Billy Budd - Synopsis

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten
E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier based on the story by Hermann Melville


Act One


Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, now a very old man, meditates on his career and the time of the French wars, when he was in command of H.M.S. Indomitable, an English man-of-war.

Scene One

On the deck of the Indomitable many sailors, enlisted men as was usual in those days, are performing various tasks and finding working on board difficult. One of them, a novice, pays dearly for his lack of experience; the bosun has him sentenced to twenty strokes of the whip for a mere trifle. A press-gang returns with three more recruits from the merchantman Rights o' Man. Joseph Higgins protests vehemently against having been press-ganged, whereas Arthur Jones, intimidated by the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, meekly accepts his fate. Unlike the other two, the third recruit, Billy Budd, turns out to be a sailor, an able seaman, who is looking forward to serving on the man-of-war. In spite of a slight speech impediment - he begins to stammer as soon as he is excited about something - his good looks and open nature immediately win him approval. When, however, he says goodbye to his former ship with a loud "Farewell, Rights o' Man," the officers become suspicious. They associate the term "rights of man" with the French Revolution and therefore with the enemy against whom they are fighting. Claggart orders the ship's corporal, Squeak, to keep an eye on Billy. In the meantime the novice has received his flogging. An old seaman, Dansker, and Donald, a member of the crew, warn Billy and Higgins, whom they have nicknamed "Red Whiskers", that the same thing could happen to them at any time and advise them to be particularly wary of Claggart, whom they refer to as "Jemmy Legs". The ship's company gathers on deck for Captain's Muster. Captain Vere, referred to by his crew as "Starry Vere", addresses his men, urging them to do their best in battle and telling them that their combined efforts must surely lead to victory. All of them are enthusiastic and prepared to go through fire and water for their captain.


Act Two

Scene One

Captain Vere has invited the First Lieutenant, Redburn, and the Sailing Master, Flint, to take a glass of wine with him in his cabin. They drink to their imminent victory over France and reference to the recent mutiny of English seamen on the anchored Spithead and Nore, which was partly attributed to French influences, creeps into the conversation. Redburn and Flint warn the captain about Billy Budd, telling him he was heard speaking openly of "rights of man". Vere, however, is convinced that there is no danger in Billy. The Second Officer, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, comes in to announce that the Indomitable has just entered enemy waters.

Scene Two

The sailors are singing shanties on the berth-deck. Billy catches Squeak rummaging through Billy's kit-bag. A fight begins between the two of them. Claggart intervenes, has Squeak put in irons and gagged and praises Billy in front of the whole crew. Once he is alone on deck, however, Claggart breaks out into a tirade of hate against everything that is good and beautiful; his goal in life is to destroy beauty, handsomeness and goodness - all the qualities which he recognises in Billy. Now that Squeak can no longer keep an eye on Billy, the Master-at-Arms turns to the novice; he forces him, through the latter's fear of future punishment, to obtain evidence against Billy, and the novice is so afraid of being flogged that he is prepared to betray his shipmate. Acting on Claggart's orders, the novice tries to persuade Billy to lead the men in a feigned mutiny. Billy is seized by another fit of stammering when he realizes what the novice is hinting at, and the stammering only ceases when Dansker appears on the scene and the novice scampers off. Dansker again warns Billy to be wary of Claggart, but Billy, remembering how Claggart praised him, is convinced that Claggart likes him and that he will soon be promoted.


Act Three

Scene One

The Indomitable is surrounded by thick fog. Claggart indicates that he wishes to talk to Vere and tries to formulate a false charge against Billy. He is interrupted when the fog lifts and an enemy ship is sighted. Vere orders action stations; the first shot, however, falls wide of the mark and the fog returns, making it impossible to chase the French ship. Vere orders the crew to dismiss. Claggart again asks to speak to him and accuses Billy of mutiny. Vere cannot believe this; he sends for Billy and orders Claggart to follow the accused to his cabin, where they will be face to face.

Scene Two

In Vere's cabin, Claggart repeats his accusation to Billy's face and calls him a traitor. Vere urges Billy to defend himself, but Billy is again seized by a tremendous fit of stammering. In his despair at not being able to express himself, Billy can think of no other way of helping himself that to hit out at Claggart with a blow of such force that it kills the Master-at-Arms. Vere is convinced that Billy is innocent, but military law forces him to have Billy court-martialed immediately. He leaves this task to his officers Redburn, Flint and Ratcliffe, he himself attends the court only as a witness. The officers also believe that Billy only acted in self-defence, but the articles of war leave them no option: the punishment for an attack on a senior officer as well as for murder is death by hanging. Vere accepts his officers' verdict and undertakes to inform Billy in person.


Act Four

Scene One

Next morning, Billy is waiting for his execution. He learns from Dansker that some of the men are determined to rescue him. Billy begs Dansker, however, to prevent a mutiny. He has accepted his fate.

Scene Two

The ship's crew assembles. Redburn reads the sentence which has been passed on Billy, in reply to which the latter shouts "Starry Vere, God bless you!". Although this cry is taken up immediately by the crew, there is great unrest on board when the execution has actually been carried out. The officers, however, are able to suppress the first murmurs of rebellion straight away.


Vere, now an old man, knows full well that he could have rescued Billy if he had not followed the letter of the law. Yet he feels redeemed and blessed by Billy's final words so that he, too, like Billy, is now able to accept his fate.

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