Last year, the Madison Opera Book Club was started in conjunction with our spring production of Faust. A fun discussion took place at the Sequoya Library on the classic “deal with the devil” myth as retold in the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. This year, the Book Club is back to read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James in preparation for our production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of the ghostly tale. Anyone can join: just pick up a copy of the text, read it, and come to the Sequoya Library on Saturday, January 16th at 2 p.m., preferably with some things to say!
The novella is short by nature and the chilling tale makes for a quick read. But though the page count is thin, James’ writing is rich. Some of the key questions to consider when reading The Turn of the Screw include:
- Are the ghosts real?
- How reliable is the governess as a narrator?
- What is the nature of the children’s corruption by Quint and Miss Jessel?
- Do they maintain any innocence?
In Claire Seymour’s controversial analysis, The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion, she discusses potential reasons Britten might have been attracted to the story, based on patterns in his other operas:
- themes of innocence and experience
- battle of good vs. evil, with a morally ambiguous moderator in between
- no moral absolutes, James’ texts offers an “unstable ethical field”
- the novella is “full of emptiness”, literally and metaphorically, which invites a theatrical version to fill in gaps
If you know the text, perhaps you will contend some of these assumptions. But either way, in transferring this particular work to the stage, Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper faced numerous difficult decisions right from the start. For one, Britten decided almost immediately that the ghosts were real, and in the opera they are characters with fully articulated words and music, even though they do not speak in the book. Would another interpretation have worked on stage?
This and more, next Saturday, January 16th, at the Sequoya Library meeting room, 2 p.m.