The Devil at the Ball: Gothic individualism in Don Giovanni, Faust, and The Phantom of the Opera (Part 2)

Posted by Dorota Babilas on November 19, 2011 in Dr Dorota Babilas, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

Danse Macabre, Lubeck, 1463

In classical mythology, the god of the Underworld was not identified as evil. As Walter Pater notes, Greek art viewed ‘Aidoneus [i.e. Hades] himself […] as but a gentler Zeus, a great innkeeper’ (Pater, 65) and Homer called him by the name of Polydegmon, that is He Who Receives Many Guests. Following the advent of Christianity, some of Hades’s characteristics have been taken over by the figure of Satan, and his underground realm became a place of eternal fiery punishment for sinners. Consequently, the ancient funerary imagery of feasts organised for the dead with the Lords of the Underworld presiding was replaced with the Christian dualism of heavenly hymn-singing and hellish orgies of violence.

The theme of the Dance of Death first appeared in European art in the Middle Ages, one of its earliest visual renditions coming from the (now destroyed) Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris (1424).  Death – usually perceived as a servant of God, delivering humans to their last judgement – came in the form of a desiccated corpse often carrying musical instruments, personally accompanying each one of the living for their last ‘jig of life’. He (in most cases Death was a male figure, regardless of the sex of his victims) was the ultimate equaliser, not caring for the mortals’ rank, wealth, youth or beauty. At the times of epidemic diseases, Death, like a destroying angel sent by God, could also act as a divine punisher.

Lon Chaney (Erik), The Phantom of the Opera, 1925

The motive of the Dance of Death, or a human feast disturbed by a supposedly ghastly apparition, is one of the crucial scenes in Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Erik the Phantom appears uninvited at a masquerade held at the Palais Garnier:

[A] group [was] crowding round 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!’ (Leroux, 181)

The most obvious inspiration here is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842). A spectral harbinger of plague invaded a seemingly safe refuge in a castellated abbey where Prince Prospero invited his noble guests. It was revealed that the infestation they so feared was already within the castle walls, ‘and the Red Death [claimed] illimitable dominion over all’ (Poe, 251).

It has been observer by Jerrold Hogle that Erik’s disquieting presence at the masked ball resonates with various kinds of ‘otherness’ in the diegetic world of the novel, and also in the socio-political realities familiar to its readers (211). Leroux’s narrative is a virtual catalogue of late nineteenth-century frights seen from the perspective of wealthy upper-middle-class Parisians (and those aristocrats who, like Raoul de Chagny, had adapted to the bourgeois worldview). The Phantom can thus represent the threat of an underclass creeping up the social ladder, with additional allusions to a dangerous Middle-Easterner or Semite (in a post-Dreyfus society), a lurking criminal (although in the novel, unlike in its many adaptations, his alleged murders are not proven), even a sexually undefined hermaphrodite or deviant. His unmasked (sic!) attendance among the masked revellers lays bare their own hypocrisy and moral double standards.

Alfred Rethel, Death as a Cutthroat, 1851

The associations with an infectious disease were still relevant. Up to the 1890s, Paris was subject to occasional outbreaks of cholera – an illness which inspired a similar range of reactions as the ‘black death’ had done in the Middle Ages (Vovelle, 498-499). Heinrich Heine in his letter from plague-struck Paris recalled a curious connection between the masquerading and the contagion:

[The plague’s] arrival was officially announced on the 29th of March [1832], and as this was the day of Mi-Carême, and there was bright sunshine and beautiful weather, the Parisians hustled and fluttered the more merrily on the Boulevards, where one could even see maskers, who, in caricatures of the livid colour and sickly mien, mocked the fear of the cholera and the disease itself.

That night the balls were more crowded than usual; excessive laughter almost drowned the roar of music; people grew hot in the chahut; a dance of anything but equivocal character; all kinds of ices and cold beverages were in great demand — when all at once the merriest of the harlequins felt that his legs were becoming much too cold, and took off his mask, when, to the amazement of all, a violet-blue face became visible (Heine, Vol. 14, 166)

Motives resembling the Danse Macabre and images of interrupted merrymaking can also be found in operas. Throughout Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the notorious libertine is an exemplary host, even if his generosity simply serves as a cover-up to hide his compulsive philandering. His final punishment and death comes to him at a dinner party he organised for an unlikely guest – the statue of the man he had killed, the Commendatore. In Gounod’s Faust, Mephistopheles, the title Doctor’s diabolic alter-ego, serves the crowd enchanted wine and provokes a fight at a country fair where he sings an irreverent song about the Golden Calf, a symbol of idolatry and immoral hedonism. Later, in Act V of the opera, Mephistopheles invites the rejuvenated Faust to a hellish orgy of Walpurgis Night.

