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In closely inspecting Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, commentators have made claims such as the opera is “a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression.” In 1945, when the opera was released, homosexuality was unspeakable – more so in England where Britten mostly lived than in the United States – and this is the likely driver behind the massive attention the opera has been given. This essay will examine the commentary about the homosexuality in the opera by analyzing three commentators’ views. Several key elements of the opera indicate homosexual content, and this fact is more likely due to evidence provided by Britten’s previous works. Ultimately, the overwhelming evidence – while not explicitly assertive of homosexual expression in Grimes – combine to indicate that Britten wrote the opera with the intent to convey a feeling of ostracism due to his personal struggles with homosexuality.
Peter Grimes is not the first of Britten’s compositions that have at its core deep homosexual nuances. Several of his other operas touch on romantic male relationships – for example, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, and Billy Budd. While these pieces have specific homosexual content, they are not as driven in their urgency and vividness as Peter Grimes. The homosexual nature in Peter Grimes is indicated by the composer, Benjamin Britten’s, and his companion Peter Pears’, emigration to America, according to Philip Brett. He states the men may have emigrated to the U.S. due to the threat of Nazism, the decline in European civilization, or the “stifling” artistic and moral atmosphere in Britain in the 1930s. “All these reasons are plausible, but another fundamental impulse must also have been at work: namely that desire, so common in young ‘gay’ men, to seek anonymity and freedom by going to the big city, the far-off country – any place, that is, away from the home where they feel at best half-accepted.” Brett presents several possibilities about why the men went to the U.S., with each as convincing as the other. However, the weakest of these claims is that the men were seeking anonymity, as Brett suggested. Further evidence of the sexual nature of the men is needed in his analysis the composer and his companion, to prove the homosexual expression in Peter Grimes. However, Brett makes the majority of his argument about the sexual preference of the lead characters in the opera, based on the sexuality of the composer himself. This poses a logical fallacy, but before criticizing Brett’s claim, it is important to analyze his reason in making the claim that Peter Grimes is a “powerful allegory of homosexual oppression.”
Brett uses as an example – completely outside of the opera – of two of his writer collaborators who are representative of the alternative possibilities of life choices, taken at each extreme. The first is Christopher Isherwood, who decided to make his home around Los Angeles. Brett notes that he remains living there after many years and has become a British novelist. He is homosexual and is able to write freely on matters relating to sexuality. In fact, he is his generation’s first man to investigate the “phenomenon” of homosexual men. Brett claims the homosexual writer was able to follow his passion to write about homosexuality because he immigrated to America, much like how Britten immigrated to America for a period to live in a more liberal society, before returning to England.
Brett goes on to describe the opposite experience, that of E. M. Forster, who was also a homosexual writer. However, this writer did not move to America. Instead, he travelled to India on two occasions to write A Passage to India. Ten years earlier, he had written a homosexual love story that he did not publish. “Forster did not want to face the possibility of being prosecuted; but the book, and some of what he called his ‘sexy stories,’ circulated among friends.” This proves Brett’s point that the fact that one of the men, Forster, decided to keep living in England, and this meant that he had to stint his creative expression because it was closely tied to homosexual themes. However, he was so passionate about writing about homosexual themes that he chose to write for pleasure, rather than to earn money by being published, his personal diaries have stated.
The experiences of both Isherwood and Forster bring the reader back to Brett’s original claim – that Britten moved to the U.S. with Pears, where they could freely express their homosexuality. Brett claims Britten conceived Peter Grimes when he decided to leave for America, instead of doing as Forster by suppressing his homosexual creativity due to his desire to stay in England. However, Britten eventually returned to England, and this is where he wrote Peter Grimes. While Britten showed a happy face to the people of England, and he was a celebrity, he has a darker side: “I believe the other side of the coin, the dark side of his feelings as a potential victim of persecution and as an outsider in an established society, came out with tremendous force in Grimes.” According to Brett, Peter Grimes was Britten’s expression of the suffocation he felt due to society’s perception of his sexual preference. By the time of the opera’s writing, Britten’s fellow countrywomen and men knew of his homosexual lifestyle. Brett claims Britten felt this judgement, and this caused him to feel stifled. Not long before he released Peter Grimes, Britten was returning from America to England to “face unknown penalties from a
repressive and embattled society on account of both his life-style and his pacifism.” Peter Grimes represented the ultimate fantasy of suicide and persecution that was important in the way the Britten “came to terms” with a society that he did not trust but that he wanted to entertain with his operas.
