Hypocrisy, class and faith in Britten’s Borough

Whether or not one enjoys Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, its significance is hard to dispute. Premiered in London just a month after the declaration of victory in Europe in 1945, on June 7th, it represented a rebirth. The opening night, thought the Picture Post, ‘may well be remembered as the date of the reinstatement of opera in the musical life of this country’, and to Britten and his collaborators it confirmed both the need and the appetite for contemporary English opera. Some slept on the pavement outside the Sadlers Wells theatre to be sure of their place in the auditorium on the opening night; others came back for all eight of the first performances.

Sadlers Well Opera Books, No.3 (1945), issued for the London premiere. It contains essays by Britten, Montagu Slater, Edward Sackville-West and E. M. Forster.

But its importance was not merely musical. In less than a month the British people would reject Winston Churchill, despite his record as war leader, and elect a Labour government on the promise of a different kind of rebirth: a new society; a rejection of the memory of the inter-war years and of the Conservative governments that dominated them. For a moment, which in fact continued for several years, the social and moral settlement of the 1930s was at a discount, and newness, progress at a premium.

Though the opera is ostensibly set around 1830, the invitation to read it in contemporary terms is irresistible. Most readings have centered on the person of Peter Grimes, as an individual driven to self-destruction by the Borough, the society in which he was trapped, unable to realise himself. Britten and Pears themselves in later life tried to connect the sensitive, conflicted Grimes to their own status as creative artists, and as conscientious objectors to the war; later critics have come to focus more on a queer Grimes as a reflection of Britten’s own status as a gay man in a society which criminalised homosexuality. However configured, though, this opposition of individual and society in readings of the opera has obscured some of the complexity within the Borough itself.

Had the opera developed differently, this might not have been so. The libretto, by the socialist poet and activist Montagu Slater, was derived from verse by the eighteenth century clergyman poet George Crabbe. Both Crabbe and Slater were rather less concerned with Grimes’ interior life than the completed opera is, and more with the social conflict within the Borough. Here I want to look at two of the characters in Slater’s Borough, to reveal some of the religious and social complexities in play in the opera: nuances of class and faith that have become obscure to modern listeners. If the reception of Grimes was indeed part of an appetite for a new society, what, in fact, was to be discarded? The two characters are the Methodist lay preacher Bob Boles, and the Rector, Mr Horace Adams

Bob Boles, written by Britten as a volatile, frenetic tenor, is one of Slater’s fishermen, the ordinary working men oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the Borough. And his voice is a moralistic, censorious one, a stereotype of a certain kind of English nonconformity. Slater here was surely influenced by his own background in Cumbria, where his father was a Methodist lay preacher. (Slater’s wife Enid remembered her father-in-law as ‘one of those awful Methodists – on Sunday he pulled all the blinds downs [and] you weren’t allowed to read anything but the Bible.’ It was ‘ghastly’, and Slater left it for Oxford ‘very thankfully’, she thought.) Boles denounces Auntie, the landlady of the Boar, the local pub, whose ‘vats flow with poisoned gin’; the Boar is also a house of ill repute, as Auntie’s ‘nieces’ comfort the Borough’s menfolk: ‘God’s storm will drown your hot desires!’, Boles warns. And Boles is central to the hostility to Grimes that eventually boils over in Act III, as he goes with the mob to hunt Grimes down: ‘This lost soul of a fisherman must be shunned by respectable society!’ Grimes has sold his soul, and fears the flaming sword of judgment.

Later, in Act 2 scene 1 inside the Boar, we are invited to see Boles as a hypocrite, as he fails to hold his drink and drunkenly demands the ministrations of the nieces for himself. But Boles is also conscious of his class and of social ill, in ways that must have resonated in post-war London. The doctor, Crabbe, we never hear speak, but Boles tells us the regard in which he is held: ‘he drinks “Good health” to all diseases!’. (The inequality of access to healthcare was vital in securing support for the National Health Service in 1948.) At the heart of the opera is the brutality of the conditions in which men and apprentices had to work, and the absence of the kind of social safety net that the reforming Labour government was to create. At the prospect of workhouse boys being bought and sold, Boles exclaims ‘Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved, their bodies go for cash?’ He will speak his mind, as the system concerns everyone: ‘this prentice system’s uncivilised and unchristian!’ The coming storm is the judgement of God on an iniquitous society: ‘God has his ways which are not ours: His high tide swallows up the shores. Repent!’ Few in the Borough accepts Boles’ understanding of providence, but they recognise the injustice; we are to read him as the voice of a genuine class interest, alive and well in Slater’s conception of contemporary England.