Still, a scene closest to Leroux’s masquerade can be found in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Ernani (1844) where a wedding feast in honour of the title hero is stopped short by an ominous-looking masked guest who turns out to be a scorned rival, Conde de Silva, demanding the bridegroom’s life in fulfilment of an oath he had made much earlier.

Charles Gounod, Faust, Royal Opera House 2004

Gounod’s Faust, one of the most popular operas of the 19th century, is probably the work which is most closely interwoven with the narrative of Leroux’s novel. Erik seems to be situated – in a psychoanalytic way – somewhere in the middle of the Doctor’s split personality, between the wise if embittered Faust and the restless, impudent Mephistopheles; between the rational and the manic. Christine, like Gounod’s Marguerite, provides his only, first and last, chance of a taste of human happiness in mature age, and at the same time she throws him off balance, into hectic actions resembling a love-sick half-mad youngster. Out of many stagings of this opera, the one that seems most related to Leroux’s Phantom (mainly by moving the plot to the 19th century) is the 2004 London Royal Opera House production with Roberto Alagna (Faust), Angela Gheorghiu (Marguerite), and Bryn Terfel (Mephistopheles).

On the other hand, different adaptations of The Phantom play up the Faustian associations. In the 1989 movie (dir. Dwight H. Little) Erik’s deal with the devil is truly supernatural; he sacrifices his handsome looks for eternal life (or rather un-death) to work on his compositions. Erik-Faust (Robert Englund) and Christine (Jill Schoelen), his chosen Marguerite and the perfect instrument for his music, reincarnate in 20th-century New York, their tortured love-hate relationship continuing indefinitely. The 1990 TV mini-series (dir. Tony Richardson) has Erik (Charles Dance, singing voice by Gerard Garino) and Christine (Teri Polo, singing voice by Michele Lagrange) actually sing out the finale of Gounod’s Faust to each other as a declaration of mutual love, complicated but sincere. Just like in Leroux’s novel, as she sings Marguerite’s invocation to the angels (being at the same time the invocation to her own ‘Angel of Music’), Christine is snatched from the stage by Erik:

In the last act when she began the invocation to the angels, she made all the members of the audience feel as though they too had wings. […]

“Holy angel, in Heaven blessed…”

And Christine, her arms outstretched, her throat filled with music, the glory of her hair falling over her bare shoulders, uttered the divine cry:

“My spirit longs with thee to rest!”

It was at that moment that the stage was suddenly plunged in darkness. It happened so quickly that the spectators hardly had time to utter a sound of stupefaction, for the gas at once lit up the stage again. But Christine Daaé was no longer there! (Leroux, 279-280)

Some aspects of Erik’s characteristics are clearly diabolical, especially his talent for architecture and his skill with musical instruments, particularly the violin and the organ (Rudwin, 253-256). In fact, Bach’s notoriously dark Toccata and Fugue in D minor (first associated with the Phantom in the 1962 movie and used earlier in several horror films) has even earned for itself a nickname of ‘The Phantom of the Opera Song’ on youtube. Still, if we may consider Leroux’s anti-hero to be demonic, he is a literary descendant of the romanticised fallen angels glorified by the likes of Charles Baudelaire (Praz, 43) and read by the Romantics into Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Robert Englund (Erik), The Phantom of the Opera, 1989


Heine, Heinrich, The Works of Heinrich Heine, Vol. 14. Trans. by Charles Godfrey Leland. W. Heinemann, 1893.

Hogle, Jerrold E., ‘The Gothic Crosses the Channel: Abjection and Revelation in Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’ in: Avril Horner (ed.), European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Leroux, Gaston,  Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1959. (Eng. trans. based on the work of Alexander Teixeira de Mattos).

Pater, Walter, Greek Studies. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002 (1903).

Poe, Edgar Allan, Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Wordsworth Editions, 2004.

Praz, Mario, Zmysły, śmierć i diabeł w literaturze Romantyzmu (The Romantic Agony). Trans. Into Polish by K. Żaboklicki, Warsaw: PIW, 1966

Rudwin, Maximilian, The Devil in Legend and Literature. La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing, 1959.

Vovelle, Michel, Śmierć w cywilizacji Zachodu (La mort et l’Occident de 1300 à nos jours). Trans. into Polish by T. Swoboda, Gdańsk: Słowo/obraz terytoria, 2004.

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