Yesterday, Robert Mack, the editor of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, wrote about cannibalism. Today Mack questions who the author of Sweeney Todd was. This post first appeared on Powell‘s.
If you ask that question today, the answer you’re most likely to receive is ‘Stephen Sondheim’. That’s not so surprising, since Sondheim’s musical version of the story, first staged in 1979, and now about to hit movie theatres in a Tim Burton-directed film version, has done most to popularize the legend in modern times. In fact no one knows who wrote the original story on which the Sondheim ‘musical thriller’ – and every other stage and screen adaptation – is ultimately based.
The story first appeared in the pages of an English journal, The People’s Periodical and Family Library, where it ran in eighteen installments from November 21, 1846 to March 20, 1847. It wasn’t even called Sweeney Todd, but The String of Pearls, referring to a necklace whose disappearance eventually leads to Todd’s exposure. The newspaper was published by Edward Lloyd, who employed a regular stable of journalists to write for it; it was not uncommon for one writer to begin a story, and then to have the material passed on to another member of the team for continuation, expansion, or completion (a kind of serial version of the collaborative script writing that goes on today for TV shows, or the polishing up of film scripts).
For many years the story was attributed to the prolific Thomas Peckett Prest, although he was said to have taken it up after the failing eyesight or generally poor health of its originating author, George Macfarren, prevented him from working on it further (which would explain why several narrative strands begun in the earliest chapters of the novel are completely disregarded in the subsequent pages). But the story is really not of a piece with Thomas Prest’s other pot-boiler work, and it is far more likely to have been the work of James Malcolm Rymer, whose work was eventually to attract the favorable attention of Robert Louis Stevenson. To this day the original novel is also sometimes credited to Edward Lloyd, on the strength of its origination in his newspaper, though its real origins lie much deeper: the underlying, cannibalistic obsessions of the Sweeney ‘myth’ can be traced back to sources as early as Homer’s Odyssey and are to be found everywhere in traditional fairy tales and folk narratives, for example ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and there are more literary forebears in the form of Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, one of many ‘criminal biographies’, and in the pamphlets detailing the lives, trials, confessions, and last days of prisoners at Newgate. But the single author whose influence is most evident, is Charles Dickens…