OPERA / A few screws loose: Henry James's chilling 'trap for the unwary', The Turn of the Screw, continues to bedevil its readers and adapters Mark Pappenheim

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It is a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the 'fun' of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small) . . .'

So wrote Henry James to a friend following the 1898 serialisation of his classic spine-chiller, The Turn of the Screw. Prominent among those 'caught' since then - though whether 'easily' or 'witlessly' is not quite clear - was Benjamin Britten, whose 1954 chamber opera based on James's tale is being given a new staging by David Leveaux for Scottish Opera at the Glasgow Tramway tonight.

James's original tells (in her own words) how a young governess, placed by their callously indifferent uncle in sole charge of two little orphans, gradually comes to believe that the children are being haunted by the ghosts of their former governess and her lover, the uncle's valet. The governess seeks to free the children from this 'evil' influence but, at the very moment of her apparent victory, finds the boy, Miles, dead in her arms.

James's tale has been given various interpretations. Some have hailed it as closet theology, others as a precursor of Freudian psychology. James himself described it alternately as a simple piece of hackwork and as a 'trap for the unwary'. One American lady critic, writing in 1903, called it 'a sheer moral horror, like the evil dream of a man under the spell of a deadly drug'.

James was not only prepared for such criticism, he had deliberately provoked it: it was part of his 'trap' and he must have enjoyed watching it close. For not once does he so much as hint at the nature of the 'evil' involved. Instead, he lures each 'innocent' reader into filling in the blanks from their own imaginings, making the reader, as he later wrote in a preface, 'think the evil - think it for himself.'

James knew his audience: 'They were all listening now, and of course there was somebody to be arch, or at any rate draw the inference,' he says of the guests at the Christmas house-party which forms the story's prologue. The American lady critic fell for James's 'trap', as does every reader who catches himself at some point exclaiming, 'But, no, surely, he can't really mean . . ]?' James, meanwhile, can plead complete innocence: whatever evil his story conveys comes directly from the reader's own evil mind.

By presenting the tale as the memoirs of the governess herself, instead of through the eyes of some impartial narrator, James lures the 'unwary' reader into identifying directly with the main protagonist, into seeing things through her eyes and even voicing thoughts that she herself leaves unspoken. The tale is, in short, a test of the reader's powers as a reader.

Fail the test, and James will have carried off the ultimate literary deception of causing the supposedly rational reader to embrace the distorted reasonings of an unbalanced mind. Keep your wits about you, and you soon learn to read behind the governess's account, to supply the missing dimension of insight and awareness that she so clearly lacks and to see, through her account, the partiality of her own vision - how, in the end, it is she who represents the real threat to the children's well-being, as she gradually withdraws into her own fragmenting world of nightmare visions, amnesiac black-outs and hysterical, self- justifying outbursts, culminating in young Miles's death.

The attentive reader will find many internal clues to this interpretation, signalled from the outset by the unmistakable Gothicke horror parody, shades of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, with which James introduces the governess's account: 'Then your manuscript - ?' 'Is in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand . . . A woman's. She has been dead these 20 years.'

Yet, as Leon Edel, James's biographer observes, 'The governess's narrative is told with such consummate weaving of paranoid fantasy and circumstantial reality, it is indeed capable of making readers pronounce the innocents guilty.'

'Neither Britten nor I ever intended to interpret the work, only to re-create it for a different medium.' So wrote Myfanwy Piper, the opera's librettist, with perhaps needless disingenuousness. For clearly it is impossible 'only to re-create' such an intrinsically literary work on the stage. From the moment that Britten and Piper agreed to make the ghosts visible, and to give them words to sing, they were necessarily embarked upon an interpretation.

I A Richards has said of James's writing (in Principles of Literary Criticism) that 'when the reader has once successfully read it, there is nothing further which he can do. He can only repeat his reading.' By these lights, composer and librettist have not 'succeeded' in their reading of James's novella. Yet incongruously, in its very refusal to join in with James's literary games, Britten's musical 'misreading' succeeds in lending a new theatrical afterlife to a work which, for all its narrative ambiguities, can appear dead on the page once its code has been cracked.

It might seem that, in choosing to put his ghosts on stage, Britten has necessarily closed his options. It's still possible to see them as figments of the governess's imagination. But tricky. These ghosts not only sing, they even sing to one another when there's no other living thing on stage to see them. What's more, they quote Yeats] And that one oft-repeated line - 'The ceremony of innocence is drowned', portentously underscored as if by musical quotation marks - has become a mantra for Britten commentators, seen as summing up the obsession with innocence and corruption that runs through the operas from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice. But whose innocence? Whose corruption?

Jack Clayton's 1961 film, The Innocents, shows that simply making the ghosts visible needn't deprive them of metaphysical ambiguity. By letting us see the ghosts, while leaving open the question of whose eyes we are seeing them through, much can still be left to the imagination.

Unlike Michael Winner's voyeuristic 1971 'prequel', The Nightcomers, which set out to supply a kinky case-history for James's oddly precocious orphans by having them spy upon torrid sadomasochistic sex sessions between Marlon Brando's earthy gardener and Stephanie Beacham's wet nurse. One suspects the film was only thought up to justify headlines like 'Winner puts the 'screw' back into Henry James'.

Jonathan Miller seemed to be flying much same flag in his 1979 staging of Britten's opera for ENO. Having rationally rejected all the paraphernalia of the paranormal, Miller cast the opera's tale of 'possession' in a human rather than a demonic dimension, culminating in a tangibly physical 'love tug' between the governess and Quint's 'ghost' over the body of Miles. It was this denouement, Miller suggests in this month's Opera magazine, that prompted Peter Pears, Britten's longtime lover, to despatch a seven-page letter of complaint - what Miller calls 'a Niagara of petulant, violent, contemptuous disagreement with the production. The vehemence with which it was written was to do with the fact that a nerve had been touched. We'd got to what the Screw was about.' In other words, boys.

Yet David Leveaux, directing Scottish Opera's new staging, suspects that our biographical knowledge of Britten's leanings has led to an undue stress upon the relationship between Miles and Quint. For him, it's a love story, but, like most Henry James, it's also a woman's story - 'and if Britten's music is full of this aching sexual desire, it's the governess's, not the ghosts.' '

David Leveaux's staging is at Glasgow Tramway, tonight to 26 Feb (booking: 041- 227 5511)

(Photographs omitted)