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the turn of the screw

21 march 2017

The Turn of the Screw is best read all at once in a deserted house at night.

Read in installments in broad daylight over the better part of a week, The Turn of the Screw shows its seams – but then, good ghost stories have always been a triumph of artifice over realism. Henry James starts with a Gothic situation: a governess on the isolated estate of Bly with two precious children to look after. He introduces two ghosts who are bent on somehow bringing the children over to the dark side. For good measure, one of the ghosts is the shade of the last governess, who met a sticky and unspecified end. Worse yet, the children are not as innocent as they might be, and in fact are a damn sight creepier than the ghosts.

The children Miles and Flora, and the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel, conspire to keep secrets from the governess. These secrets are James's MacGuffins: we never learn what they are, and it doesn't matter that we don't. Yet they're not entirely contentless. They have something to do with vice – theft is a minor theme in the story – but more to do with sexuality, and a disproportionate amount, for a 21st-century reader, with social class. Governesses, however impoverished, are ladies, and their charges by definition little ladies and gentlemen. But Peter Quint was a valet at Bly, and a notably common one at that. He couldn't have been further from a gentleman.

Quint's lowness is the engine of the horror story. Not that genteel secretive ghosts would be a day at the beach for an isolated governess, but that his lack of gentility guarantees all sorts of evils that only have to be indistinctly imagined to be shudderworthy. One's mind ranges from pedophilia to not dressing for dinner, and in the world of Henry James, I'm not sure which was worse.

Wikipedia will tell you baldly that Quint and Jessel "had a sexual relationship." But of course Henry James, his frame narrator, his frame narrator's sub-narrator Douglas, and the unnamed governess would never say that much directly. In the cryptic, climactic conversation the governess seems to learn from Miles that he'd acquired a precocious understanding of something or other from Quint and Jessel, which led to his being bounced from his boarding school.

Even assuming that Miles's knowledge is sexual, everybody seems to be overreacting. I am quite sure that far worse than smutty conversation went on nightly at your typical Victorian boarding school. As readers have noted, the energy in the story comes not so much with the intrinsic horror of Miles's situation as from the governess's panic over it. Critics wonder whether the governess simply imagines the whole dilemma. But it doesn't really matter. The ghosts are relatively harmless. They don't seem capable of physically molesting anybody, even if their habit of looking in through windows can scare you to death. Their function in the story is to catalyze fears that the governess has brought to Bly with her.

As I said, on paper sometimes The Turn of the Screw works and sometimes it doesn't. You either get caught up in the governess's escalating concerns, or you find the whole thing over-the-top from the word go. On stage and screen, however, The Turn of the Screw works far better than you'd think. Adaptors have to flesh out James's action, which is too allusive for good drama.

Last weekend in Dallas, I saw Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera, with libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Britten and Piper use six characters: the children, the ghosts, the governess, and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper whose functions are to fail to confirm the ghost-sightings, and to provide frustratingly little exposition. Their main innovation is to develop singing parts for Quint and Jessel, who are silent in James's story. This means that Quint and Jessel have to be forthcoming about their motivations, if not about the details of their backstory. They sing of their despair and their desire to take the children down with them; they sing a duet of mutual reproach. This removes some of the choose-your-own-terrors aspects of reading the story, but provides some satisfying operatic moments. At the end – before dropping dead – Miles repudiates Quint, yelling "Peter Quint – you devil!" at the vulgar ghost. This is nicely dramatic as well, though unJamesian. In the book, Miles cries out the same words, but it's not entirely clear whether he's addressing Quint, or the governess herself.

The Turn of the Screw is not a melodic opera, but it is simple and direct. Britten uses a small orchestra – two violins and one of each of about 14 different instruments, depending on how you count – and highlights each of the players at least once. Conductor Nicole Paiement got eerie effects from her musicians. Emma Bell as the Governess and Michael Burden as Quint were fine, clear singers. But the star of the show was an inventive set design by Paul Brown. A pair of not-quite concentric circular tracks revolved to bring set units on and off stage (turning like screws, one imagines), and a massive glass panel stood for elements of the house and grounds of Bly – at one point requiring Alexandra LoBianco as Miss Jessel to ooch her way underneath the dangling wall of glass and play at being a damned spirit in a lake. Nothing like the fear of being crushed to elicit the utmost in anguish from your second soprano.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. 1898. iBooks.