Saturday, October 9, 2010

Morality in The Phantom of the Opera

NOTICE: This post may not be appropriate for under aged readers.

I've been doing research lately on the life of Gaston Leroux, who is responsible for all this Phantom Obsession Compulsive Disorder in the world (my new coined phrase of POCD).

Leroux was quite the colorful man, who led a rather wild life. Various biographies are filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits. He inherited a million francs upon his father's death, and afterward acquired a taste for alcohol and gambling, whereby he pilfered his fortune away in casinos. After much of it was gone, he turned to work as a theater critic and reporter and eventually became a full-time journalist in order to make a living.

As far as his personal love life, he married his first wife and soon afterward was involved in an affair with another woman who became his mistress. He sired two children with her out of wedlock; and then finally when his first wife agreed to grant him a divorce years later, he married his lover. He struggled with a gambling problem throughout his lifetime and died with very little money in spite of his success. Another interesting and detailed biography states that, "Leroux also had a darker side, a fixation on the grimmer sides of life and death, and on horror and fantasy, as well as aspects of the macabre."

I'm not sure if I hear many gasps over that revelation of Leroux's lifestyle, but it's an important introduction to this post on morality in The Phantom of the Opera. What we've glorified in the story of redemption of the Opera Ghost, was written by a man who clearly wasn't a saint. This post is not to judge his morality by any means, except to say that much of how he lived in the late 19th century and early 20th century in France, was frankly just a way of life.

If you look closely at the original, you'll see the subject of morality and the Parisian lifestyle sprinkled throughout the story. Unless you're familiar with the times and practices, some of the innuendos may not be that noticeable to you. The reality of how things really were in Parisian society among the Opera patrons, ballerinas, and divas, is frankly "R-rated." It's not the "PG" romance we've come to idolize.

Those cute little ladies in the tutus known as the corps de ballet or ballet rats, were young girls who trained and performed as ballerinas. Most of them came from poor working-class families. Degas, a French artist of that time period, painted many pictures of the ballerinas who danced upon the stage. The article Degas and His Dancers discusses how getting backstage was a privilege paid for by wealthy male subscription holders, called abonnés, who often flirted with the dancers. At the time period The Phantom of the Opera was set, ballerinas were considered to be the "echelon of prostitution." Prostitution in France was legal, and married men often had mistresses and enjoyed sexual pleasures away from their marriage beds.

If you read Leroux closely early in the story, it's mentioned that Comte Philippe de Chagny would not have taken his brother behind the scenes of the Opera, but Raoul had asked him insistently to do so. Philippe knew morality back stage was loose. It mentions later that he had planned, when Raoul returned from the Navy, to eventually introduce him to the life behind the curtains. When Raoul goes backstage to check on Christine's welfare after she faints, Philippe is surprised that Raoul already knows the way to her dressing room. In this scene and in many others the "subscribers" are crowding around the ballerinas.

The story goes on to express Philippe's displeasure over Raoul wishing to marry Christine. After all, those in her profession were of lower class. They were fine for flirtation and sexual pleasures, but not meant for marriage. It would have been scandalous for Raoul to marry beneath his status, but as you know he defied his elder brother in the matter and it led to much contention between the two of them.

Gaston Leroux writes that Philippe de Chagny had an "understanding" with Sorelli, the prima ballerina. Philippe spent his time back stage as quite the bachelor himself, and it's obvious by Leroux's inference that Sorelli was Philippe's mistress. In fact, he says in defense of the Comte's actions, "But it could hardly be reckoned as a crime for this nobleman, a bachelor, with plenty of leisure, especially since his sisters were settled, to come and spend an hour or two after dinner in the company of a dancer."

What about the divas? That's another interesting study in itself too, where you will find famous divas of the past who were wealthy courtesans of aristocrats during their careers. I think this possibility played upon Raoul's fears regarding Christine. At one point he questions Madame Valerius on whether Christine is, "still a good girl" after he learns of her going away with her mysterious genius. It's apparent the question of Christine's morality came quickly to Raoul's mind based on her behavior, and he still wasn't convinced after Madame Valerius said she was still a good girl. "He walked home to his brother's house in a pitiful state. He could have struck himself, banged his head against the walls! To think that he had believed in her innocence, in her purity!"

