Billy Budd

Billy Budd was left incomplete at Melville’s death, and is subject to textual issues far more complex than the ones around A Clockwork Orange.  I won’t attempt to do them justice here.  The version of the text most commonly read today was prepared by Harrison Hayford and Merton Sealts, Jr., and first published in 1962.  However, many of the adaptations that we will be looking at derive from earlier reconstructions of the text.  One signal difference is the name of the ship: it is generally referred to as Indomitable in the earlier editions, but the 1962 edition has it as Bellipotent, which seems to have been Melville’s final intention.


There have been a number of TV performances of the Britten opera.  Here is the BBC production from 1966:

Here is the English National Opera performance from 1988:

There is also a performance that was broadcast on PBS in 1998, but it is not available in any easily accessible format as far as I can tell.


There are assorted other clips of Britten performances online.  Here is a clip of a German performance from 2007:

Here is a promo video for an audio recording of the opera that was released by EMI Classics in 2008:


Besides the Britten, there was a 1949 opera adaptation by Giorgio Ghedini, which received relatively little acclaim.  The score is available at NYPL.  I have not been able to locate any recordings of this opera.


Ustinov’s 1962 film adaptation was based on a 1949 play by Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman, which was published under the title Billy Budd, a play in three acts.  It is available at NYPL.  The play was originally shown on Broadway.  Here is a photo that shows a large part of the set:

Here is a scan of the playbill:


The 1962 film is available on YouTube, unfortunately with poorly-formatted Spanish subtitles:–exls

The trailer has a really enthusiastic narrator, and just about tells the whole story:


“General Motors Theatre”, aka “Encounter”, presented a live TV telecast of Billy Budd in 1955, starring William Shatner.  I wish I could have found a full copy of this.  A recording must exist somewhere, because there is a 7-minute clip of it online:


Beau Travail is a 1999 film by the French director Claire Denis, which retells the story in modern-day Djibouti, with characters in the French Foreign Legion.  It emphasizes the homoerotic aspects of the story.  The GC library doesn’t have it, but most of the other libraries in the area do.

6 thoughts on “Billy Budd

  1. The clip that Jeff posted of the 1955 Billy Budd with William Shatner is hilarious- why can’t Shatner speak with a British accent? The bleached hair and eyebrows are also quite overdone and unnatural looking on Shatner, although this was an attempt to portray Billy as in Melville’s work. Melville tends to have heavy descriptions of bodies- coloring, details, mannerisms, etc. With Billy and Claggart, it became apparent that they were opposites, with Billy’s tanned skin compared to Claggart’s paler skin, unlike any of the other sailors. Billy is a source of light and innocence. For example, when Dansker tells BIlly that Jemmy Legs (Claggart) is down on him, Melville writes, “‘Jemmy Legs!’ ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expanding; ‘what for? Why, he calls me the sweet and pleasant young fellow, they tell me'” (pg. 251 in Wordsworth Classics edition.) This “welkin,” or sky-like, heaven-like eyes are a symbol of innocence and goodness in Billy. I suppose Shatner was also trying to replicate this goodness with his higher-pitched voice, because that was definitely not Captain Kirk’s voice.

    I also want to remark that Claggart looked much more intimidating in the Ustinov and Britten versions of Billy Budd (even with his pilgrim-hat in the Ustinov.) Shatner’s performance seems comical, but I actually think that the Ustinov and Britten portrayals of Budd were well-done. I think they both flesh-out Billy’s character, since we actually don’t get a lot of dialogue with Billy in Melville’s story- or if we do, maybe it isn’t the same as visually seeing the facial expressions and hearing the intonation of voice in the film versions. Sound is particularly important in the opera, which I will go into a bit during my presentation on Budd. Furthermore, I sometimes felt that Billy was too much of a symbolic image in Melville’s, and not enough of a real person. I think that certain scenes in the Ustinov version, such as Billy trying to save Jenkins from falling, and the midnight scene with Claggart, actually worked well in creating a more dynamic character in Billy. Although the scenes can certainly come off as dramatic, I think that they help us understand Claggart’s motives and Billy’s innocence. Both the opera and the film focus on Claggart’s inner turmoil, attempting to explain why Claggart is irrationally hateful of Billy and this is also an interesting point of discussion since it is never blatantly stated. Each adaptation tries to explain it in its own way.

    One last note I wanted to point out is that Billy can certainly be read through a disability studies lens- the words that Melville uses to describe his stutter and spasms certainly indicate an uncontrollable body, one that ultimately separates and leads to Billy’s removal from society. This line in particular struck me, and comes after Vere tells Billy to take his time as he defends himself against Claggart’s accusation: “Contrary to the effect intended, these words, so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy’s heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance- efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis, and bringing to the face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold.The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck” (273). Paralysis, and then an uncontrollable spastic moment- clearly Billy can be read as a “disabled” character, who’s “disability” is heightened and caused by outside forces- he stutters and spasms in moments of distress. Furthermore, the Christian imagery is extremely heavy-handed throughout this story, and Billy is seen as an innocent, angelic figure that cannot exist in a world so filled with disillusioned and embittered individuals.

