Which way does the Screw Turn? [wonkish]

I’m borrowing Paul Krugman’s “[wonkish]” tag for a post that will only make the slightest sense if you’ve seen/heard Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. (And will somewhat spoilerzor it if you haven’t.)

When I saw the opera streamed from Glyndebourne by the Guardian, I took it basically at face value: the Governess, while a bit highly-strung (shall we say), genuinely seeking to protect the children from the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel. However, my wife, E, observed that the original story (which I haven’t read) is more ambiguous, leaving open the possibility that it’s all been in the Governess’s own mind.

I’ve listened to the EMI recording of the opera a few times since then, and on listening to it yesterday I was stopped short by the last few phrases of the Governess’s opening aria, which seem to strongly echo a theme sung by Quint. (If you have the recording, listen to the last 20 seconds or so of track 3 on disc 1, and then the final confrontation between Quint, the governess and Miles at the end of disc 2.)

This got me listening more attentively to the rest of the opera. Now, the ghosts certainly do seem very real, especially when seen on stage (I’m sure listening to a recording reduces this – maybe revealingly, maybe misleadingly). But if you’re looking for a manipulative adult bent on domineering and controlling the children, then frankly it’s not (just?) Quint and Miss Jessel you need to worry about. The Governess is, throughout, utterly self-centred, obsessed with the question of whether the children and Mrs Grose are “with me”.

One strong theme throughout Britten’s work is taking children seriously, and I found myself asking what The Turn of the Screw looks like if you see it from the point of view of Miles and Flora. For example, what if, when Flora sings “I can’t see anything, I can’t see anyone, I don’t know what you mean!”, she should be taken at face value rather than our taking the Governess’s viewpoint and seeing Flora as treacherous and deceitful, under Miss Jessel’s baleful influence?

This still leaves the question of Miles’s direct relationship with Quint, not to mention (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) the fact that his break with Quint at the opera’s climax kills him. However, maybe this can also be seen as the Governess’s obsession affecting the children themselves. Or maybe there’s a psychological reading here, with Quint representing something within Miles: an unrestrained “maleness” that the Governess finds threatening, but whose repression is deeply damaging and whose rejection is personally destructive.

All this is somewhat dashed off and off the top of my head, but if anyone has any thoughts on this – or suggestions for further reading on the opera – then this would be very welcome.


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