- Peter Grimes and the Rumour of Homosexuality
At the end of Peter Grimes, Auntie, the pimp who has two prostitutes working for her, looks to the sea where Grimes's boat sinks with Peter in it. 'What is it?' Auntie asks Bob Boles. 'Nothing I can see,' replies Boles. 'One of those rumours,' Auntie remarks (Britten, 504). Grimes's death, like his life, migrates through the borough as a rumour. Rumours and malicious speculation govern town talk. During a moment of delusion in act 3, Peter complains that 'Gossip is shouting, everything's said' (491). It seems that he prefers innuendo or silence to gossip. Suspicious of all verbal intercourse, Peter even accuses his second boy apprentice, John, of having colluded with Ellen: 'You've been talking! You and that bitch were gossiping! What lies have you been telling?' (381). The boy apprentice does not say a word in the course of the whole opera - shrieking just once as he falls from a cliff near the end of act 2. It hardly stands to reason that the boy gossips with Ellen. He gives no verbal testimony one way or the other about Grimes's violent nature. While John sits with Ellen on the beach, she cannot pry a word out of him. Other characters in the opera are not so taciturn. The libretto of Peter Grimes thematizes sound - whispering, rumour-mongering, hubbub, hymn-singing, prostitutes' squeals, and eavesdropping - as acoustic events that define the community. At the same time, town gossip and rumours bring Grimes into being as a homicidal, sadistic outcast, most memorably by the repeated accusation bruited among the chorus that 'Grimes is at his exercise' (284-304), meaning that he is beating his apprentices. Grimes lives out this tainted version of himself - a violent, boy-abusing loner - irrespective of its truth. Although Balstrode urges everyone to 'forget what slander can invent' (292-93) on the grounds that slander causes suffering for someone, the people in the borough do not heed this advice.
Slander has a logic of its own, especially as perpetrated by Mrs Sedley, who fancies herself an amateur sleuth. She incriminates Grimes by observing him and assembling a case against him. Once raised, suspicions cannot be retracted. Grimes, who mostly sticks to his hut and his boat, is not necessarily privy to the tales that circulate about him. In act 2 and again in act 3, the townsfolk hunt Grimes down at his hut and on the beach; the manhunt scenes split spatially between Peter's solitary world set against the shouting world of the assembled townspeople. As Grimes observes about his own trial, 'The case goes on in people's minds. The charges that [End Page 648] no court has made will be shouted at my head' (20-21). Despite his claims of speaking simple truth, he cannot control the negative opinions that linger around his court case. No matter how convincing Grimes's statement may be that his first apprentice died of thirst, the townspeople, and to some extent the audience, believe that Grimes is too rough with his apprentices and actively contributes to their demise. Imprudently chasing the second boy out the back door of his hut, Peter does not kill his apprentice, though he does nothing to ensure his safety either. In unison, Mrs Sedley, Boles, the Rector, Swallow, Keene, and the chorus sing with self-righteous and hypocritical assurance, 'Now is gossip put on trial, now the rumours either fail, or are shouted in the wind, sweeping furious through the land' (334-36). The townspeople look for proofs of Peter's murderous character. Their solidarity, expressed through their singing in unison, decides the case against Grimes. Rumour is not put on trial so much as validated as the means by which character is created in the opera in order to malign it, specifically to malign Peter Grimes as the town misfit.
In the musicological and critical literature about the opera, the most persistent rumour about Grimes concerns his homosexuality. In A Song of Love and Death, Peter Conrad matter-of-factly states that 'Grimes the boy-killer is the homosexual outcast, looking to Ellen Orford to effect...