This connection that Brett makes provides a stronger link to the intention of the opera. He successfully merges the concept of Britten leaving England so that he can more freely express himself as a homosexual, with the release of Peter Grimes. His reasoning behind declaring the opera as expressing homosexual oppression, is through the lead character, Peter Grimes, having to consistently be persecuted for supposed acts of which there was no true wrongdoing. At the beginning of the opera, Peter Grimes’ deck hand dies from a lack of water while out at sea. Grimes was held before the court and was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but when another deck hand went missing, the villagers were convinced Grimes had murdered the boys, an offense of which Grimes was completely innocent. The oppression that Grimes felt, and the unacceptance from the villagers, could be interpreted as being comparable to the feeling that Britten had due to the unacceptance of his homosexuality. And this is a connection that Brett rightly makes. In fact, Britten admitted that Grimes represented him and Pears’ perspective in an interview around the time of the opera’s release. “A central feeling for us was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation. As conscientious objectors, we were out of it.” This quote confirms what Brett is saying, and the action of Grimes, as he was forced to flee the village due to the angry residents who accused him of crimes.
While Brett provides a convincing argument to support the concept that the opera has at its core deep homosexual nuances, without that confirmation from Britten himself, it does not provide enough certainty to state the opera has any homosexuality in it. After all, various characters in many stories are facing oppression, and it is not logical to assume that because the writer is homosexual, the intention in every one of their works is homosexuality at its core. However, Allan Hepburn in “Peter Grimes and the Rumour of Homosexuality” provides a further investigation that points to a homosexual theme. Instead of describing Grimes’ situation as oppression, Hepburn says his life was based on rumours, much like how the life of a homosexual man during this period, and particularly Britten’s, was based on rumours about their sexual conduct. “Grimes’s death, like his life, migrates through the borough as a rumour.” In the opera itself, this is confirmed during a moment where Grimes is delusional, and he says in Act 3 “Gossip is shouting Everything’s said.” This could be an expression of Britten himself, who is becoming frustrated with the amount of gossip that is circulating about his personal affairs. The rumour mill keeps turning when Grimes accuses his second apprentice, John, of speaking with Ellen behind his back. “You’ve been talking. You and that bitch were gossiping, What lies have you been telling?” According to Hepburn, John likely never gossiped with Ellen, as he does not say anything in the opera, other than letting out a shriek as he falls of a cliff.
In the opera, the rumours result in slander. For example, Mrs. Sedley makes a case for incriminating Grimes when watching him. She raises this suspicion and once that happens, it could not be retracted. However, Grimes is not fully aware of the rumours that are circulating around town about him. Nevertheless, he is hunted by the villagers in Act 2 and in Act 3. He is hunted down and located on the beach and at his hut. He tries to reason with the people, but despite this attempt, there is no arguing against the rumours, and even though he attempts to reason with the villagers by speaking simple truths, there is no way for him to change people’s negative opinions about him, and those that surround his court case. “No matter how convincing Grimes’s statement may be that his first apprentice died of thirst, the townspeople, and to some extent the audience, believe that Grimes is too rough with his apprentices and actively contributes to their demise.” These rumours about Grimes allude to a greater conflict that Britten likely faced as a homosexual; he likely felt like a misfit. This is a major component in the opera, as the rumours about Grimes have essentially made him the town misfit.
So far, this paper has covered several of the thematic indications in the opera that point to the fact that it was written with a particular homosexual nature. However, neither of the commentators have shown outright proof that the opera was homosexual in nature. In fact, in addition to the rumours among the villagers within the opera, it appears that the rumours persist even outside of the play. Commentators have continually claimed that Grimes is a homosexual, but the opera does not say outright that he is. “His homosexuality, although everywhere implied, is never explicit in the opera.” These implications may add up to the determination of there being an intended expression of homosexual oppression, but it may also be an indication of the obsessive nature of commentators about the personal sexual conduct of the composer. The commentators may very well be reading too much into the intentions of Peter Grimes, due to the fact that Britten was a homosexual.
Another one of the implications that Grimes is a homosexual is revealed in the opera by the act of Grimes marrying Ellen. Commentators, such as Peter Conrad, have said the marriage was intended by Grimes to provide a “cure” for his homosexual urges. But according to Hepburn, “… the desire for a ‘cure’ brought about by marrying Ellen may have more to do with the discursive manner in which homosexuality was originally defined as a pathology, rather than with Grimes’s particular manifestation of queerness.” Hepburn says this affirmation can be supported by the fact that Grimes throws sea-clothes at John during the second scene of Act 2. When doing so, he threatens to “tear the collar off.” However, this is a weak supporting claim by Hepburn, as he attempts to draw a connection with homosexuality and tearing a collar off a shirt. It is not as if Grimes threatened to pull the pants off the boy. Hepburn improves his claim of Grimes being a homosexual, by referring to lines that were cut out of the opera in an earlier version that featured a more brutal Grimes:
By God I’ll beat it out of you.
