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A Close Shave

The barber and the meaning of life.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Caryl Phillips
(Knopf, 235 pp., $24.95) 

Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author
By Edward John Trelawny
(New York Review Books, 308 pp., $12.95)


As Sweeney Todd croons to his razor, “My friend, my faithful friend,” more in love with its sharp blade than with Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, you may find yourself wondering what it is about opera and its ubiquitous vengeful barbers. It could even be said that the trickster barber, who unsettles the order of things, presides over the birth of the modern operatic tradition. Figaro, the cheerful factotum of the city in Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, seems a far cry from Alban Berg’s crazed Wozzeck and Sondheim’s bloodthirsty Sweeney Todd. It is one thing to shave one’s former master, as Figaro does, to keep him off the scent of a tryst under his roof; but it is quite another to butcher clients for meat pies until your real enemy, the judge who sent you to an Australian prison in order to seduce your wife, stops by for a shave.

If barbers, at least on stage, have become more barbarous with the times, it remains the interesting case that all these resourceful barbers are really in the business of settling perceived social wrongs. As Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd puts it with grisly (or gristly) irony: “How gratifying for once to know / That those above will serve those down below!” The barber’s domain established itself early on in the popular imagination as a place of friendly gossip and high-spirited music, as in the barbershop quartet. But it just as frequently has served as a stage for humiliation and other varieties of male trauma and un-angelic avenging.

A part of the reason is rather banal: the sheer discomfort of shaving. Byron compared the curse of the daily shave to the ordeal of childbirth, the biblical punishment for original sin. Women are “condemn’d to child-bed,” he proclaimed in Don Juan, “as men for their sins / Have shaving too entail’d upon their chins.” Not that the pain of each occasion was equal, he conceded, but the sheer frequency of shaving added up over time: “A daily plague, which in the aggregate / May average on the whole with parturition.” Byron shaved not only his beard, but his brow as well. “At twenty-five,” he told his friend and fellow adventurer Edward John Trelawny, “the hair grew too low on my brow, I shaved it, and now at thirty-five I am getting bald and bleached.”

But there is also the danger of entrusting oneself to an underling with a deadly weapon in his hand. Who else does society allow regularly to put knives at people’s throats? Cicero mentions a Roman general who taught his daughters to shave him, so as not to place himself in the hands of potential enemies. The scholar Eric Sundquist quotes Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Boston abolitionist who served as literary mentor to both Emily Dickinson and Emma Lazarus, speaking in a similar vein in 1858: “I have wondered in times past, when I have been so weak-minded as to submit my chin to the razor of a colored brother, as his sharp steel grazed my skin, at the patience of the negro shaving the white man for many years, yet [keeping] the razor outside of the throat.”

The African American writer Charles Chesnutt, in his story “The Doll” in 1912, picked up this fantasy from the black barber’s point of view: “One stroke of the keen blade, a deflection of half an inch in its course, and a murder would be avenged, an enemy destroyed!” The fear of blacks armed with razors seems to have struck deep in America, where the barber’s trade was among the few open to African Americans. Meanwhile, the plot of the barber tempted to slit his unsuspecting enemy’s throat migrated south, reappearing in the Colombian writer Hernando Téllez’s frequently anthologized story of civil strife “Lather and Nothing Else” and (slightly modified) in Gabriel García Márquez’s “One of These Days.”

The double-edged experience of getting a shave, combining comfortable intimacy and dire peril, is perfectly captured in the famous shaving scene in Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, first published in the anti-slavery magazine Putnam’s in 1855. Captain Amasa Delano of Duxbury, returning from Canton aboard the sealer The Bachelor’s Delight in 1799, has encountered the grim relic of a Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, in the harbor of a “small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili.” Captain Delano boards the Spanish ship and hears a tale of woe--disastrous gales followed by equally disastrous calms--unaware, such is his innocence, that a slave mutiny is the real cause of the travails aboard the San Dominick. Puzzled by certain seemingly incompatible details, Delano begins to question the forlorn Spanish captain Benito Cereno, but is interrupted by Cereno’s diminutive black manservant, Babo, who announces that it is shaving time: “Why not let Don Amasa sit by master in the cuddy, and master can talk, and Don Amasa can listen, while Babo here lathers and strops.”

