Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s question is:
Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel has always intrigued me. It takes a remarkably abusive character, the titular Phantom of the Opera, and transforms him into a seemingly sexually desirable, if dangerous, leading man. If “abusive” seems too strong a word consider the plot of the novel, which differs significantly from that of the musical.
In the novel, The Phantom of the Opera, who lives under the Paris Opera where singer Christine performs, gains emotional influence over her as she seems to believe he is her dead father speaking to her. He then kidnaps her. He releases her only after forcing her to promise she will remain true to him. When he realizes she loves her childhood friend Raoul instead, he kidnaps her again, threatens to blow up the Opera and the people in it unless she marries him, and reveals that he has perfected some Eastern torture techniques and that he’s using them on Raoul and another man. No wonder other adaptations of the work have marketed it as a horror story!
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical retains elements of the original character that indicate he remains an undesirable match for Christine, to say the least. He grooms Christine by training her to sing. He tries to seduce her at her father’s grave. He terrorizes the Opera, kidnaps Christine, kills a man, and once again holds Christine hostage by demanding she stay with him or watch him strangle Raoul. And yet somehow he still manages to seduce audiences!
Perhaps part of this effect may be attributed to his singing voice. He seems attractive to audiences even though he supposedly is a monster beneath his mask. And he elicits pity from them because he finds himself forced to live in the shadows. One might speculate that he could try living in society, but it is telling that Christine tries to break his power over her by tearing off his mask–apparently his hideous visage confronts her as an outwards sign of his hideous personality. He is trapped where he is by the attitudes of his day and has become twisted as a result.
But is it problematic that the musical presents the Phantom to us as more of a tragic figure than as a monster? True, we should feel sorry for the way society has treated him, but what are we to do with the fact that he kidnaps and murders? In my experience, when people discuss his character, they overlook these aspects. I guess kidnapping a woman has been presented as a romantic event for some time by old stories. And the murder is of a somewhat minor character, so sometimes audiences seem to overlook it. Furthermore, Christine’s final pity for the Phantom and his change of heart erase his actions a little–he wants, apparently to reform, and the story suggests he be allowed that chance. But is the story actually propagating the old narrative that if you just love an abuser enough, he’ll change?
I don’t have easy answers to this question. I like to think that audiences are sophisticated enough, in the end, to recognize that a story does not always reflect what one should do in real life, I like to think that audiences are sophisticated enough to realize that dangerous men sometimes manage to make themselves attractive, but that does not make their actions acceptable. And yet, at the same time, I wish people would stop swooning over the Phantom and his music.