A minor historical datum: A review by “D. C. B.” (Lady Dorothy Pratt) of the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, published in the June 20, 1945 issue of Punch:
The opera’s musical skill is praised on extravagantly English terms—”One can only liken its glittering exactness to that of a Pope or a Bryden, for Mr. BRITTEN chooses a sound as they would choose a word”—but the bulk of the review is given over to Lady Pratt’s disapproval of the subject matter and its treatment.
Mr. BRITTEN and his librettist, MONTAGU SLATER, are followers of the pseudo-Freudian school of psycho-analysts who lavish their affection on the pervert and for whom any sordid criminal is a hero. To win sympathy for him they have endowed Grimes with visions and aspirations and described him as suffering from “social maladjustment.” “Social fiddlesticks!” as the White King would have said….
No. Instead of trying to whitewash a Grimes, Mr. BRITTEN might have taken for his theme the wickedness of a system which allowed children from the workhouse to be sold to anyone who could pay for them, or hired out to work in factories until they died. This would, alas, have a topical interest, for similar evils exist in our own day.
If the insistence on clear, old-fashioned demarcations of right and wrong was characteristic of Punch, the pivot to a modicum of social consciousness was not. I love how palpably the contrast embodies the tension between the magazine’s essential conservatism and the overwhelming sense, as World War II reached its end, that society had to change, that there was no going back to the old ways of doing things. A month after Lady Pratt’s review appeared, British voters handed the reins of government to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, laying the cornerstone for the modern British welfare state. The result was a surprise at the time, but an inevitability in retrospect. Even the Tories whose worldview Punch distilled had to admit that the old world was gone. Arthur Bryant, the popular historian of past English glory, offered a stoical sigh: “We can’t return, even if we wanted to, to the social and economic framework of 1939,” he wrote, “for it no longer exists.”
The month after that, the war ended in two bursts of novel atomic fire. (Evidence of the era’s disorientation: Punch cartoons wrestling with the new atomic reality drawn by E. H. Shepard, better known as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh.) For all its musical ingenuity, the provincial setting and concerns of Peter Grimes feels far removed—perhaps deliberately so—from such global cataclysms. The opera was more commonly heard and seen as a postwar expression of renewed, essential Englishness: Britten’s realization of his national heritage, sparked by the war’s dislocation, but somehow parallel to, or even outside of it. Lady Pratt’s review, though, is a reminder that art—and the reaction to it—is never just about art.