Grimes, the excluded

Grimes, the excluded

Isolated in the community of fishermen in which he lives, Peter Grimes in Robert Carsen’s interpretation of the opera is a scapegoat whose story demonstrates how society behaves towards those deemed different


It is the other, the excluded, the marginalized, that Benjamin Britten addresses in his first theatrical masterpiece, Peter Grimes, which is set in a Europe that has been left shell-shocked by World War II. For Robert Carson, there is no doubt that Britten feels a connection with this “doomed” character, a solitary and violent fisherman who the Canadian director wants to love, or at least understand.


MP What is different about Grimes? Why does the entire village reject him?

RC The reason is not clear, but I believe that is the point. In the original poem The Borough, by George Crabbe, it is clear: Grimes is truly guilty of these crimes. But Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater modify the source text to the point that its logic is inapplicable to their opera. I am convinced that it was intentionally left unresolved. The villagers don’t understand Grimes, who in turn never tries to make himself understood any better. The more hostile they become, the more he closes himself off and the less he wants to do with them. In truth, it’s easy for a group of people to isolate whoever doesn’t fit in with them. Many operas examine this theme, like Verdi, Janáček, and of course Britten, whose work is often focused on someone who is different.


MP Are you referring to the composer’s own life? His sexuality?

RC Of course. At the time when Britten was working on Peter Grimes, in the US, this was a very difficult issue for him, unlike the experience of, for example, his friend at that time, poet Wystan Hugh Auden. But that’s not the only thing. British society didn’t make his life easy when he took his first steps as an artist, and what’s more is he exposed himself to strong criticism for his pacifist views during the war. In short, Britten wasn’t necessarily misunderstood, but he was definitely little understood, which could have pushed him towards a character like Grimes.


MP Grimes who, as you said, is not guilty in the opera.

RC He is not responsible for the death of his apprentice. But nor can we say with certainty that he is compassionate towards him: he forces him to work to the point of exhaustion and hits him, but he is not an assassin or a paedophile. Britten didn’t want to go in that direction. And yet, the villagers decide that they must fear Grimes, seeing as two boys died while working with him. In a certain sense, it’s not hard to see their perspective, but we must be very clear about his innocence.


MP But there is violence. Ellen finds a bruise on young John’s neck. A bruise caused by Grimes.

RC Grimes hits his apprentices when they do something. Since he struggles to express himself, his reactions are mainly physical. What I think about Grimes is that he was clearly treated the same way as a boy. We are always shocked when we discover that those who were abused when younger replicate that violence when they get older. And yet it happens often. How might we explain this urge to repeat it? Psychoanalysts say that we always go back to what we know, that we tend to recreate what we have been used to.


MP So, no changes.

RC A poem by Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse, comes to mind that discusses people who have been ruined by their parents. The first verse says, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and then, “But they were fucked up in their turn.”


MP During his time, Grimes goes from isolation to madness. Another 20th-century masterpiece comes to mind that you staged a few years ago at the Theatre an der Wien: Wozzeck by Alban Berg.

RC You could say that if Wozzeck had not existed, Britten perhaps wouldn’t have written Peter Grimes. But upon further reflection, Wozzeck’s relationship with others is different from that of Grimes. Wozzeck is mad – if we want to use that word – from the start. Peter Grimes only becomes so at the end. But the true drama of Grimes, I believe, is that he would really like to make things work. He would like to marry the teacher Ellen and be successful, only he convinces himself he can do so without realizing what he really does.


MP So, madness becomes the coveted “harbour” that “shelters peace”?

RC In a way, yes, even if to a certain extent Grimes thinks that peace lies in the respect he receives from others, which he is convinced he can gain only through success and money. But peace arrives only when he stops fighting. There is something universal in all this, not just for this isolated community of poor fishermen. We all want to be accepted. We all want to be liked by others and be part of a group. But unfortunately that isn’t always possible. Sometimes we feel misunderstood and rejected. If we think about the state of the world now, marginalization is becoming more and more prevalent: people don’t have time, they aren’t interested.


MP Two people who seem interested in Grimes however are Ellen and Balstrode.

RC Ellen immediately takes the side of Grimes and tries to help him. It’s a shock for her to discover that the second apprentice, John, has also died: it happened again, and, on top of that, she helped Grimes get the boy. In this opera, we continue to see people convinced of certain things that then inevitably don’t work. As for Balstrode, in this production, I consider him a businessman. All the fishermen work for him, do what is said in the song “Old Joe”: fish the fish, pull them in, gut them, pack them and sell them, all actions that you can see in the show. Balstrode pays the fishermen for their work, and this I believe justifies the fact that Grimes talks so much about money, because he can see how much his friend earns with his business. Therefore, Balstrode needs all the villagers to get along, otherwise his business deals would go bad. He doesn’t help Grimes out of Christian altruism but because he needs to work. It is a concept that Auntie, the pub owner, also expresses, when she says she must sell her drinks, and therefore, doesn’t want to take a side in the fighting.


MP In the end, Balstrode suggests that Grimes sail his boat far ashore and sink it. So, he pushes him to suicide. How would you explain that?

RC In that moment, he realizes that the crowd has reached such hatred for Grimes that they will surely lynch him. As paradoxical as it is, the only way out is to drown himself.


MP Let’s discuss the sea. What does it represent in this opera?

RC The sea is a difficult and unpredictable environment. I’m thinking about another beautiful marine opera about a community of fishermen, Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here too, like in Peter Grimes, the sea allows these people to earn their living, but it also forces them to grow accustomed to sudden loss and tragedy. The only way to get by is to know that you can’t do it alone: everyone in some way or another needs help. Grimes, however, is always alone. He doesn’t work with the others, and the others don’t work with him.


MP But the sea also has a metaphorical meaning?

RC There is something in this environment that recalls the natural elements like the climate, the waves, the wind, storms… We can say this corresponds to what happens inside Grimes, in his head and in his heart. That’s why I would like to avoid creating a show that is too narrative, because the action is already very narrative with all the characters that must be presented, until you find yourself alone with Grimes and his thoughts, and all the energy that moves the story is suddenly focused on one man, who, not to mention, sometimes expresses himself incomprehensibly. I am curious to see how the translation of the subtitles will come out. It is very difficult to translate something unclear. Usually, a translation tends to make sense of a text. But what if no sense can be made of it?


MP What should we expect from the staging?

RC The opera starts with a sort of inquest at the village hall, which we made a real courtroom that then transforms before everyone’s eyes, during the interludes, although it will remain recognizable, as if Grimes’ trial has never ended. There is a cyclical nature to the way society behaves towards those who are different: every day there is a new Peter Grimes to condemn.


Mattia Palma