The not-so-cuddly cuddy is a cabin on deck outfitted with objects reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition: a “thumbed missal,” a “dented cutlass or two,” and “two long sharp-ribbed settees of Malacca cane, black with age, and uncomfortable to look at as inquisitors’ racks, with a large, misshapen arm-chair, which, furnished with a rude barber’s crutch at the back, working with a screw, seemed some grotesque Middle Age engine of torment.” Despite these sinister furnishings, Captain Delano is lulled by the apparent intimacy of master and man:

There is something in the negro which,

in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations

about one’s person. Most negroes

are natural valets and hair-dressers;

taking to the comb and brush congenially

as to the castanets, and flourishing

them apparently with almost equal

satisfaction. . . . And above all is the

great gift of good-humor. Not the mere

grin or laugh is here meant. Those were

unsuitable. But a certain easy cheerfulness,

harmonious in every glance

and gesture; as though God had set the

whole negro to some pleasant tune.

Delano imagines himself at the theater, observing the “play of the barber” on the stage of the ship. In an interesting article titled “Staging Revolution in Melville’s Benito Cereno: Babo, Figaro, and the ‘Play of the Barber,’ ” Jennifer Jordan Baker argues that Melville, a great enthusiast of opera, is explicitly evoking Figaro in the scene.

This harmonious idyll is interrupted by a slip of the razor, as blood drips onto the Spanish flag that Babo uses to catch the lather. But a slip of the pen interrupts the scene as well, as Captain Delano muses on how “those hypochondriacs, Johnson and Byron--it may be, something like the hypochondriac, Benito Cereno--took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher.” Though not quite a servant to Samuel Johnson, Francis Barber was indeed black, but Byron’s longtime valet, William Fletcher, was white.

Writers make mistakes, of course. Keats thought that Cortés discovered the Pacific. Saul Bellow thought that Stanford White designed the Ansonia Building. Melville himself, as befuddled as poor Benito Cereno, once or twice in Moby-Dick mentioned that the Pequod circled Cape Horn on its voyage to the Pacific, when in fact Ahab took the eastern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In Benito Cereno, a taut novella in which Melville tried to get so many details right, why did he get the little detail about Byron’s servant wrong? What was it about the figure of the vengeful barber in particular that elicited such confusion?


At the time of Byron’s death in Greece in 1824, there was a black man in his entourage, but his name was not Fletcher and he was not a manservant. He was a groom named Benjamin Lewis. According to Fiona MacCarthy, in Byron: Life and Legend, Lewis “spoke some French and Italian; cookery and horses were his special areas of expertise.” When Byron summoned Trelawny to Genoa in the summer of 1823, amid preparations to take part in the Greek war of independence, Trelawny traveled across Italy on horseback to meet him. “Forwarding my traps to Leghorn,” he wrote in his Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, “I was soon on the road to Genoa. My sailor-groom had returned to his family, and I engaged an American-born negro to fill his place.”

Trelawny seems to have cared more for his horses than for Lewis, whom he never mentions by name. Byron, by contrast, was impressed with Lewis. He was concerned about how his own Italian servants might respond if he were wounded in Greece. “My Italians have never lost sight of their homes before, they are men to look at, but of no use under any emergency,” he told Trelawny, “your negro is worth them all.” To which Trelawny responded: “But you have your ancient page, Fletcher.” Byron: “He is the worst of them, grunting and grumbling all the morning, and fuddled at night.”

Trelawny records that Byron, during the voyage to Italy, “persuaded me to let him have my black servant, as, in the East, it is a mark of dignity to have a negro in your establishment. He likewise coveted a green embroidered military jacket of mine; which, as it was too small for me, I gave him; so I added considerably to his dignity.” It is interesting that Trelawny considers Lewis mere décor for enhancing Byron’s “dignity,” comparable to the green military jacket; and yet it was Lewis’s competence, specifically in times of danger, that Byron mentioned. Lord Byron shaved for the last time on April 13, 1824, as he was dying of a fever in Missolonghi. Fletcher gave a detailed report of his master’s last days to Trelawny. For the entry of April 13, he dictated the following: “His usual purgatives, with pain in his stomach; got up late and shaved.”

So, did Melville confuse Benjamin Lewis with William Fletcher? It seems possible that he did. He may also have been familiar with Shelley’s description of Fletcher: “like a shadow he waxed & waned with the substance of his master.” In a passage from the end of Benito Cereno that served as the epigraph to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Melville describes Babo as Benito Cereno’s shadow: “ ‘You are saved,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?’ ” Ellison did not include Benito Cereno’s answer: “The negro.”

