October 5, 2014

Sondheim, Parsifal, and Tobias the Fool

Scene from an 1882 production of Parsifal
One more Sweeney Todd post before we lift our bloody razors in a farewell salute and gear up for a run of Gilbert and Sullivan...

Sondheim's "musical thriller", as pointed out previously, is chock-full of an assortment of literary references. These include The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, and even Hansel and Gretel (a witch meeting her end in a roaring oven). But there's one more that might not have occurred to you: Wagner's Parsifal.

Granted, in musical terms the two works are galaxies apart. But consider the simple young Tobias: here a case can be made that he carries some of Parsifal's DNA. They are both "holy fools".

The concept of a "Holy Fool" dates back at least as far as the first century A.D., when the apostle Paul wrote "We are fools for Christ's sake" in a letter to the church at Corinth. He went on to explain that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight". In other words, to be a true child of God, one must be so detached from worldly affairs, agendas and standards that one appears impossibly or "foolishly" naive. There is an inherent unspoiled spiritual purity in such innocense.

In Parsifal, the warrior Amfortas has been wounded by the magician Klingsor who used the flower maiden Kundry to lure Amfortas to him. The knight's pain can only be relieved with a touch of a holy spear now possessed by Klingsor. The only person capable of retrieving the spear is a "pure fool", one as yet untouched by the evil of the world: Parsifal.

Parsifal, in Wagner's libretto, is linked to early Christian traditions of the Holy Fool and to St. Juniper in particular. One of his fellow monks told Juniper that he wanted a pig's foot. Juniper rushed out to a herd of swine and rashly cut the foot off a pig, leaving the animal to die while he returned to present the foot to the monk. Parsifal, on the other hand, is found to have killed a swan in Act 1 of the opera, unaware that doing so was wrong. As the opera progresses, Parsifal's experiences will teach him of the evil of the world, leading him to destroy Klingsor's kingdom.

In Sweeney Todd, Tobias is observed unwittingly participating in evil as well, first drumming up business for that "arrant fraud", the Great Pirelli, later doing the same for Lovett's pie shop. Despite being taken in by Lovett as a de facto adopted son, Tobias is innocent of the gruesome nature of her meat pies. In his pathetic mental simplicity, Tobias stands out from the other townspeople of London for his naive goodness and trusting nature.

Of course, like Parsifal, Tobias gradually discovers the nature of the evil hovering about his world. Lovett's explanations for the disappearance of Pirelli are belied by her possession of the latter's purse, raising suspicions of Mr. Todd in the barber shoppe. In the end, he too will bring about the end of Sweeney's "kingdom", using a razor in place of a spear.

The difference, of course, is that rather than becoming a Knight of the Holy Grail, ushering in an era of peace and happiness, Tobias pays a heavy price: utter madness. He is the final victim of Todd's mayhem; when Fogg's Asylum is re-opened (under new management, certainly), Tobias will be the first inmate if he isn't hanged first.

This makes him the most tragic character in the story. He and Sweeney are both men ruined by others' evil, but Tobias' simplicity, gentleness and purity - a purity Todd probably never possessed - render his fate more difficult to take.

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