Stand up. (last) Straighter. (last) I’ll count two
And then you’ll jump to it. One.
Well? Two (The boy doesn’t move. Then Peter lashes hard, twice.
He runs. Peter follows.)
Your body is the cat o’ nine
Tail’s mincemeat. O! A pretty dish
Smooth-skinned & young as she could wish.
Come cat! Up Whiplash! Jump my son
Jump (lash) jump (lash) jump, the dance is on.
This original version provides some more clarity that Grimes was a homosexual, or that he used interesting language that just happened to appear homosexual in nature. Calling the boy’s body “A pretty dish,” provides proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Grimes is a homosexual. However, it is not evidence. After all, Grimes may have been getting carried away with his predator cat analogy, and was merely speaking through the tongue of the cat, which might very well find a young boys flesh to be “A pretty dish.” After the rewrite, Britten makes Grimes less of a vicious person, and takes away the relatively explicit homosexual remarks. This could reveal that type of repression Britten was feeling, due to the fact he felt he needed to do a better job covering up the homosexual nature of his main character. That oppression that he felt could also provide some evidence that the oppression of Grimes is a reflection of Britten’s own repression.
Much of this supposed stifling of the homosexual nature of his lead character, Grimes, could be a reflection of his own stifling of his homosexuality. As Brett states in “Postscript,” Britten was not accepting of his homosexual nature. Britten felt that his homosexuality made him an outsider. “If imagination fails, some estimation of the damage his self-image sustained can be gained from his later attitude to his sexuality and from his hostility to the gay movement and to homosexual life-styles other than his own.”  Furthermore, Brett notes that Britten was a “reluctant” homosexual. According to his “companion,” Pears, Britten never used the word “gay.” In fact, Britten resented the gay lifestyle. This common practice of covering up homosexuality provides further indication that Peter Grimes is a character that is based on the struggles Britten was feeling with his homosexuality. Getting rid of the more explicit homosexual references in Peter Grimes is similar to how Britten felt a degree of rejection towards the homosexual lifestyle, as indicated by Brett. At this point, it can be determined that the gay nuances in Peter Grimes could be tied with the homosexual struggles that Britten was feeling. Similar to his own life, Britten’s opera appears to be smothering the homosexuality within it, which continues in its attempt to reveal itself. The subtly of the opera is representative of the secrecy that Britten and many other homosexuals assumed in their daily lives. However, it could be argued that the repression that Grimes felt was completely coincidental, the marriage proposal to Ellen was due to attraction, and the sexual innuendo in the Grimes’ comments about the boys “flesh” could be a mere representation of the way the “cat” (in his analogy), was thinking. However, as the evidence piles up, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that Peter Grimes was written without the intention to express homosexual oppression. As a final possibility, Britten may not have been aware that he was writing the opera in a way that facilitated these homosexual nuances. It may have been completely subconscious. His psyche was attempting to address some of Britten’s repressed feelings, and he was completely unaware of the intersections between the Peter Grimes plot and characters, and of his personal homosexuality.
In addition to the three possible homosexual implications in the work, Brett states the uneasy relationships between males in the opera indicate a struggle comparable to the one that Britten faced with his personal homosexual relationships. This claim, however, is a stretch, as most stories have a considerable amount of conflict among the characters. Brett also states the loss of innocence and the struggles faced by the outsider are all indications that Britten was looking for a way to express his homosexuality. This expression was one to which he also alluded in Death in Venice, which is about the life of an artist and his doubts about that lifestyle. This could be representative of Britten’s self-doubt. That self-doubt, however, could have presented itself not only in Britten’s life, but also in the type of work itself. Britten may have wanted to write Peter Grimes in a completely different way, where Grimes is openly gay, and the people of the village are oppressing him because of his homosexuality, not because of the number of deck hands that are going missing under his employment. This brings the reader back to Isherwood, who moved to the U.S., where he was better able to express himself openly as a gay man, through his work. But Britten is more like Forster, and is challenged by the fact that he has to keep his true intentions in his expression hidden. As Brett points out, the hidden artist is a battle that many homosexuals were challenged with, as they had the desire as artists to express themselves, but homosexual expression during the time was not approved in England.
