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Contrasting Masks

Albert Herring and Peter Grimes

by Roger Brunyate

Albert Herring at Peabody, November 21–24, 2002

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

Above the stage in many old theaters hang two masks: the stern face of tragedy and the smiling one of comedy. The masks conceal the artist while offering him contrasting faces through which to approach the world. But whether comedy or tragedy, the same themes and preoccupations may recur, revealing the same man behind the masks.

So it was with Benjamin Britten, who burst upon the opera scene in 1945 with his tragedy Peter Grimes. Only two years later (with another opera in between), he produced a comedy, Albert Herring, set in a similar milieu and exploring a very similar theme, that of the social misfit in a censorious society. Two different styles and two different outcomes – but in both the composer is wearing a mask which conceals his true concern. For both operas are metaphors for Britten’s personal situation, as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was illegal.

It is important, though, to realize that this theme is by no means overt. There have been revisionist productions of Peter Grimes which have portrayed the antihero clearly as a homosexual, but it is by no means necessary to do so. And with Albert Herring it is virtually impossible without contradicting large portions of the text. This hilarious comedy is indeed a coming-out story in metaphor, but the coming out which we actually see involves a shy adolescent who breaks his mother’s apron-strings and takes the first glorious steps into adulthood. Sex and the fear of sex play a large part in the story, but the objects of Albert’s fearful fascination seem to be girls. Nevertheless, the comparison with the earlier opera is instructive in helping us approach Albert Herring, and an awareness of the real-life concerns in the composer’s background lends depth to what might otherwise seem a rather trivial tale. In making this comparison, I shall look at two particular aspects: the similar depiction of the closed society in each opera, and the very different outcomes – one tragic, the other comic – for the two heroes.

Philip Langridge as Peter Grimes in Los
AngelesBritten based Peter Grimes on an episode from George Crabbe’s early 19th-century poem The Borough, depicting a fictitious fishing community on the East Anglian coast, the part of England where Britten himself grew up. Crabbe’s true subject is the Borough and its inhabitants; the fisherman Peter Grimes is presented as all that the Borough is not: a brutal recluse who is accused of murdering his apprentices. But in the hands of Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater, the villagers are reduced to a series of brilliant but two-dimensional character sketches, while the rough Grimes is given a sensitive visionary side and a fascinating moral ambiguity which is never resolved. He is eventually destroyed, it is true, but he still seems a bigger man than any of his neighbors, and in the end one cannot tell whether he was villain or victim.

Peter Grimes is a tragedy written for large stretches with the mechanisms of comedy. The technique of portraying a community through a series of character sketches – in this case, the pompous magistrate, the drunken preacher, the quack doctor, the landlady who doubles as madam – is a standard device especially of British comedy, which can still be seen in many of the more popular television imports which reach our shores. There are times in Britten’s opera when this contrast of tone seems out of place, but when he uses the approach two years later in the context of an out-and-out comedy, Albert Herring, the result is brilliantly successful.

The origin of the story is actually French, a short story by Guy de Maupassant entitled Le rosier de Madame Husson. But Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier (the original stage director of Peter Grimes) translated it to another East Anglian village, Loxford. Here, village society is ruled by an elderly autocrat, Lady Billows, who, with the aid of a committee consisting of the vicar, the schoolteacher, the mayor, and the superintendent of police, sees fit to pass judgment on the moral standards of the village. In the opening scene, the committee meet to select a May Queen as an exemplar of female virtue. However, when the nominees are checked against the information gathered by Lady Billows’ housekeeper, no suitably unblemished candidate can be found. In the end, the committee are forced to elect a May King: Albert Herring, who works in his mother’s vegetable shop and is described as “an inoffensive lad… a bit simple, of course, but…”. Albert turns out to be by no means simple, and if he is inoffensive it is because he is tied to his mother’s apron-strings, but all that will emerge later.