It's almost comical how upset Raoul becomes, as he pours his heart out to his brother who further tells him Christine had been spotted the night before in a carriage with another man, and Raoul believes it to be her lover. To bury his pain, Leroux writes, "Raoul dressed in frantic haste, prepared to forget his distress by flinging himself, as people say, into "the vortex of pleasure." I think we all know what pleasures are alluded to here, however, poor Raoul never makes it that far.

Of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber's original stage version of The Phantom of the Opera strips all the nasty reality away, as we see portrayed a more innocent version of its characters and time. We love the cute Meg Giry and ballerinas in their tutus flitting about the stage, the innocent and young Christine, and handsome Raoul. The only sexual reference made is the "pleasures of the flesh" the Phantom has been denied in life, even though there is a rather passionate scene in the lair during The Music of the Night as he entices Christine into his world and the Point of No Return.

Then in stark contrast, we come to the sequel, Love Never Dies, which strips away the fantasy and portrays a more accurate version of morality of its day, with fallen characters who drink, gamble, and have sex out of wedlock that results in an illegitimate child. It's the unpleasant storyline some fans dislike, and then others are not so appalled because they understand that humanity is often filled with broken and imperfect humans who make mistakes.

When we study life during the late 19th Century in Paris, where the story is set, it helps us part the curtain between reality and romantic fantasy. Even Gaston Leroux, the very author himself, struggled with his own vices of drinking, gambling, illicit affairs, and illegitimate children. In the day and age when The Phantom of the Opera was first released in France, the public readers no doubt understood his innuendos regarding morality between its pages.

In closing, I can't help but ask myself one question in light of Leroux's own lifestyle. Would he relate to the recent adaptation of the story or would he be offended? It's an honest question to ponder, but one I think most would rather not think about in light of the similarities.

The Phantom's Student


Phantomgirl89 said...

Great post! POTO isn't as innocent as people think. ALW's musical is very sensual, but at the moment of truth teaches nothing. LND is much more bold, and perfectly reflects the society of its day.

nicky said...

Congrats on yet another thought-provoking post. That's an interesting point you made, saying ALW's POTO is a more 'wholesome' version of the original (though I still say 'Point of No Return' has got to be one of the most erotic songs I've ever heard), whereas LND incorporates the dirtier, seamier side of life during that time, though I don't think that's the main reason some fans dislike the sequel. But I believe you've highlighted an important symptom of 'POCD' (am liking that disorder a lot ;P) -- that 'phans' (me included) are hopelessly fixated on the more romanticized aspects of the story. Of course immorality abounds in it! And I don't just mean the social mores of the era. Just look at the main character himself. But us being phans, we don't really care. Never mind if Erik is a homicidal lunatic. Never mind if he is a master manipulator. Never mind if he has dubious morals. All we see is a tragic, misunderstood figure who's more than paid his dues.

By 'recent adaptation', do you mean ALW's POTO? Or LND? Would Leroux be able to relate or would he be offended? I don't know if he would be able to relate, but I think he'd appreciate it since it's still essentially the same story anyway. Maybe he'd wonder where all the nasty 'immoral' parts have gone, but other than that, I don't think he'd be offended at all. If you mean LND, maybe Leroux would see himself in Raoul. Overall, I bet he would be proud because the little story he wrote--his 'baby'--is now a global phenomenon. :)

rhapsody said...

Interesting post and comments...

I've wondered what Leroux would think, too. From what I understand Margaret Mitchell was pleased with the movie adaption of "Gone With the Wind", even though there were changes made to that as well.

I can only imagine that he would be amazed at its following. How he would view the different variations of his story would be another matter, however I think he would recognize that these interpretations of his work are what has kept it alive and so well loved. Andrew Lloyd Webber's work is magnificent - and some of the other adaptions are works of art as well.

I have started reading your book, "The Phantom of Valletta" which I purchased for my nook. It's very enjoyable reading as I like your writing style very much, and I'm very happy to add this to my collection of quality phantom fiction.

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wow! nice pictures