The Turn of the Screw synopsis
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Henry James
First performed: 1954
The action takes place at Bly, a country house, during the mid-nineteenth century
A narrator relates the terms under which a young Governess is engaged for two children by their guardian. Reluctant at first, she eventually agrees.
Full of questions, hopes and aspirations, the Governess travels to Bly.
Mrs Grose, Miles and Flora await the Governess’s arrival. The Governess is encouraged by the children’s charm, the beauty of the house and the friendliness of Mrs Grose.
A letter arrives: Miles has been expelled from his school. The children’s innocent singing of a nursery rhyme confirms the adults’ disbelief in the possibility that Miles could have committed any misdemeanour. The Governess declares her intention to say nothing to the children’s guardian.
As the Governess strolls through the grounds on a summer’s evening, her repose is interrupted by the sight of a strange man looking down at her from the tower of the house.
Miles and Flora are playing. The Governess’s concern about the stranger increases when she sees him again, now staring through the window. In describing him to Mrs Grose, he is identified as Peter Quint, a former valet, who had formed a relationship with the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Both are now dead. The Governess resolves to protect the children.
Miles and Flora are at their lessons. Miles sings a song which discloses his troubled state.
The Governess continues an informal lesson with Flora at the lakeside. After Flora sings a lullaby to her doll, Miss Jessel appears on the far side of the lake and is seen by the Governess. The Governess’s confidence is shaken.
Quint calls for Miles, tempting him with exotic visions and unnamed secrets. Miss Jessel and Flora join them. When the Governess and Mrs Grose enter, seeking the children, Quint and Miss Jessel vanish.
Colloquy and Soliloquy
Quint and Miss Jessel declare their determination to dominate Miles and Flora. The Governess reveals her despair: she is unable to decide what to do.
On their way to church, Miles and Flora parody the Benedicite. The children are now suspect to the Governess; Mrs Grose, however, remains unknowing. The housekeeper suggests the Governess writes to the children’s guardian, but she declines. Miles makes clear that he is aware of what the Governess knows and challenges her to inform his guardian. The Governess is shaken and contemplates escaping Bly.
The Governess finds Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. When she confronts the former governess, she manages to drive her away. The Governess decides to write to the children’s guardian.
The Governess tells Miles that she has written to his guardian. She presses him to tell her what happened at school and at Bly, but Quint’s intervention puts an end to her interrogation.
Encouraged by Quint, Miles steals the letter to his guardian
Miles beguiles the Governess and Mrs Grose with his prowess at the piano. His second piece allows Flora to lull Mrs Grose to sleep, and the girl slips out. The Governess notices Flora’s absence and raises the alarm. Miles celebrates his triumph at the keyboard.
Miss Jessel appears by the lake. The Governess challenges Flora to acknowledge that she can see her, but Flora denies everything and accuses the Governess of being cruel. A bewildered Mrs Grose leads Flora off, while the Governess concedes defeat.
Next morning, Mrs Grose returns with Flora. The night she has spent with the girl has convinced her that the Governess was right. She departs with Flora, leaving the Governess to confront Miles alone. The Governess re-affirms her intention to save Miles. Once again she presses the boy to confess, and once again Quint intervenes. Miles admits to having stolen the letter, but when the Governess entreats him to name for whom it is he watches and waits, he remains silent. After persistent questioning from the Governess, he finally names Quint, then collapses and dies.
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