Revenge is a dish best served cold: The Bourgeois/Proletariat battle in Sweeney Todd and its relation to Food Studies.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is exactly what the title describes. Benjamin Barker escapes from the island prison a Judge in London sends him to and comes back expecting to find his wife and daughter waiting for him- only to discover his wife had poisoned herself and his daughter has been taken as a ward to the Judge that condemned him in the first place. Barker denies his old name and begins going by an alias – Sweeney Todd – and promises revenge on the Judge that ruined his life. Sweeney vows that he will have “vengeance” and “salvation” on the Judge (Sweeney Todd). His new counterpart, Mrs. Lovett devises a clever and disturbing plan to take revenge not only on the Judge but on many others. After the discovery of this plan, the two burst out into song and begin to hatch their plan. During this song, and the entirety of the movie Sweeney Todd, there is an overlap between the devious plan, the pairs’ place in Marxism Studies and the overall relation to Food Studies, revealing some curious facts about Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd and many others in London and their internal desires.
Sweeney Todd returns to London as a low class proletariat, residing in his old home with the new owner, Mrs. Lovett, who owns a Meat Pie Emporium selling meat pies that are, in her own description, “The worst pies in London” (Sweeney Todd). Here is the first overlap between Marxism theory and Food Theory. Mrs. Lovett sells low quality food, which matches her own low class standing. Both Lovett and Todd reside on the oppressed side of the Marxist binary throughout the film, struggling to make ends meet. In the song A Little Priest, Todd says, “These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett, and desperate measures are called for” (Sweeney Todd). The pair live in a particularly Bourgeois culture, where the rich and those that own the work have all of the power. This fact is proven by the way the Judge was able to misuse his judicial power to send Sweeney to prison on an island off of London. The official crime Sweeney was charged with was “foolishness,” (Sweeney Todd) but in reality the Judge was able to put Sweeney away only in order to steal Sweeney’s wife and daughter. This misuse in power is shown again in the movie when the Judge is reigning in a court case and sentences a young boy to hang by the neck for a crime the Judge himself admits is not justified. There is a misuse of power throughout the Bourgeois culture that affects the lower class, like Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney comments on this hierarchy in the song A Little Priest by saying, “The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat” (Sweeney Todd).
The pair devise a plan to get revenge on the Judge, which is described in the musical number A Little Priest:
Lovett: “Seems an awful waste, such a nice, plump frame. Wot’s his name has, had, has, nor it can’t be traced! Business needs a lift, debts to be erased, think of it as thrift, as a gift. If you get my drift. Seems an awful waste, I mean, with the price of mean what it is… Lots of other gentlemen’ll soon be comin’ for a shave, won’t they? Think of all them pies!” (Sweeney Todd).
Their plan is to murder the men who come in to have their face shaven by Sweeney, who was in fact a barber before he was sent away by the Judge and to use them in Mrs. Lovett’s terrible meat pies. The song goes on to cleverly describe some of their potential conquests. The curious thing is that every potential victim they label in the song are male bourgeois with respectable careers within the Bourgeois culture. Those included are a Priest, Poet, Lawyer, Royal Marine, Squire, Vicar, Grocer, Fop, Shepard, Politician, Friar, Clergy, Actor, and of course, the epitome of murders, the Judge who put Sweeney in jail so long ago. The two make fun of each profession, saying for example:
Todd: “What is that?”
Lovett: “It’s priest, have a little priest.”
Todd: “Is it really good?
Lovett: “Sir, it’s too good, at least. Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh, so it’s pretty fresh.” (Sweeney Todd)
One interpretation of this plan and the song is that Todd and Lovett are simply trying to put the Bourgeois in their place. Though their focus is on the Judge, the pair place the blame on the entire Bourgeois population and take it upon themselves to get revenge on them for their own Proletariat status. As Sweeney says in their musical number, “How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below” (Sweeney Todd). As Terry Eagleton says in his article, Marxism and Literary Criticism, “Marxism… deliver[s] the story of the struggles of men and women to free themselves from certain forms of exploitation and oppression” (Eagleton xii). This argument portrays Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd as a type of martyr for the Proletariats, killing members of the Bourgeois for the greater good as well as for their own revenge. Sweeney feels that getting revenge on the Judge alone would not suffice, but that the entire Bourgeois population needed to be punished and gruesomely killed by his own hand.
However, there is another argument on this plan if one takes into account the claims made by Carina Garland in her article titled, Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender, and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts and Food Studies in general. Though she focuses on the texts by Lewis Carroll, her ideas regarding many theories of Food Studies are transferrable to Sweeney Todd. Garland discusses the idea of the ‘vagina dentata’, literally meaning “vagina with teeth”, which highlights the idea of sexual desire embedded within the topic of hunger and sexual satisfaction within the scope of eating (Garland 25). Though the meat pies in Mrs. Lovett’s shop may not elicit sexual desire, there is a strong connection between the idea of eating and internal desire presented. As mentioned before, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett take the bodies of many of the Bourgeois of London and bake them into meat pies and sell them to the public. What is curious about this is that before they sold Bourgeois-filled meat pies, Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Emporium was famed for having “The worst pies in London,” in fact she has an entire song devoted to describing how terrible they truly were, but after they began selling the Bourgeois pies, sales skyrocketed, so much in fact that the pair couldn’t keep up with the required production rate (Sweeney Todd). Why all of a sudden does everyone love eating Mrs. Lovett’s pies? And why did the Bourgeois meat taste so good? Garland says in her article, “Food is a very important element for reading desire and subjectivity” (Garland 25). In this scenario, Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies with their new ‘secret ingredient’ make all the difference with the London customers. Though it is not a sexual desire as Garland describes in her article, the customers have an internal desire shown through their appetite for the pies: the desire to be Bourgeois. By craving these pies filled with the meat of the Bourgeois, the customers reveal their internal desires as defined by Carina Garland. The customers do not know what they are eating, yet they have this craving to eat these pies, relating to their internal desire to be in the upper class instead of the Proletariat class.
In the end of the movie, Sweeney Todd does get his final revenge and brutally slays the Judge, only after revealing to him his true identity as Benjamin Barker, the man who he had put in jail so many years before. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the ultimate underdog story; Sweeney, after being oppressed by the Judge and other members of the Bourgeois culture gets his revenge on them all and in turn, the Bourgeois serve the Proletariat in the form of feeding the lower class’ appetites and their desires. The struggle between the Bourgeois and the Proletariat in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the Bourgeois culture they reside in, and the motivations for Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd’s ultimate plan for revenge can be summed up in one line from their song, A Little Priest: “It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here? (Sweeney Todd)
This essay was written my Junior year at NDSU for my Literary Analysis class with Dr. Adam Goldwyn. Sweeney Todd has been one of my favorite musicals for many years and ‘served’ as the perfect movie to analyze for my final essay.