Monday, December 15, 2008

Red Death

This should be an easy post for all of us required to read classic literature. Edgar Allan Poe’s story entitled, “The Masque of the Red Death” was no doubt on your reading list. For those of you who have not read the classic tale and wonder why Gerard Butler looks so darn handsome and hot in that red outfit during the masquerade, this post will enlighten you on the symbolism behind the costume.

Okay, get out your notepad and pick up a pen. We are going on a journey. Remember, this is how I view that dastardly (but strikingly handsome man) dressed in red showing up at the party. You might have an entirely different view, so I encourage you, as always, to leave your comments.

If someone were to ask me to come up with two words to describe Red Death, I would use the term “party crasher.” In Poe’s story, Leroux’s book, and the stage and movie version, that is just what the Phantom is doing. He is being a party crasher in order to make deadly and gruesome point.

The Masque of Red Death was the name of a horrible plague. It was a disease killing its victims with pain, dizziness, and bleeding from the pores. It was a ghastly death, swift, and feared by many.

Poe’s story tells the tale of a Prince, who is described as “happy and dauntless and sagacious.” After losing half his population to the plague of Red Death, he locks himself behind doors of a fortress, which he thinks is impenetrable from the disease. He fills his locked castle with merry friends, just like himself, who do not have the time to grieve or think of the horrors outside. The Prince provides his guests will all the pleasure they need such as musicians, merriment, beauty, food, and wine. The Prince and his friends lack compassion for those perishing outside their walls, and block out their thought with pleasures by celebrating! They are smug, proud, and believe they cannot be touched.

After six months of lock down in seclusion, while humankind continues to die from the plague, the Prince decides to have a Masque Ball. He oddly decorates seven suites in which to party, all decorated in various colors, beautiful and bizarre in their own way. The seventh and last room he decorates in the color of blood red, with a clock that chimes ominously on the hour throughout the night.

The party begins. Everybody dresses for the Masque Ball. All the guests drink, party, and have a good time, until an uninvited stranger crashes the party dressed as follows:

“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revelers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”

The crowd wonders about this masquerader. The Prince sees him dressed like Red Death, and is enraged and mad at his mocking appearance. He tries to stab the figure with a dagger, and falls dead at its feet in the seventh room decorated in blood red. The remaining crowd grabs at the figure and finds there is no tangible form underneath, and at the stroke of Midnight, they all succumb to the deadly plague of Red Death and drop dead. Poe ends with, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Equality has arrived.

So why did the Phantom show up to the masquerade dressed as Red Death? Why in the world did he choose to identify himself with the story written by Edgar Allen Poe? I see a variety of similarities and one striking undertone in the message.

First of all, just like Red Death, he is an uninvited guest. No one wants him there in the first place. The crowd revels at their party singing there’s no more ghost, no more notes, all is at quiet. They have not a care in the world, until Opera Ghost appears and steps down the stairway infiltrating their party uninvited.

Second, everyone at the masquerade is dressed in beautiful finery, hiding behind their masks, with faces of beauty, wearing costumes of beauty, reveling in their fun. Enters the Phantom dressed as Red Death. Leroux describes his outfit as: “...a person whose disguise, eccentric air and gruesome appearance were causing a sensation. It was a man dressed all in scarlet, with a huge hat and feathers on the top of a wonderful death's head. From his shoulders hung an immense red-velvet cloak, which trailed along the floor like a king's train; and on this cloak was embroidered, in gold letters, which every one read and repeated aloud, "Don't touch me! I am Red Death stalking abroad!"

What is the Opera Ghost doing here by his uninvited appearance dressed like Red Death? He’s making a point that no one is immune from death, and this fact, in itself, is the one common ground he shares with all the revelers around him. Death holds dominion over all. No matter how hard they try to escape, it is useless. No one escapes death. Their class systems will be gone, their riches will be left behind, their titles, possessions, intelligence will not buy them reprieve. Their beauty and perfection will fade and rot in the grave among the worms. It is here the Opera Ghost is like every one else and where he shares a common ground, as gruesome as the thought might be to the unsuspecting crowd.

An interesting statement Leroux pens from Erik’s lips, “I want to live like everybody else. I want to have a wife like everybody else and to take her out on Sundays. I have invented a mask that makes me look like anybody.” Again, we hear the cry of his heart. You have left him outside, locked the doors, and given him no compassion or thought. If he cannot have commonality with you in life, then he wants you to know, he will have it in death.

What do you see in the story of Red Death? Yes, the Phantom is quite handsome in his red outfit and white mask in the movie version. He has not slipped into that costume, however, to make you swoon over his good looks. On the contrary, he just wants you to know that darkness, decay, and death holds dominion over us all.

If you’re interested in reading The Masque of Red Death, follow the link: The Masque Red Death

Your obedient servant,
The Phantom's Student


Anonymous said...

Nice article as for me. It would be great to read a bit more about that theme. Thnx for giving this info.
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Rachael said...

My favourite part of The Phantom of the Opera is that part, the chapter "At the Masked Ball". I also love the story, The Masque of the Red Death. A very insightful read. :)

Anonymous said...

Great writing, and the comparison is well made. This blog, and this post in particular, is a wonderous place to muse on the intriacies of Phantom. I have filled notebooks with musing like yours...but you actually managed to make them coherent. Amazing job.