  2. The General Motors Theater clip is incredible – Shatner’s Billy is somehow even more innocent than I imagined in the text, especially upon revealing to Claggart and the crew that he has volunteered willingly to serve aboard the warship. I think one of the issues with Billy’s waving “goodbye” to the Rights-of-Man in Melville, more so than his dis-sailor-ly conduct, is this farewell’s kind of unintentional criticism against the practice of impressment that is removing him from that aptly named merchant ship. Obviously, this joke would go over the head of the young Billy, who seems utterly incapable of comprehending irony, ambiguity, or insult, let alone perform them. But as Shatner’s Billy is a volunteer, this moment of accidental satire is altered – we didn’t get to see the scene of him leaving Rights-of-Man in the GM clip, but I would guess that this moment would be far less ambiguous.

    Indeed, it seems these various film adaptations have dispensed with much of the uncertainty created by Melville’s narrator, especially in relation to the three primary characters of Billy, Claggart, and Captain Vere. In both the Shatner and Stamp films, Claggart becomes this unrepentant villain, going so far as to repeatedly provoke the men’s murderous feelings towards him, whereas I felt Melville’s Claggart was more difficult to pin down. Melville’s Master-at-arms is depicted as a dutiful officer who fist becomes obsessed with Billy for reasons not entirely clear, with his defect being explained as a “depravity according to nature”, or something inherent in him, and not taught by book or “licentious living”. Following Alexandra’s example of utilizing a disability studies lens to analyze this story (something that’s always at work in Melville, at least as far as I’ve seen) this description allows us to locate Claggart somewhere along the lines of obsessive compulsive to sociopathic, but this moment is also used to open up the possibility of Claggart as a repressed homosexual, a reading which I agree isn’t too outlandish, once again considering Melville’s history and the subtle homoerotic tone throughout all of the novella. But, and this is crucial, the novella’s description of “natural depravity” is only bolstered by Claggart’s actual actions, it isn’t necessarily suggested at all, aside from Melville’s kinda-omniscient narrator’s explanations. So the film adaptors need to decide how to portray such uncertain details, and it seems that the examples shown here have gone for full-out movie villain. These decisions are always at work in film adaptations, both because it is difficult to work with a narrative framing device like Melville’s, and because plotting and characterization need to be made more accessible to a wider audience, but it seems like textual ambiguity is always the first thing to go in the movie version. This doesn’t always make sense to me, as film is certainly capable of being ambiguous. Why does this happen to book-to-film adaptations so frequently?

  3. John- although I automatically saw Billy as a disabled character, your reading of Claggart as disabled is a wonderful addition to this lens. This psychosis of Claggart and his “monomania” as Melville calls it in the story (would it go to far to say that Billy is Claggart’s white whale?) is definitely something the adaptations work with and portray in different ways. Benjamin Britten’s opera includes a scene where Claggart sings a soliloquy by himself- in this song, the root of his hatred for Billy is explained. He sings, “What hope remains if love can escape- if love still lives and grows strong where I cannot enter / What hope is there in my own dark world for me?” This certainly may tie into the homoerotic undertones that each of the works hint at and which Fussell discusses in her article “‘Billy Budd’: Melville’s Happy Ending.” Perhaps Claggart also cannot come to terms with a member of the crew who does not hate him- who knows what his background consists of- he obviously cannot deal with any form of love. Claggart continues, “With hate and envy, I am stronger than love,” making his jealousy and malice apparent (as does his lines about “mutilat[ing]” BIlly’s body an watching it “hang” and “fall into the depths of the sea”- just in case you weren’t clear that Claggart wants BIlly dead.) I’ll expand more of these ideas in my presentation of Billy Budd tomorrow, and I look forward to discussing the works with you and the rest of the class!

  4. Like John, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difficulties of staging ambiguity (particularly in regard to the frustratingly flat Claggart in the Ustinov).

    Certainly, some of the loss of uncertainty stems from the medium-specific demands of film/opera. I think — though I haven’t at all worked this out yet — that ambiguity in performance works differently than it does on the page. Though films/plays/operas can be totally inscrutable as a whole, an individual actor playing Claggart has necessarily made decisions about Claggart’s motivations in order to play him (according to Western, naturalistic standards), while Claggart the free-standing, un-embodied fictional character can remain endlessly mysterious.

    But there’s another issue at play, having to do with what work gets adapted and why. It seems like a work with a lot of ambiguity is particularly ripe for adaptation, because of the room to transform the material while playing within the framework of the original. Ambiguity, in some ways, cries out for adaptation (even multiple adaptations) as a space to play out the possibilities.

    On a mostly separate note, I want to talk about the (hydraulic?) raked stage, which I think does a few things at once. Primarily, it creates a sense of deep instability. The explanation for the paranoid atmosphere is cut from the Britten, but the stage itself translates the information that something is off here — so off it’s physically difficult to navigate. At the same time, of course, the rake means that one character is always higher than other, offering potential for symbolism (this is a little hard to track in some of the video, but would be clearer from the audience — the scene where Claggart accuses Billy and Billy charges up at him is a good example in the 1988 ENO production).

  5. John (and Rachel!), I also really appreciate your disability studies reading.

    I wanted to comment on my Malcom McDowell comment from Tuesday. I think the connection started with a resemblance in both face and voice (the latter speaking a bit to some of the class issues we discussed yesterday). I’m also thinking, though, that such a casting move would make an interesting subversion of the text. Pushing it too far (to the point of McDowell-as-Alex) would be disastrous, but I like the idea of skirting the boundaries of a character and broadening them out into territory that might seem incompatible with the way the original character was written. (This hearkens back to Jeff’s early discussion of what I’m thinking of now as close and distant adaptations.)

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