The Turn of the Screw, from James to Britten

Presentation of discussion

I have to deliver a full article in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten’s operas. I have listed 21 works in that field and I still have six to go. The Turn of the Screw is particularly important because of the career the opera has had on operatic stages in the world. It is also crucial because more than with any other work this one has brought a wide — and wild — critical approach of Benjamin Britten’s sexual orientation which is not at stake in this opera the way I read it, within the others like The Little Sweep that also deals with children in an upper class family. It is this way I would like to submit to your discussion and I am quite open to all ideas though it is quite clear that I will not discuss in my article the sexual orientation of the composer.

Philip Brett even imagines the boy without underwear


The following comparison of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of this novella to the operatic stage reveals there are two oceans that are crossed: the Atlantic Ocean and the ocean of time. In spite of his life spent between the USA where he was born and where he had brother, sister, father and mother, Henry James is not English at all. This ghost story is typically American and never reaches the Gothic level British stories construct or the ironic if not sarcastic level of Oscar Wilde. It is also the time of the great debunkers of ghost stories known as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who do not believe in ghosts but do believe in criminals and murderers and know from experience that ghosts are a good cover up for a crime, still used in many TV series.
 On the other side Benjamin Britten is British to the core and ghosts cannot be ghosts because the ocean of time has been crossed along with two world wars, the two successive births of globalization. We have more or less abandoned the soul in psychiatry and we have vastly replaced it with the mind and the great masters of the mind in 1955 were Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan already and emerging fast, but not yet Michel Foucault. Each one of these set the mind in one special place of the body. For Freud the mind is in emotions and impulses. For Jung the mind is heritage from the old culture we receive with our milk after birth. For Jacques Lacan it is in the conflict and construct of two essential dimensions: the basic physiological body and the concept of authority, both in their conflict and cooperation constructing a superego he called the Phallus. Michel Foucault sets the mind at the level of the consciousness of one’s sexual apparatus, in many ways like Wilhelm Reich but with a mental dimension that Wilhelm Reich never reached, tied up and locked up in the sexual drives, both penile and anal, or vaginal and anal.
 But, and that’s my main point, Benjamin Britten moves away from the ghosts to deal with mental memories or constructs that replace the parents these children do not have any more, but he refuses the innuendo Henry James invested in his novella all the time in the form of extreme sexual obsession in the nameless Governess. He brings the kids back to their ages, eight and ten, and at ten a boy needs a male model and not a male sexual partner. This model is a father substitute when the father is absent or a father extension that brings into the mental father of the boy new elements to build his superego, or Phallus to use Lacan’s concept.

And Benjamin Britten shows his deep consciousness that with any maternal figure in that situation who would be too possessive and in this particular case a power and control (sexual) freak, the boy might be mentally destroyed to the point of desiring to get out of this world back into the world where his mental model is living, since Quint is dead and not dead at the same time. Simultaneously that boy, in the most innocent way, will punish the maternal substitute who dared push him into non-existence by dying in her arms, in her lap, his big death punishing the mother-torturer-executioner who dared provoke some ripples in the field of his still unawake little death without understanding that you cannot play with that impulse even with a boy of ten without running the risk of destroying him because it is castrating if you frustrate the dim satisfaction of it and traumatic if an adult takes advantage of it to satisfy his or in this case her phantasms.
 This is part of a longer study due in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten’s operas, still six to go out of twenty-one.

There you are on some opera stage

Research Interests:

Child and adolescent mental health, Mental Health, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Opera, Mental Representation, Trauma Studies, Benjamin Britten, Henry James, Post traumatic stress disorder, Mental Imagery, Mental Models, PTSS,Ghost stories, and Control Freaks

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