The ultimate death of Grimes gives an idea of the hopelessness that Britten felt about his homosexual state. According to Clifford Hindley in “Britten’s Parable Art: A Gay Reading,” Britten faced a homosexual problem that was impossible for him to avoid and difficult to deal with. This perspective about his sexual nature provides a framework by which Britten structured his lead character, his oppressed situation and his ultimate demise. This sense of oppression is something that Britten felt, while others, such as Michael Tippett in the opera The Knot Garden, felt open to express in the relationship between Mel and Dov. The reason Britten likely kept his homosexuality out of his work was due to the way he was raised, and this acted as an overture for his life, dominating the way that he felt about his sexual desires, which appears to have been very stifled in his personal life, and this translated into his work. “Homosexuality was seen as a condition for which the individual is not responsible, but which influences, and may be expressed in, the whole range of ordinary human relationships, spiritual, emotional and physical.” This treatment of homosexuality as being a “condition” for which the individual is not responsible” helps provide some indication of the perceived negative state the person is in if they are a homosexual. In other words, homosexuality was not approved of at the time and people who had same-sex desires were victims of this “condition.” This attitude would likely drive many homosexuals to keep hidden their true desires, and the fact that Isherwood left England so he could express his true self in his art, provides further evidence that Britten likely did not fully express himself in Peter Grimes, and instead kept the gay subject line hidden because of the way that he was brought up and the perception throughout England about homosexuals.
Even given this evidence about Britten’s personal life and the storyline in Peter Grimes,the final version of the opera does not give enough indication that it was written as a form of homosexual expression. “In fact, in the opera as it now stands, no sufficient evidence supports the … suspicions about Grimes.” Clifford Hindley also points out in “Homosexual Self-affirmation and Self-oppression in Two Britten Operas,” that society, and particularly Brett, have decided to focus in on the sexual nature of Grimes, rather than on other promiscuities in the opera that society has deemed unacceptable. For example, a woman has committed adultery, as is indicated in Act 1 when Ellen sings “Whatever you say/ Let her among you without fault cast the first stone.” This is a reference to The Bible, where the same words are said after a women commits adultery. Furthermore, “Ned Keene appears to be the local Casanova. Mrs. Sedly is addicted to laudanum. The Methodist preacher, Boles, having begun by condemning drink and sexual promiscuity, deserts his principles to get drunk and make amatory advances to the nieces.” Despite these transgressions, the focus is on the possible sexual nature of Grimes, and his author, Britten, of which the former there is not much of a basis in the final version of his homosexual desires.
Given the opera as a whole, it is a general leap to assume that Grimes is gay and Peter Grimes was written as a way for Britten to express homosexual oppression. The massive attention that Peter Grimes has been given by critics who seek to analyze the possible homosexual nuances in the opera are driven by a mid-20th century society that was obsessed with the concept of homosexuality. If this opera was produced more recently, there would likely be little, if not none of the obsession over a possible hidden homosexual expression in the opera. When taken in its final version, Peter Grimes shows no link to homosexuality. However, two key pieces of evidence support the concept that Britten’s opera was closely linked to homosexuality. The first is in the analysis of the initial opera, where, Grimes makes the comparison to a cat, when abusing his apprentice. “Will you move/ If the cat starts making love?” Furthermore, the nature of the opera is made more obvious with the quote from Britten himself, which were mentioned earlier, but will be stated again for its importance in establishing the fact that Peter Grimes was indeed written as an allegory of homosexual oppression: “A central feeling for us was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation. As conscientious objectors, we were out of it.” While this is not an outright statement, it provides the final note that concludes this opera is, as Brett put it, “a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression.”
1. Allan Hepburn. “Peter Grimes and the Rumour of Homosexuality.” University of Toronto Quarterly 74, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 648–56.
2. Clifford Hindley. “Britten’s Parable Art; A Gay Reading.”History Workshop Journal 40(Autumn 1995): 62–90.
3. Clifford Hindley. “Homosexual Self-Affirmation and Self-Oppression in Two Britten Operas.” Musical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 143–68.
4. Philip Brett. “Britten and Grimes.” Musical Times 118, no. 1618 (December 1977): 955–1000.
5. Philip Brett. “Postscript.” In Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, 190–96. Edited by Philip Brett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983
6. Philip Hensher. “A Man for the People.” The Guardian. (2009). 6
1. Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes. 1945 by Omega Opera Archive.