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Dating Sweeney Todd

I saw you! You’re thinking about Tinder, and Bumble, and swiping left or right. I am far more pure-minded than that! Have you never wondered when, exactly, Sweeney Todd the barber met the worthy Mrs. Lovett at her famous pie shop? I audited a class at Portland State University wherein I delved into this very issue. The background of the musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street pretty well tells us, and also gives us a survey of some of the background of the early Victorian period.

Benjamin Barker, later Sweeney Todd, was sentenced after the reform of the “Bloody Code“. This was a series of laws in England, Wales and Ireland in the 18th and early 19th centuries which mandated the death penalty for a wide range of crimes. There were 220 categories of offences that merited hanging. The list of them took 49 pages to describe. Grand larceny, one of them, was defined as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, which (depending on how you calculate) may have amounted to as much as $10 in modern money. You remember how in Les Miserables Jean Valjean spends twenty years imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread? It was like that, penalties so ridiculously draconian that juries would often refuse to convict. If Benjamin Barker had been sentenced during the Bloody Code he would be hanged immediately, and we would have no Broadway musical.

But in 1823 the Judgement of Death Act made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. With the death penalty more rare, penal transportation with indentured servitude became a more common punishment. One-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867 were sent to Australia — a stringent sentence for petty crime but better than the gibbet, right? We aren’t told in the musical what crime Sweeney was railroaded for, but it couldn’t have been a major one, since it’s not named.

Punishment by transportation lasted for 150 years, ending in 1853. If you were convicted and transported, the authorities in the home country looked to never see you again. Australia was thinly populated (by white people, at least — no one was counting Aboriginals), and needed settlers. Once transported to Botany Bay or Van Diemen’s Land, if you kept your nose clean and were industrious you might apply for a ‘ticket of leave’ in due course. This gave you permission to return to Britain. We learn early in the musical that Sweeney Todd didn’t do this. Instead he stowed away on some other ship, was wrecked, and rescued by Anthony the sailor. Sweeny is vehemently insistent that he can no longer be called Benjamin Barker, and no wonder — if he’s discovered he’d be shipped back.

So the action of the musical must be set between 1823, when the Bloody Code quit being applied, and 1853, when penal transportation was replaced by prison sentences. Can we whittle it down even further? Well, remember that Mrs. Lovett tells us times were hard — the price of meat what it is, when you get it!

In 1839 there was a serious slump in trade, accompanied by a bad harvest. The inevitable result was unemployment. The downturn was made worse by the fact that the Corn Laws kept the price of grain artificially high. In 1845 the potato blight hit Ireland, ruining a large part of the crop. There was famine in 1846, and in 1847 the famines set off a bank panic that tanked more than 450 businesses by December 1848. Without modern protections like insurance or the FDLIC, when your bank failed all your money was gone, kaput. The decade became known as the Hungry Forties.

So Sweeney Todd is clearly set in the hungry 1840s, when times were so hard that popping pussies into pies was seriously to be considered. The source material for the musical was a serial in one of the decade’s penny dreadful publications. The thriller ‘The String of Pearls’ was serialized in 1846–1847. If we allow, as good speculative-fiction writers must, that this magazine serial had to be written about the actual events, this would set the period of Sweeney Todd the musical before the publication of the serial, between 1840 and 1845. Since Benjamin Barker spent ten years in Australia, he was convicted and transported sometime in the first half of the 1830s. This would make his daughter Joanna a very young woman in the latter half of the 1840s, perhaps in her late teens.

Only after I worked all this out was I informed that in the original production, the one starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, a stage placard informs the audience that the date of the action is 1846! So the creators of the show were ahead of me on this!



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