Sweeney Todd & Sweeney Agonistes giving me the Hoo ha's!

Yes, yes, I had to see the Tim Burton film of the Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd"--
and glad that I did, in spite of having that mild disappointment that less-than-great movie fare always leaves in my belly. Still, I enjoyed it. The tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street who murdered folks then baked into pies by his neighbor, Mrs. Lovitt. There are plenty of reviews on the internet, so I don't need to give you my impressions -- it was as gory as they say -- Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can't sing well, but managed to hold forth well enough -- and the sets of olde England's London Towne were absolutely fabulous. You could practically smell the sewage in the streets.

Why is this story at all appealing? is the more interesting question. There is something downright archetypical about cannibalism--we are fascinated by its taboo, and its possibility--like the sports team that crashed and ate their dead in the Andes ("Alive") as well as fictional Hannibal Lector and the all too real Jeffrey Dahmer. It got me thinking about Sondheim and how he decided to do this musical.

I began to read about the background of Sweeney Todd. There are several articles and blogs about the 'source' of this material -- many simply crediting Sondheim. That is nowhere near the whole story. Here is a link to a little history of Sweeney Todd. Apparently the pulp fiction booklets of London, the "penny dreadfuls" are credited with the earliest version in 1885 under a different title.

But my own memory goes back to the early 60's when I was married to a man with many books I had not yet read--among them James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, Beckett and cummings. SOMEWHERE in those books, I dimly remembered a Sweeney character, in play form, which jumped out at me. But I couldn't remember which book. For years I've thought it was Joyce...but that was wrong. I was young and didn't understand what I was reading...that memory also stuck with me. I hate not knowing. But I was enchanted with the sing song zaniness of it. A sing song play...sounds like a musical!

Once I wrapped my mind around Sweeney, I became tenacious....my memory (though faulty) did not fail me. I happened to have a copy of T.S.Eliot's complete poems and plays (of my own) on the shelf ...and I started there. Voila! I hit pay dirt immediately. (if you can't trust your memory, trust your instincts).

I found Sweeney Agonistes, an incomplete play/poem -- and I shall only copy here the things that reminded me of Sweeney Todd, that made me link the two in my mind. Later, after I had done so, I found a website that said they were sure Sondheim had read this poem. (Ah, validation for the laywoman.)

I can only give you snippets of excerpts -- it is worth reading on your own:

the scene is set with Doris reading Tarot cards with Dusty, just before a party. The two of spades (the coffin card) comes up. There is, eventually, a chorus of friends and protagonist Sweeney.

Sweeney: I'll carry you off
To a cannibal isle.
Doris: You'll be the cannibal!
Sweeney: You'll be the missionary!
You'll be my little seven stone missionary!
I'll gobble you up. I'll be cannibal.
Doris: You'll carry me off? To a cannibal isle?
Sweeney: I'll be the cannibal.
Doris: I'll be the missinary,
I'll convert you!
Sweeney: I'll convert you!
Into a stew.
A nice little, white little, missionary stew.
Doris: You wouldn't eat me!
Sweeney: Yes, I'd eat you!
In a nice little, white little, soft little, tender little,
Juicy little, right little, missionary stew.
You see this egg
You see this egg
Well, that's life on a crocodile isle.
There's no telephones
There's no gramophones
There no motor cars
No two seaters, no six seaters,
No Citroen, no Rolls Royce.
Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows.
Nothing to see but the palmtrees one way
And the sea the other way
Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf.
Nothing at all but three things
Doris: What things?
Sweeney: Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.
Doris: I'd be bored.
Sweeney: You'd be bored.
Birth, and copulation and death.
Doris: I'd be bored.
Sweeney: You'd be bored.
Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
I've been born, and once is enough,
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

This is followed by the song sung by their party friends:

Under the bamboo
Bamboo bamboo
Under the bamboo tree
Two live as one
One live as two
Under the bam
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.

Where the breadfruit fall
And the penguin call
And the sound is the sound of the sea
Under the bam
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree

Where the Gaugain maids
In the banyan shades
Wear palmleaf drapery
Under the bam
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.

Tell me in what part of the wood
Do you want to flirt with me?
Under the breadfruit, banyan, palmleaf
Or under the bamboo tree?
Any old tree will do for me
Any old wood is just as good
Any old isle is just my style
Any fresh egg
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Any fresh egg
And the sound of the coral sea.

Doris: I don't like eggs; I never liked eggs;
And I don't like life on your crocodile isle.

The full chorus at the end:

When you're alone in the middle of the night and you wake
in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you're alone in the middle of the bed and you wake
like someone hit you on the head
You've had a cream of a nightmare dream and you've got the
hoo-ha's coming to you.
Hoo hoo hoo
You dreamt you waked up at seven o'clock and it's foggy an
it's damp and it's dawn and it's dark
And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock for you
know the hangman's waiting for you.
And perhaps you're alive
And perhaps you're dead
Hoo ha ha
Hoo ha ha
Knock Knock Knock
Knock Knock Knock

Hoo Ha. It's no sillier than Sweeney Todd.


All I know about Sweeney Todd comes from the movie "Jersey Girl," so you've enlightened me. And from what little glimpse I had of the play in that story, I'm sure you're right. Sondheim must've read that T.S. Eliot piece. Good memory and good sleuthing!
ha! And I haven't seen Jersey Girl.

I DID see a regional theater group perform Sweeney Todd in Florida many years ago, and I think the film did it much better. Having a zillion dollar budget, they might!
Since I only remembered studying Sweeney Among the Nightingales, the snippet you shared was amazing to me. Never read it, heard about it, nor wondered about other Sweeneys. Except for the people who lived next door to my friend Arlene. Or were those the Feeneys? It may not be time to brush up my Shakespeare, but I'm going to take some time to brush up my Eliot. It was Cats then and now that made me ignore his wonderful body of work. I am so allergic to Cats.
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