The committee report to Lady Billows;  scene
from Peabody Production, November 2002For the first half of the opera, the real force is Lady Billows and her committee. Here the authors take an important step beyond Peter Grimes in showing their townspeople not as neutral or malevolent, but actually trying to do good. This is a commentary, of course, on the British class system, where the upper classes typically use condescension or missionary zeal as means of reinforcing the social gulf between the objects of their patronage and themselves. But behind the brilliant comedy lies an uncomfortably realistic portrayal of the kind of well-meaning adults who could have made life unbearable for a young man just beginning to find out that he was different. The affectionate humor of Britten’s sketches is sharpened by the distinct trace of acid in his pen.

Though Albert Herring is more successful than Peter Grimes in its ability to take an overtly comic view of its minor characters, it has a more difficult time in portraying its protagonist and in rounding off his personal story. The penultimate scene of the earlier opera, with Grimes wandering half-demented on a fog-bound beach with the distant sounds of the manhunt echoing in his ears, fits perfectly into a tragedy. When he pushes his boat out to sea and scuttles it, one asks no more; the village has simply claimed its victim. Grimes’ own moments of transcendence have come earlier, when he faces out the rising storm with the unforgettable yearning of his aria “What harbour shelters peace?”, or in the extraordinary vision with which he silences the raucous crowd in the bar: “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades… are drawing up the clouds of human grief.” Such excursions into metaphysical poetry only intensify his character as it has been shown all along - as somebody different, not like the rest of us.

Albert tries to escape the embarrassment of 
making a speech at the May King ceremony; scene from Peabody Production, 
November 2002But Albert the grocer’s lad is not different; the whole reason he is chosen is because he is so ordinary. The only thing that is strange about him is that he does not pursue the pleasures of other young men – poaching a hare, drinking at the pub, making out with a girl – as his friend Sid is quick to point out. Sid even gives him an object lesson or two by his conspicuous attentions to his girlfriend Nancy, whose slightest smile seems to twist Albert into knots of embarrassment. Eventually, Sid and Nancy trigger Albert’s epiphany by liberally spiking his lemonade at the May King banquet, so that he rolls tipsily home, dimly aware for the first time of what he has been missing. There are times in this scene when we hear Crozier trying the heightened language that had worked so well with Peter Grimes; but it sounds odd coming from Albert’s lips. His words mean less than his actions: as Act II ends, we see him take his prize money and set out into the night.

Both operas end with a new day. In Peter Grimes, the fishermen come out and begin their work; someone may have seen a boat sinking out to sea, but nobody cares; there are sails to be mended and nets to be cleaned. The mask is now a perfect blank, showing no emotion whatsoever. In Act III of Albert Herring, the mood skeeters between high comedy and near tragedy. Daybreak comes to find Albert missing, and there is general consternation. His May crown is found in a ditch, and he is assumed to have been killed. But when Albert walks in at the height of his own wake, right as rain, he is immediately pelted by questions by the incensed committee: where was he, and what did he do?

These questions are never answered in so many words. For Crozier and Britten have a problem. In the magnificent threnody lamenting Albert’s death, they have come as close to tragedy as they dared. By the traditional rules of one-location comedy, Albert must be returned to the milieu from which he started – with a new self-confidence certainly, but his life in Loxford will continue. He has taken the first steps towards coming out as a person, but how can the authors show it? Even a half-detailed description of his adventures would reduce the importance of the occasion for Albert, and lessen the metaphorical resonance with Britten’s own story. So what Albert does, after a series of enigmatic headshakes and nods, is to launch into a tale of drunkenness so extreme that it can only be interpreted as a pack of lies intended to disgust his inquisitors and get them off his back once and for all. In effect, he too puts on a mask.

May we look behind it? Nine years ago, while preparing another production of Albert Herring, I wrote an article for this paper amassing evidence to indicate that Albert must have spent the night with a woman, presumably for money. But now I am not so sure; the question is left too much up in the air. Britten cannot say more without removing both Albert’s mask and his own, but to do so would reveal at once too much and too little. Whatever happened to Albert – a female encounter, a male one, or perhaps just a companionable evening in a bar –- it has done something important for him. It is up to us to draw our own conclusions, and to allow the opera to resonate in a way that is as personal to each of us as it clearly was to its composer.

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