The Phantom of the Opera: The Last Gothic Novel

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

Now in the thirty-fifth year of its theatrical run on both sides of the Atlantic and showing no sign of stopping, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera has completely assimilated Gaston Leroux’s original character. Official accounts of the musical’s creation therefore downplay the cultural significance of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910) as if it were a dead text waiting for the megamusical to breathe life into its corpse. In The Phantom of the Opera Companion (2007) by Lloyd Webber and Martin Knowlden, the composer describes picking up a ‘second-hand’ copy of the book, to which the corresponding Wikipedia entry adds ‘long out-of-print’. (The 1976 musical by Ken Hill, which Lloyd Webber and his producer Cameron Mackintosh knew well, is similarly reduced to a cursory reference.) In the 1991 Virgin edition of the novel – with Michael Crawford on the cover – sold at Her Majesty’s Theatre alongside the Companion, the posters, the mask, the rose, and the music box, the word Peter Haining uses repeatedly to describe Leroux’s novel in his introduction is ‘forgotten’. He also erroneously claims that the book was not particularly well received by critics or readers on publication, describing Leroux himself as ‘a somewhat shadowy figure’ known only to the ‘keenest students of supernatural fiction’. This is an odd claim given that the author was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1909. Leroux, in fact, was a prolific and jobbing novelist, having retired from a colourful – and sometimes dangerous – career in journalism just before he turned forty. He wrote thirty-nine novels, many of which have been forgotten, especially outside France; Le Fantôme de l’Opéra is not one of them. The novel was serialised in France, Britain, and America to considerable acclaim, and had already been filmed twice by the time Leroux died in 1927, with a steady run of cinematic and TV adaptations continuing ever since. It has never been out of print either in French or English. Leroux’s ‘Phantom’ was a gothic icon long before the West End and Broadway got hold of him.

That said, it is to the original novel that Lloyd Webber describes returning in the Companion, having tried but failed to find a way to plot the story on stage after studying the two Universal film adaptations, starring Lon Chaney (1925) and Claude Rains (1943). Both films had deviated from the original plot of the novel. The 1925 version added a more emphatic climax with Chaney pursued through Paris by an angry mob, while the 1943 film portrayed the Phantom as a struggling musician whose life’s work is stolen. He is then horribly scarred in the ensuing fight with the plagiarist and presumed dead, plotting his revenge from the vast network of cellars beneath the Palais Garnier and obsessing over the young soprano Christine Daaé. Relocated to London, this plot was recycled by Hammer in 1962 – Herbert Lom taking the title role – the character’s revival initiated by the ‘Phantom’ episode in the 1957 Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces starring James Cagney, reminding everyone how good the original silent movie had been. The device was then used again by Brian De Palma in his surreal 1974 rock opera Phantom of the Paradise, in which the eponymous antihero has his face destroyed by a record press. To make the story work as a musical production, Lloyd Webber wisely stripped out the revenge tragedy of the film interpretations and focused instead as what he perceived as the original ‘love triangle’ between the innocent singer Christine, her aristocratic suitor and childhood friend Viscount Raoul de Chagny, and Erik, the ‘Phantom’. In doing this, the Phantom is rewritten again, this time as a brooding romantic hero whose dangerous and undoubtedly sexual magnetism make him considerably more attractive to most of the audience than the rather frilly Raoul, a conventional melodramatic ‘hero’ to Christine’s ‘damsel in distress’ and a hangover from the fairy-tale simplicity of the film narratives. While remaining broadly melodramatic, as popular musicals must be, Christine is now given a more difficult choice. This transition from villain to hero was completed in Lloyd Webber’s sequel, Love Never Dies (2010), in which the Phantom is revealed to be the real father of Christine’s son ‘Gustave’, while Raoul becomes a drunken gambler. (Meg Giry turns nasty as well.) Based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Phantom of Manhattan (1999), which concludes with millionaire Erik helping scarred First World War soldiers, this was clearly an attempt at full rehabilitation that went too far for fans of the original musical, and the mawkish Love Never Dies was a rare failure for Lloyd Webber. Bad boys cease to be appealing when they clean up too much. Continuing the trend to diminish the original text, Forsyth in his introduction describes Leroux’s novel as quickly ‘falling into virtual oblivion’.

