Women in Postwar Britten

Britten on Aldeburgh beach, 1959 (Britten-Pears Foundation)

At Utrecht University last week I delivered the latest version of a developing paper on Britten’s presentation of women in his postwar operas Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. It forms part of a larger Britten project that is detailed elsewhere on this blog (see the archive).

Drawing on the music-analytical findings of earlier work (see here and here) and Žižek’s exploration of Lacan’s apothegm that ‘there is no sexual relationship’, frequently restated in Žižek’s writing on opera and elsewhere, I interrogate the female figures in Grimes and Lucretia in terms both of Britten’s reflexion of prevailing ideology and of its revelatory force in our own situation.

In the 1940s, when these operas were being written, women in Britain were responding to a reinscription of gender roles after the experience of entering the civilian and military workforce in the war years. It was a period when, to live up to his current scholarly reputation as champion of the underdog, we might expect Britten to take the woman’s side and present fully individualized and existentially free female characters on stage. But the evidence of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia is unsettling. He seems to be willing to take the underdog’s side only when the underdog is a man.

In Grimes, women’s subjecthood is constituted by the Borough as an objet a, the unattainable object-cause of desire (Stephen Ross’s ‘Very Brief Introduction to Lacan’ is a good place to go for short definitions of Lacanian terms such as objet a). Specifically, women are constituted as sexual objects for the (unattainable) fulfilment of male desire. The ‘nieces’ in the Boar, an inn that provides the respectable façade for a brothel, are only the most obvious cases of this. Mrs Sedley, the local busybody who discovers Grimes’s maltreatment of his latest boy apprentice, rebuffs the sexual advances of Ned Keene and is presented, both for that and because she’s addicted to laudanum and doesn’t like drink, as a fool. Yet she’s a structural necessity to the ideology of the Borough insofar as she presents the ludicrous obverse of the ‘normal’,objet a, role of women. Having ‘fools’ like Mrs Sedley around reassures the Borough that it’s quite right to treat women normally as sex objects: anything else, logically, would be daft (like Mrs Sedley).

Grimes treats the principal female character, Ellen Orford, in a rather different way, as a symbol of his salvation from the Borough’s relentless accusations against him. She is the route into a happy, settled life, a socially sanctioned function that Grimes can simply slot himself into – what Lacan would call a full phallic presence, the big Greek letter Phi, which in this case is a Disneyfied view of the happily married life that sorts out all of life’s problems and makes an individual ‘complete’ through union with another. In the end, though, when it’s clear that even life with Ellen can’t save him from Borough gossip (not least because he appears to have beaten his apprentice again), he rejects the idea both that this big Phi (the vision of a happy marriage) or the Borough can have any hold over the his subjecthood by restricting him to a set of culturally determined labels (husband? father? lunatic?). He kills himself, achieving in his tragic end the therapeutic outcome of denying the authority of the big Other, the Master who is presumed to know (again, see here for an unpicking of these terms).

In Lacanian terms, Grimes is a ‘woman’. That’s because he doesn’t treat others as a route to fulfilment of his desire (objet a) but instead views them as ‘the big Phi’, the vision of a situation that will resolve all of life’s problems, and then rejects the authority both of that vision and of the others that seem to know what is the right way to live a life. There’s actually nothing gender-specific about Lacan’s use of these terms, and any man or woman (in the ordinary sense) can be a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ psychoanalytically. But what’s interesting is that Britten presents Grimes sympathetically in this way psychoanalytically. It’s not a privilege he extends to women (in the ordinary sense) in his other operas.

The Rape of Lucretia takes a radically different view of its protagonist. Lucretia’s sexual purity is the status she is forced to choose by Roman society. When she loses it through her rape she cannot self-define as a chaste woman. Had Britten treated her the same way as Grimes, he would have her deny the authority of the big Other that defines her as chaste woman. Instead, he presents everything about her, musically and dramatically, in such a way as to reinforce her symbolic mandate. The ‘stain’ on her sexuality, caused by the rape and signified in the opera by an obsessive focus on the note B (particularly ‘staining’ when left unresolved in pure, innocent, C-major contexts), is, like Mrs Sedley’s refusal to play the role of a sexual objet a in Grimes, the external limit to the idea of chastity. Lucretia comes to focus on it as an objet a in turn: she conceives of the ideal of chastity – which is of course imposed on her by the patriarchal superstructure – as the cause of her own desire as an individual, and since she has lost it, through rape, she can conceive of nothing but to kill herself. In this way, Lucretia upholds the symbolic network that leads to her own subjugation. The outcome may be the same for both Grimes and Lucretia, who both die, but one dies free, the other enslaved to a gender role.

As well as the basic Britten sources, I refer to the following items in the paper.


  • Allport, Alan. Demobbed: Coming Home After World War Two. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Farrelly, Colin. ‘Hypatia Paper on Patriarchy and Historical Materialism.’ January 2010. http: //colinfarrelly.blogspot.com/2010/01/hypatia-paper-on-patriarchy-and.html (accessed 2010).
  • Kahn, Coppélia. ‘The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece.’ Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 45–72.
  • Langlands, Rebecca. Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009.
  • ——— . ‘“There is No Sexual Relationship”: Wagner as Lacanian.’ New German Critique 69 (1996): 7–35. doi:10.2307/488606.
  • ——— . The Indivisible Remainder: an Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. London and New York: Verso, 1996.

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