When Billy Budd premiered, it came up against much praise and criticism for its lack of clarity of meaning and characterization. Based on Herman Melville’s almost inexplicable novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, much of the ambiguous nature of the text is preserved, shown in the music, as well as the libretto. Some critics praise the work for its ability to retain this uncertainty, going to great lengths to explain some of the nuanced themes present in the work while others like, Richard Capell, give harsh criticism, saying that the overall obscure nature of the show is off-putting and un-relatable even despite Britten’s masterful score. In reading his 1951 review from the Daily Telegraph, the opinion that jumped out at me the most was that neither Vere nor Claggart were “fully realized” as characters. To some extent he may be justified in his opinion. In Melville’s work, neither character is given a clear motivation or reasoning to do what he does. On one hand, we have Vere who is presented as a straight-edged captain with very little information on his human nature; on the other, we have Claggart, whose motivations for hating Billy are not explicitly stated but instead hidden in vague prose. Both characters, and indeed the entire book have an inexplicable quality to them. The only clear idea is that of good and evil, with Billy and (to a lesser extent) Vere, embodying good while Claggart embodies evil. Britten and the librettists of the opera maintained much of Melville’s ambiguity but there were numerous aspects and ideas that they added to the opera specifically to make its meaning less obscure. I seek, to some extent, to continue the argument I began with Claggart in regards to his motivations for despising Budd (see “Overtly Subtle Homosexual Themes…) in order to dispute Capell’s claim that the characters are under-developed in the opera; if anything, Britten and the librettists added dimensionality and understandability to the characters where Melville fell short.
For brevity’s sake, I will talk primarily of Claggart and how his character is presented in the opera, seeing as there is an abundance of literature dedicated to Vere. First, I’d like to point out that Melville, while definitely unclear, was not purposeless in the way he presented his characters. For example, the name ‘Claggart’ comes from the word ‘clag’ meaning, “to stick closely to something in an unhealthy manner” (Cooke and Reed, 19). This, while not explicitly, does offer some explanation about Claggart’s nature. This unhealthy obsession is presented, especially in Claggart’s aria “O Beauty, O Handsomeness.” Capell mentions this aria and criticizes it because the reasoning behind why he sings it is unclear. However, even just looking at the text (briefly ignoring the homoeroticism that I spoke of before in favor of keeping this article short), it is Claggart’s “natural depravity” that causes him to despise Billy’s goodness. He laments the fact that he ever even saw Billy, stating (albeit in a somewhat round-about way) that if he never saw him, he wouldn’t have this desire to destroy him. Also layered into the text is the idea of fate that the opera also highlights; because of Claggart’s depraved disposition, he is “doomed to annihilate” Billy, or more pointedly, goodness, since Claggart is also presented as a Satanic presence. These are just the ideas that are more clearly presented in the text within the context of the opera and book. If we add in the homoeroticism I spoke of before, we add another element to the already murky water that is Billy Budd. And by murky, I don’t necessarily mean unidentifiable; rather, I mean that there are so many aspects and ideas presented in the libretto that Britten tried to highlight in the music that the true meaning is obscured.
It’s this central idea of clear indefinability that deepens the meaning of the opera and highlights the lengths at which the librettists and Britten went to develop these characters into something more than the unknowable motivations of Claggart and the stoic, but idealized Captain Vere. They uphold Melville’s ambiguous approach to much of his work by adding an indefinable and debatable number of elements to the work that both clarify and obscure the true nature of both works. It’s for this reason that I can see the reason for Capell’s criticism, but strongly disagree. Just because the motivations or reasoning behind a characters actions are unclear does not mean they are underdeveloped. If anything, it’s a testament to how people are in real life. Other than what we can perceive, it is not possible to know for sure why people do the things they do, and in the end, isn’t that what opera is for in the first place, to present human experiences and evoke a reaction out of people? Capell does not criticize the opera for not being emotionally compelling, only unclear. If the only reason for disliking a work is not being able to fully comprehend it, then I think there is much in the world of art and music that one will be unable to appreciate and enjoy.
By Jacque Hale
Capell, Richard. “Review from the Daily Telegraph.” In Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten 913-1976. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2004.
Cook, Mervyn. “Herman Melville’s Billy Budd,” in Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd. Caimbridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Melville, Herman. Introduction to Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), 9-25. Edited by Michael J. Everton. Ontario: Broadview Press. 2016