It's good theatre, that has to be admitted, a night well spent. But just why, I can't figure out. If there's one thing that's the greatest bore in all the world of literature and drama, it's the theme of Good and Evil. Not that his is the theme of Billy Budd. But the theme of having to choose between evils and having to compromise what is clearly good, goes only one step beyond the old morality play in the subtlety of its thinking.
Yet the production which has returned to the Brattle Theatre holds your attention every minute and leaves you with the feeling that you have seen an unusually good dramatic work. It is hard to see how it is done. Certainly the characters, Billy Budd, the personification of good, and Claggart, the personification of evil, are that old morality theme incarnate. And the first act suffers a bit in drawing this Maichean point too bluntly. Maybe you could get away with it in the Nineteenth century, but this is the Twentieth century, and this boy Billy Budd is just a little bit too good to be true, and Claggart--what motivates the man to behave so meanly? You find yourself wondering why he is in secure--but then you realize that Melville didn't think in those terms and playwrights Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman haven't worried about bringing the plot up to date psychologically.
It's when the Second Act opens that you realize how grossly this dualism has been presented to you, for the ship's officers who then appear are quite human--and all ably acted. Here the true theme of the play enters, for later, when Billy Budd has killed the lying, all-evil Claggart, almost inadvertently, it is they who must decide whether or not Billy Budd should be executed. This decision represents a choice between justice and maintaining an order by law. It is Captain Vere, the central character of the play, who convinces his fellow officers they must "maintain an order we cannot understand... the world demands it--not justice but order." And in telling Billy Budd he must hang, he says, "You and Claggart have broken man's compromise with good and evil" and "I have given you the judgement of the world," and, "When you're up there on the mainyard, think of me and pray for those who have to make choices."
The plot elaborates the Good and Evil theme, to be sure, but not nearly enough to account for the success of this production. That must be owed to the excellent acting of Jerry Kilty as Captain Vere, that of Peter Temple as Claggart, John Kerr, as Billy Budd, and to nearly everyone else in the cast, especially Paul Sparer and Paul Ballantyne, and, of course, to the directing of Albert Marre.