The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Harper & Row (1910). 368 pp.
I have an image in my mind of Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting down to read this book and humming the melodies to “The Music of the Night,” “Angel of Music,” and “Think of Me” as they pop into his head. I imagine that after a dozen bars or so he probably went over and sat down at his piano and developed a harmony or two. And so began the process of scoring and creating one of, if not the best show to grace the stage of Broadway’s history.
That being said, had Webber followed the details of each character, he would have an entirely different story and, consequently, an entirely different audience.
The story is a creative intertwining of two plots. The first is the general politics regarding the everyday life of the Opera. Management has changed, Carlotta’s pedestal is tipping one performance at a time, and the body of a scene-shifter, Joseph Buquet, has been found hanging in the third floor cellar under the stage. Meanwhile, amongst all the hustle and bustle, rumors of an alleged Opera Ghost run wild.
The second plot is a wild tug-of-rope love triangle. On the one end is Raoul, the viscomte de Chagny. Raoul may as well be a love-struck heartsick puppy. He remembers the past he and Christine share and he’s heard her sing once and immediately he’s head-over-heels. His initial attempts to be dashing and valiant depict more of a pathetic stalker and at first even she views their relationship as a game rather than legitimate. But, wouldn’t know it, he’s the good guy, and that counts for something.
On the other end is Erik, the mysterious Opera Ghost. Leroux’s view of music must be tainted if he appoints the most demonic Angel in literature as its representative. Erik is cruel and manipulating, with a voice like God and a face like the devil himself.
Between these two men jerks Christine Daae, our little red ribbon tied to the middle of the rope. She cannot seem to make up her mind. She loves Raoul because he’s tangible and because he adores her, but yet she loves Erik because she needs him and because he is the so-called “Angel of Music” that her father promised would come to her when he died. She flops between Raoul and Erik throughout the story.
One character in the novel has no other identity than “The Persian.” This man–not included in Webber’s adaptation to stage, seems at first glance a lesser character than the other three, but in fact is one of the most important characters to the formatting of the book. In fact, Leroux dedicates five of the final six chapters to the Persian’s first-hand account of the torture chamber. Because of this, we get a more objective account of the whole situation. The Persian knows exactly what is going on; he tells Leroux–and, incidentally, the reader–a small history of how Erik came up with the chamber. Had Raoul been narrating this segment of the story, Leroux would have been forced to write five chapters that consisted of nothing more than an account of his own personal descent into insanity mixed with detailed assumptions of what he believes is happening to Christine on the other side of the wall.
Only in the epilogue does Leroux offer a back story for Erik, not necessarily to be taken as an explanation for his exceptional villain, but to offer more of a shape to the character of the Phantom. Even with more of a history to Erik, the man is no less villanous than before. This gives a far different character than Webber offers in the stage production, or John Shumacker’s adaptation for film in 2004. Leroux did not write a swarthy Gerard Butler, humiliated by gypsies as a young boy.
Though enduring twenty-six chapters of a distress-less damsel and a hero that wouldn’t have the spine to save her anyway, reading a story with such a clear distinction between hero and villain is refreshing. Leroux creates manipulation like never before, and places it in the hands of quite possibly the Late Victorian Period’s creepiest hands.