Slater’s libretto, then, captures the tone of a certain kind of popular Christian moral conscience, which had waned considerably by 1945. But it also pinpoints an antagonism between ‘Methody’ Boles and the established religion that the Reverend Horace Adams represents. It is an antagonism that is borne both of class resentment and specifically religious feeling; powerful enough to influence elections a century ago, it is hard now to spot with an untrained eye. On Sunday morning, the Methodist Boles is not at prayer in the parish church, but watching as Grimes and his love Ellen Orford realise that their bid for respectability has failed. As the whispers against Grimes grow (in the video excerpt below), Boles calls bitterly for the parson: ‘where’s the pastor of this flock? Where’s the guardian shepherd’s hook?’ While the parson and his flock ‘worshipped idols there / The Devil had his Sabbath here’. It is clear where Boles thinks the moral centre of the Borough lies, and it is not with those in the ‘church parade’ after prayers end. The rector is far too ready to ‘ignore, growing at your door, evils, like your fancy flowers.’ (The image of the country parson in delicate repose in his garden was a common one indeed, and comes direct from Crabbe.)

As the mood sours and the chorus cry out for the parson, fired by Boles, Adams asks ‘is it my business?’ Hitherto we have seen little of him, save for a cheery greeting in the opening scene. Now he is forced to hold an impromptu inquest into Grimes’ supposed mistreatment of his apprentice, interrogating Ellen as the crowd continues its hostile commentary. ‘You planned to be worldly-wise’ he tells Ellen as she speaks of her hope of redemption with Grimes, ‘but your souls were dark’. Reluctantly Adams leads a party of inquiry to Grimes’ hut (followed by the crowd), which they find empty yet ‘reasonably kept / Here’s order. Here’s skill’. Another of the well-to-do draws the moral: ‘Here we come pell-mell / Expecting to find out – we know not what. / But all we find is a neat and empty hut / Gentlemen, take this to your wives / Less interference in our private lives.’ Nothing to be done, Adams supposes; it would not do to egg people on too much.

Britten was first alerted to Crabbe by an essay by his friend E.M. Forster, published in The Listener in 1941, which Britten thought sufficiently important to have it reprinted in the booklet accompanying the premiere (illustrated above). It is not often remarked, given the relatively minor place given by Britten and Slater to the character of the rector, that he looms rather large in Forster’s essay. That said, Forster and Slater are agreed on his fault, which is weakness. He is a man ‘whose constant care was no man to offend’ (the line is Crabbe’s); who ‘valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it’. Crabbe’s epitaph for him is damning: ‘They who knew him best, proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest.’ At play in his garden, ‘no trifles failed his yielding mind to please’.

And it is in his pusillanimity, his readiness to hope that the emotions stirred in the Borough will simply regulate themselves, that we’re invited to see Adams in the worst light.

In Act III, a few days later, he, Crabbe and the group of burgesses excuse themselves from the dance at the Moot Hall, though the whispers have returned, not least from Mrs Sedley, one of his own flock. ‘I looked in a moment’ he sings, and ‘the company’s gay / With pretty young women and youths on the spree.’ Whether oblivious to or afraid of what the night holds, he retires to his house, to light, trivial music (a hornpipe, in fact) that jars, and is meant to; it is grotesquely carefree when framed by the rest of the score. Good night, he bids them all, ‘don’t let the ladies keep company too late! / My love to the maidens, wish luck to the men! I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.’

Now without any of the better sort to moderate the atmosphere as it darkens, a mob soon assembles to hunt Grimes down, among which is Boles. Adams has refused the chance to try to restrain the mob, to act as peacemaker to the whole parish. And in the morning he walks to church for morning prayer (according to the directions in the published libretto), as on any other day, while the waters close over Grimes’ boat in the distance. What is that in the distance, people ask, a sinking boat? ‘Nothing I can see’ says Boles; Grimes is gone.

Where Boles’ religion is hot, vital (if hysterical), Adams’ is formal, complacent, and in the last instance unable to act. In the religious life of the Borough, the Rector is the Ego to Boles’ Id. In the end, it is the Id that is overwhelming, but both are complicit in Grimes’s destruction. As Peter Garvie observed in 1972, the Christianity in the opera is ‘uninfluential for good’. Neither provides a path to peace for the community or to repentance and redemption for Grimes. In 1945, on the cusp of a new start, neither variety of English religion seems to merit its place in the new Jerusalem.

[The essays by Peter Garvie and E. M. Forster are both reprinted in the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Peter Grimes. The production shown above is a 1969 television film, with Pears in the title role, Gregory Dempsey as Boles, and Robert Tear as Horace Adams.]

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