Leroux is one of those writers whose life was as interesting as his novels, and many of his own adventures as a foreign correspondent ended up in his fiction. Leroux’s family came from Normandy, though he was born in Paris after his mother went into labour on a train. His father – who claimed to be a direct descendant of William the Conqueror – sent his son to Paris to study law in 1889. This was an occupation that held little interest for Leroux, and he spent much of his time writing poems and short stories. He managed to pass the bar but then his father died suddenly leaving him an estate worth close to a million Francs. He breezed through the lot in under a year. Facing bankruptcy, he took a job as a court reporter and theatre critic for L’Écho de Paris. Combining both roles to make the court reporting less boring, Leroux started trying to solve the cases in advance of the verdicts, interviewing prisoners and in one case finding evidence exonerating the accused, humiliating the Prefect of Police, and getting a prison governor fired. ‘Curiously,’ he later noted in an interview, ‘it was my newspaper colleagues who were the most annoyed.’ Despite breaking the unwritten rule of journalism and becoming the story himself, Leroux’s reputation was now ensured, and he built on this through a talent for getting exclusive interviews with prominent public figures at home and abroad. And if he couldn’t get the interview – which happened when he blagged his way into the office of the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, during the Second Boer War – he wrote a column on how he didn’t get the interview. This popular notoriety led to a post on Le Matin as an international correspondent, and assignments in Scandinavia, Russia (he was present during the 1905 Revolution), Morocco and Egypt (where he travelled disguised as an Arab), Africa, and across Western Europe.

By 1907, Leroux had become exhausted by travel. He abandoned journalism for fiction and achieved notable success with his first serial novel, Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907), which introduced the brilliant young reporter turned amateur sleuth ‘Joseph Rouletabille’. (Roule ta bille or ‘Roll your marble’ was French slang for ‘Globetrotter’, an obvious alter ego of the author). Leroux greatly admired Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the influence of both can be seen in his seven Rouletabille novels. Like Sherlock Holmes, Rouletabille is fiercely intelligent and does not suffer fools gladly, especially policemen. He even has a ‘Dr Watson’ in the form of ‘Sainclair’, his companion and chronicler. Following Poe, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is an intense ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, and Leroux’s literary reputation in France is that of one of the fathers of modern detective fiction. Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, originally serialised in the daily newspaper Le Gaulois from September 1909 to January 1910, was his seventh novel.

Leroux was a big, ebullient man, larger than life in every regard. When he finished a novel, he would fire a pistol into the air and encourage his wife and children to join the celebration by throwing crockery out the window. What he would have made of the different incarnations of his ‘Phantom’ is anyone’s guess, but my instinct is that they would have caught him funny. Though there is a modicum of sympathy for ‘poor Erik’ towards the end of the novel, Leroux’s original character is a grotesque and megalomaniacal criminal lunatic, much closer to H.G. Wells’ ‘Invisible Man’ or George Du Maurier’s ‘Svengali’ than the tragic genius of Lloyd Webber’s musical. He is a monster inside and out, and while Gerard Butler’s scarring in Joel Schumacher’s overblown 2004 adaptation of the musical is so minimal he still looks better than most guys his age on a normal day, Leroux’s Erik is a ‘living corpse’ whose ‘hands smelt like death’:

‘He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face; and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.’

It is this look that Lon Chaney memorably captured in the 1925 film. By this time, Leroux had founded the film company Société des Cinéromans with the actor René Navarre and the playwright Arthur Bernède. This bought him into contact with Carl Laemmle, the co-founder and owner of Universal Pictures when the latter visited Paris in 1922. Legend has it that Laemmle had just been to the Palais Garnier and gushed to Leroux about the famous opera house. Never one to miss a chance, Leroux made a gift of his novel, which Laemmle read in a night. Already on the lookout for another vehicle for Lon Chaney to follow The Hunchback of Notre Dame (then under production), Laemmle snapped up the rights to The Phantom of the Opera. Universal went on to create a soundstage replica of the opera house and its vast cellars so elaborate and solid that it remained active until 2014 when it was finally dismantled, having been used in hundreds of movies and TV shows, including, unsurprisingly, the 1943 remake. As the producer who brought the European gothic to Hollywood, Laemmle had immediately understood the potential of the novel, and Chaney’s silent masterpieces inaugurated the ‘Universal Monster Cycle’ of movies that included Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Phantom of the Opera is therefore at the start of the cinematic gothic, just as it is at the end of the literary tradition…

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