His Skin was Pale and His Eye was Odd: The Dynamic Visual History of Sweeney Todd

Student Author(s)

Mary Elizabeth Winther

Faculty Mentor(s)

Professor Michelle Bombe

Document Type


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Since Sweeney Todd’s first appearance as a character in the Victorian penny dreadful A String of Pearls, the story of this murderous barber and his baker accomplice Mrs. Lovett has inspired numerous theatrical adaptations, at least 5 films, a Tony Award winning musical, and several books devoted to the character and the story. Scholars have found in this story, and in it’s profusion of re-tellings, countless aspects to analyze. The leading scholar on Sweeney, Robert L. Mack, has written two books on the tale. He recounts the history of the story, other urban legends that inspired or were inspired by this one, and other tales of cannibalism. He analyzes the historical context of the story, and draws comparisons between the early versions and other pieces of literature from the same period. Another writer, Peter Haining, claims to have discovered that Sweeney Todd was indeed a real person. He has scoured London for evidence, and has written an entire book about his theory. Although his work is completely unsubstantiated, he has devoted his entire life to the search for Sweeney. Musical scholars have written about the genius of Sondheim’s musical version, and many have analyzed how the music adds to the complexity of the characters and the story. However, despite the vast body of work surrounding Sweeney, there is currently no cohesive work on the visual development of the tale. With each re-telling, the look of the characters and of the world they inhabit has evolved to fit the new tale. The visual history of the story is equally as rich as it’s literary and theatrical development.

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