In their resonant and evocative stories – Billy Budd, Sailor and ‘The Prussian Officer’ – Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence adopt military settings for a personal drama. In both tales, two men come into close and dangerous proximity, resulting ultimately in their deaths. Michael Squires has argued that the Lawrence story, “revealing the secret origin of abuse, shows the Captain punishing what he cannot consciously desire”. This comment could also be applied to Melville’s introspective and ambiguous novella (which has been subject to diverse interpretations), suggesting a motive for John Claggart’s persecution of the innocent Billy. Furthermore, secret abuse and subconscious desire are certainly prevalent within Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Melville’s tale, with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. When it is considered that Forster had almost certainly read Lawrence’s controversial story of military insubordination, bullying, murder and repressed homoerotic desire, a fascinating and complex pattern of inter-connection begins to emerge. Below, I will attempt to tease out the most significant connections by examining both stories alongside the subsequent recasting of Billy Budd as an opera.
Jones, B. (in press). Depravity, abuse and homoerotic desire in Billy Budd and the 'Prussian officer'. Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies, 4(2), 47-72