Fletcher’s name may also have occurred to Melville as a complement to Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s manservant. “Barber and Fletcher” sounds a bit like “Beaumont and Fletcher,” the team of Elizabethan playwrights. (Beaumont’s first name happened to be Francis as well.) If it was Barber that suggested Fletcher, however, we may wonder why Melville was thinking of Francis Barber in the first place. If we imagine him blocking out the shaving scene in Benito Cereno--the morose master submitting his neck and chin to his barbarous barber, Babo--we might ask instead how Melville could have avoided thinking of Francis Barber, the most famous black servant in British literary history and, coincidentally, named Barber.

In Walter Jackson Bate’s great life of Samuel Johnson, Francis Barber figures as a sort of afterthought in Dr. Johnson’s household. Having listed the various figures in Johnson’s “makeshift family” in 1756--Miss Williams, a Scottish maid, a cook, “possibly the roughly silent apothecary Mr. Levet,” and so on--Bate gets around to Barber:

Finally there was Francis Barber, a black

youth of twelve or thirteen, who as a

child had been brought to England from

Jamaica (1750) by Colonel Bathurst, the

father of Johnson’s close friend Richard

Bathurst. Colonel Bathurst, who hated

slavery, had in effect given Frank Barber

his freedom when they left Jamaica (he

had obviously brought the child to England

only because he was an orphan),

and in his will (1756) reasserted this lest

Barber have trouble in the future. After

sending him to a school, which Frank

disliked, Colonel Bathurst asked his son

Richard to take over responsibility.

Richard Bathurst, having troubles of his own, “transferred Frank (now about ten) to Johnson,” with the idea that Barber might ease Johnson’s loneliness and serve as his valet. Johnson had little use for servants, however--“the mere idea of a personal servant for Johnson was laughable,” Bate remarks. It is unlikely that Barber ever shaved Johnson. Instead, Johnson treated Barber as an adopted son, sending him back to school and arranging an apprenticeship with an apothecary. In July 1758, Barber ran away to sea and joined the navy, where he served aboard the Stag (a name oddly like the Bachelor’s Delight) for two years before Johnson, pulling strings in high places, bailed him out, apparently against Barber’s will.

Barber returned to Johnson’s household, and eventually married a white Englishwoman. In his will, Johnson, to the shock and dismay of his solicitor, John Hawkins, made Francis Barber his principal beneficiary. Hawkins’s own biography of Johnson is particularly hostile to Barber and his wife, Elizabeth, reporting that Barber “picked up one of those creatures with whom, in the disposal of themselves, no contrariety of color is an obstacle.” Johnson welcomed Elizabeth into his household, however, while advising Barber to curb his jealousy over his “eminently pretty wife.”

Caryl Phillips develops this Othello aspect of Francis Barber’s character in “Doctor Johnson’s Watch,” the first of the three stories of black men in England that constitute Foreigners, a deft fusion of documentary research and imaginative reconstruction that also includes portraits of the boxer Randolph Turpin and the Nigerian stowaway David Oluwale. As in Flaubert’s Trois Contes, presumably a structural model for Phillips, the first story in Foreigners is about a servant. In an extended scene, Johnson chides Barber for angrily leaving a party where servants have flirted with his wife: “Then will you go back and fetch your wife instead of abandoning her like some woman of the night? Will you be a man and protector for the woman that you stood up for in church, the woman that you professed your love and affection for?” “Doctor Johnson’s Watch” is told from the point of view of a friend of Johnson’s who is researching an article about Francis Barber for the Gentleman’s Magazine, and wishes to return Johnson’s watch, sold by Barber to a pawnbroker, to its rightful owner.

Racial alienation and squandered liberty are the principal themes of Phillips’s poignant tale. Francis Barber, financially dependent on Johnson’s largesse, sinks into poverty and domestic disarray after his master’s death. The narrator visits the chaotic household of Barber’s wife, and learns that Barber himself is gravely ill.When he locates “Johnson’s disheveled negro” in a workhouse infirmary, Barber, a human wreck, has this to say:

Perhaps … I would have been better

served committing to a life at sea, or returning

to my native Jamaica. Perhaps

it would have been more profitable for

me to have established for myself the

limits of my abilities rather than having

them blurred by kindness, dependence,

and my own indolence. And when presented

with real liberty. . . . Well, look

upon me, sir. Look liberty in the face.

What see you?

In Phillips’s treatment, Francis Barber, former slave and sailor in His Majesty’s Navy, is depicted as an Othello figure--jealous, alienated, and alone--but without the tragic grandeur.


