Duration: about 3 ¼ hours, one interval
Duration: about 3 ¼ hours, one interval
Captain Edward Fairfax Vere was once commander of the warship HMS “Indomitable”. An incident during that time has become a traumatic burden for him.
Vere remembers the men of the “Indomitable”. The authoritarian structure is arbitrary and cruel, as a novice seaman learns to his cost in suffering Draconian punishment for a minor lapse. Many of the sailors have been coerced into service, like the three whom a Press-gang has now recruited from the merchantman “Rights o’ Man”. One of them is the Able Seaman Billy Budd, who by contrast to the others cheerfully accedes to his enforced recruitment and also appears not to be intimidated by the stern Master-at-Arms John Claggart. The handsome youngster immediately wins the hearts of the whole crew, although he stutters. But when be bids a enthusiastic farewell to the “Rights o’ Man“, he is misunderstood and the officers suspect him of meaning social justice and not just the name of his old ship. They command Claggart to keep an eye on Billy. Claggart enlists the help of the ship’s corporal Squeak to spy on Billy and to provoke him to a false move.
Billy shows sympathy for the beaten novice. Old Dansker and the sailor Donald inform the recruit that nobody on board escapes punishment, and warn him against the Master-at Arms, whom they all call by the nickname of “Jemmy-Legs”, while they have dubbed their Captain “Starry Vere”. Billy is so impressed by their hymns of praise that he expresses himself prepared to give his life for his Captain.
Vere has summoned his officers Redburn and Flint. He is worried by the morale on board, and is determined to avoid a mutiny such as are now occurring on other warships. The officers repeat their suspicion that Billy could foment unrest. But Vere sees no cause for concern in him. At this point Lt. Ratcliff reports that the “Indomitable” has entered enemy waters.
The men are passing the time with singing shanties. Billy discovers that Squeak has been interfering with his kit. A quarrel ensues which is stopped by Claggart. He has Squeak led off and commends Billy. Alone on deck Claggart gives vent to his hatred of all beauty, magnanimity and amiability and vows to destroy Billy. He threatens the novice with new beatings if he fails to incite Billy to mutiny. Billy resists all attempts at corruption, but is so overwrought that he can only stutter helplessly. The novice slips off when Dansker appears, and the latter once again warns Billy of Claggart. But Billy pays no heed and believes that Claggart will soon have him promoted.
Claggart presses Captain Vere for a consultation at which he states that there is an insurgent among the crew. Their talk is interrupted when an enemy ship is suddenly sighted. Vere gives the order to pursue it. This is the moment they have all been waiting for. But dense fog prevents the battle and the martial spirit of the crew collapses on the spot.
Claggert has again buttonholed Vere and denounces Billy Budd as a traitor. Vere orders a direct confrontation, at which Billy is incapable of defending himself against Claggart’s accusation. He is reduced to stuttering and all he can do is to deal Claggart a blow which proves fatal. Although Vere regards Billy as innocent, he sees no alternative but to convene a court--martial at which he intends to give evidence. The officers are also unwilling to believe Billy capable of wilful murder, but in a state of martial law they are forced to condemn him to death for resisting a superior officer. Vere undertakes to inform Billy of the verdict.
Billy awaits his execution. Dansker brings him his last meal and tells him that the crew are prepared for an uprising to rescue him. But Billy is already resigned to his fate.
Redburn reads out the verdict to the assembled crew and Billy responds with the call “Starry Vere, God bless you!” The crew reacts to the hanging with a dangerously rebellious mood which is at once quelled by the officers.
Captain Vere struggles with his conscience in the knowledge that he had been in a position to save Billy. His hope that he will one day find peace is dashed by the ineradicable memory …