds of family and war.

Benjamin Luxton as Owen Wingrave

The Owen put forth in Piper’s libretto is not the indistinct figure who barely speaks in James’s story. His ardent rage against war is expressed from its first lines and this scene expresses his most intimate thoughts. The image fades to Miss Wingrave, Owen’s terrible aunt, when Spencer Coyle tells her about his nephew’s decision not to be a soldier. It’s a virtual tercet, connected by the image of horse soldiers, and that’s the moment where, against the ‘war representatives’ he sings his believe against war, by quoting Book IV of P. B. Shelley’s Queen Mab:

‘War is the statesman’s game,
the priest’s delight,
The lawyer’s jest…
(always soft)
And, to those royal murderers,
whose mean thrones are bought
by crimes of treachery and gore…
Guards, garbed in blood-red livery, surround
Their palaces, participate the crimes
That force defends…
These are the hired bravos who defend
The tyrant’s throne… the bullies of his fear…
The refuse of society, the dregs
Of all that is most vile…
They cajole with gold,
And promises of fame, the thoughtless youth
Already crushed with servitude: he knows
His wretchedness too late…
Look to thyself,
priest, conqueror, or prince!
Whether thy trade is falsehood…

A third peculiar moment in the opera is the dinner with Uncle Philip – interpreted by Peter Pears – and the family circle (Act I, Scene 7): the bombshell Britten was looking for. The scenery is black, and the characters are lit only by the table candlelight. The camera passes from one to another, allowing us to see everyone’s trembling close-up, while they express, almost a cappella, their feeling about this uncomfortable situation. At first Owen is an embarrassed victim, in this in crescendo rhythm of wisecracks and injuries, then the collective explosion on the word «Scruples» and its obsessive echoing makes him react. 

Yes, and more…
(with force)
I’d make it a crime to draw your sword
for your country, and a crime
for governments to command it.
There’s no more to be said, I’ll leave you now.
(Sir Philip turns and hobbles off helped by a manservant. The servants bow the company out with Owen slowly following.)

Peter Pears as Sir Philip Wingrave

These are only some examples of how the score, interpretively transformed by televisual scription and filmic direction, translates the musical text into a profoundly visual rhythm. Sounds, voices, and visuals shape Owen’s physical and intellectual being, as he tries not only to survive the buffeting of familial history, but to emerge as an individual in an imposing and suffocating context.

Beyond the critics to the first streaming of the work, Owen Wingrave represents not only an interesting example of the relationship between opera and television – placed «within the boundaries of the classical Hollywood film genre» (S. McKellar 1999) – but an example of how a theme like this finds success in its following transpositions and/or remediation. In 1973, Britten was asked to conduct the opera for the Covent Garden production: the composer thus reversed the standard passage ‘from stage to screen’. Thanks to this, today Owen Wingrave is a minor almost a classic of contemporary Anglo-American opera, particularly beloved by college companies.  Owen Wingrave’s status was further underscored by the 2005 Arthaus Musik DVD release, a film opera by Margaret Williams, a real remake of the first opera for television (same framing, same fades, same references) – though unnatural it could be to consider an operatic event within the cinematic category of remake.  
Apart from all the hybrid forms opera gets in the age of media converge, a sort of displacement within the remediation – displacement of narrative after the displacement of the self – what is here in question is the way the same subject, the theme of either the young pacifist-intellectual (or simply sensitive soul), reshapes him/herself by emerging from (or withdrawing into) overwhelming societal forces. 

Summary in Italian

Fighting the Circle.
Riflessioni su Owen Wingrave di Benjamin Britten

Bianca De Mario 
Università degli Studi di Milano

Il 16 maggio 1971 va in onda sul secondo canale della BBC Owen Wingrave, un’opera per la televisione commissionata a Benjamin Britten dall’emittente britannica e prodotta da John Culshaw, per la regia di Brian Large e Colin Graham. Proprio come The Turn of the Screw, il soggetto è tratto dall’omonimo racconto di Henry James, un’inconsueta ghost story (1892), adattata dallo stesso James per il teatro (The Saloon, 1910) con esiti piuttosto deludenti, e ora rivisitato per Britten da Myfanwy Piper. 

La «bomba» del dramma, così come la definisce Britten, il fattore che genera una serie di inarrestabili reazioni a catena, è la decisione del giovane Owen, ultimo discendente dei Wingrave, di abbandonare Sundhurst (Accademia Militare Reale), interrompendo così la solida tradizione militare della famiglia. Oppresso dalle ingiurie di questa cerchia familiare ingombrante e claustrofobica, Owen, per dimostrare che il suo antimilitarismo non ha nulla a che vedere con onore e coraggio, sfiderà la maledizione della dimora dei Wingrave, Paramore, entrando in una stanza maledetta e oltrepassando il confine vita-morte. 

Uomo mite e fiero intellettuale, già descritto da Henry James come individuo totalmente estraneo al contesto in cui si trova invischiato, Owen Wingrave diviene nella sua trasposizione operistica un personaggio totalmente fuori posto. Schiacciato da un’ingombrante tara ereditaria e soffocato da quel salotto che l’opera per la televisione ha saputo ricreare, Owen canta il proprio credo antimilitare, mentre la macchina da presa ci fa entrare, con la musica, nelle nebbie dei suoi pensieri, sino alla rivolta finale. 

Interessante esempio della relazione tra opera e televisione, l’opera di Britten conoscerà, nell’epoca della convergenza mediatica, vari adattamenti, in cui il tema dell’intellettuale estraneo e isolato nella società, trova un fertile terreno di rimodulazione.