Inevitably, we read the great works of the past through the distorting lens of our own historical moment. “In our own time of terror and torture,” Andrew Delbanco writes in his recent biography of Melville, “Benito Cereno has emerged as the most salient of Melville’s works: a tale of desperate men in the grip of a vengeful fury that those whom they hate cannot begin to understand.” For Robert Lowell, who was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to write something for the American stage, Benito Cereno--“already almost more opera than novel, the big scenes, the shrouded master, the shaving”--seemed the perfect expression of civil rights unrest. “For a year or so,” he wrote in August 1961, “I’ve had a vague idea of making an opera libretto out of Melville’s Benito Cereno.” A few years earlier, in London, Lowell had been entranced with opera, having attended a performance of Wozzeck, among other works. The prominence that Lowell gives the shaving scene in his dramatization of Benito Cereno may reflect his response to Berg’s opera, with its opening scene in which the underling Wozzeck shaves his abusive superior officer.

Lowell felt he had to do something about Melville’s racist portrayal of Babo and the other rebel slaves. “How can we handle the whole plot so as not to make it rather shockingly anti-Negro?” he wrote his collaborator, the poet William Meredith, in March 1960. “What I’d hope for would be something neutral, rather [like] what’s happening now, wrong blazing into a holocaust, no one innocent.” Lowell’s main intervention was to give Babo a stronger voice:

Do you see this whip? When Don

Aranda was out of temper,

he used to snap pieces of flesh off us

with it.

Now I hold the whip.

When I snap it, Don Benito jumps!

Se vuol ballare, as Figaro says: “If you

want to dance, dear Count, I’ll play my

little guitar.”

Where do our sympathies lie in a world where no one is innocent? However clever or monstrous their revenge, it is as victims that we first encounter Figaro, Babo, and the rest: enslaved, wrongly imprisoned, their women treated as prostitutes or subjected to the droit du seigneur. Sweeney Todd must be considered a very late addition to this tradition of vengeful barbers; and Sondheim and the film director Tim Burton seem mindful of the echoes. When Todd’s rival barber, Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), uses an Italian flag as a barber’s sheet, just as Babo uses the Spanish flag, it may be as deliberate an allusion to Benito Cereno as the film’s ending, with Sweeney Todd’s daughter disguised as a boy and concealed in a box, is to Rigoletto.

Do these motley figures have more in common than servility and an occasional shave? (“Everybody shaves,” as Mrs. Lovett helpfully reminds us.) I am struck by how many of them--Babo, Francis Barber, Sweeney Todd, even Byron’s servants--are associated with travel and the sea. They come from afar and are, in their different ways, men of the world, cosmopolitans and “foreigners,” men who are careless with national flags and see beyond national boundaries. The domain of the barber emerges as a kind of liminal zone, a meeting place of wanderers and outcasts, where upper and lower classes mingle, with consequences comic or disastrous.

I am reminded in this regard of Catherine Clément’s suggestive chapter “Madmen, Negroes, Jesters, or the Heroes of Deception,” in her book Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Clément notes the conservative nature of opera, with its plots, like Shakespeare’s, based on the rupture and then the re-establishment of social order. The rupture is often caused by characters, such as Othello and the hunchback Rigoletto, who are “excluded, marked by some initial strangeness.” Such “betrayed, wounded men”, Clément argues, create a temporary counter-society. While not exactly heroes--they are too damaged, too vindictive, for that--“These beings set free, give birth, and wander. Without them the limits of the world would always be the same. With them horizons move.”

But opera, comic or tragic, cannot tolerate for long such expanded horizons: “On the opera stage they are doomed to be defeated … because the world represented there cannot put up with any social transgression.” Still, according to Clément, these hunchbacks and jesters, black men and madmen, may be considered, in their broken way, as harbingers of a wider world to come:

The fathers, the kings, those holding

symbolic power tremble before them.

Even if it means losing everything,

these characters defy the supreme command

and hold all authorities up to ridicule.

They bring rebellion; they are

revolutionaries in body and flesh; they

are undefined and hazy beings, the

seeds of the future.

Babo, silent at the close of Melville’s novella, is given a final speech by Lowell: “Yankee Master misunderstand me. The future is with us.”

Clément’s formula is perhaps a little too pat, and her conclusion a little too optimistic, with its blithely utopian (and operatic) welcoming of revolution in “body and flesh.” But if she is right, or even partly right, about the course of civilization in our post-colonial age, we may hope that the barbers of the future, to whom we entrust our vulnerable necks, are more like Figaro, the sweet-tempered reformer, than like Sweeney Todd, the Robespierre of Fleet Street.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His new book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, will be published this spring by the Penguin Press. This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.