The man who created the Phantom
By Peter Haining, September 1986
Gaston Leroux, the versatile French author who created The Phantom of the Opera, was a man with an abiding passion for the theatre and it seems appropriate that after years of struggle, writing newspaper reviews and a number of unsuccessful plays, he should have left his mark on literature with a novel about an extraordinary episode in the history of France’s greatest opera house.
Admittedly, it has taken the magic of the cinema, and the art of the dramatist to familiarize the public with The Phantom of the Opera, but Leroux also managed to capture in his pages the atmosphere of the times he was writing about – the latter part of the nineteenth century when France was rampant with belief in the supernatural and the spirit world.
Born in Paris in 1868, Gaston Leroux is himself as interesting as his story. Photographs reveal him to have been a big, rather plump man with slicked back dark hair and a moustache, who dressed fashionably and sported a gold pince-nez. He was evidently a flamboyant character and once claimed that his family were directly descended from William the Conqueror.
Although his literary inclinations put him at the top of his class, when his father decided that he was to become a lawyer, Gaston changed from an energetic pupil to an idle student. The theatre was obviously gripping his imagination and, it is not surprising that after he finally completed his legal study and was called to the bar as a probationer, he continued to write in his spare time.
However, the course of his life was changed when his father died suddenly and left him heir to a fortune of almost one million francs. At once, Gaston abandoned the law and flung himself into a round of gambling, (poker was his particular vice) and pleasure in the colorful society of Paris. In less than a year he had squandered his inheritance.
Not downhearted, Leroux begged a job on L’Echo de Paris in 1890 and was asked to combine his knowledge of the law and love of the theater as court reporter and drama critic! It was as an investigative reporter that Leroux found the greatest satisfaction at this period of his life. His paper allowed him to probe suspected malpractice in the local police force and public administration and his hard-hitting reports not only exposed several corrupt officials but also made his name as a journalist.
This passport to adventure took him from Finland, south to the Caspian Sea, through Italy, Egypt and Morocco, frequently disguising himself in order to be able to witness events at first hand.
The strain on his health and a natural enough desire to settle down with his family made him give up the footloose life of a roving correspondent and become a novelist. His first books were unashamed pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. Then, in 1907, he used his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to develop a young detective, Joseph Rouletabille, who solved a seemingly impossible crime committed in a locked room. The book was called The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
In 1911 he published Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, introducing it to his readers by explaining how he carried out his own enquiries into the strange events that had occurred in the famous Opera House in the 1880s. He tells of how he visited the huge underground lake where the Phantom hid and even stumbled upon the skeletons of “some poor wretches who had been massacred under the Commune in the cellars of the Opera.”
However, sales of the book were only moderate and the reviews – such as they were – were disappointing. The only kind of public interest seems to have been generated by the serialization of the story in French, English and American newspapers with suitably graphic illustrations of the Phantom stalking the dimly lit caverns of the Opera House. It was to be the reading of this serial by a researcher for Universal Pictures which set in motion the chain of events which were to bring the The Phantom of the Opera to the screen for the first time in 1925 and make a star of Lon Chaney Snr.
Tragically, Leroux did not live to see the full triumph of his Opera story, though it is believed he did visit the cinema in Paris to see the Universal film in 1926. He was by then in failing health and died of uraemia on 15 April 1927. He was 59 years old and had written over sixty novels, none of which had made him rich. Today, copies of most are difficult to find aside from The Phantom of the Opera and The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
In the three quarters of a century of his existence, the Phantom had undeniably over-shadowed his creator and, at the same time, become a familiar term in everyday use. What a wry smile that would surely have given the former journalist and theatre lover after all these years!
Paris Opera House
– Andrew Lloyd Webber
Anyone familiar with a large opera house would testify that it is an extraordinary labyrinth of people and passageways, but the Paris Opera House of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in which Gaston Leroux set The Phantom of the Opera, was remarkable by any standards.
The huge building was constructed to designs by Charles Garnier from 1861-1875. It was a hotbed of politics and factions. From prima donna to stage hand the Opera House was governed by intrigue and rumour; everyone jostling for position, defending their own territory and scrabbling for new. At the time in which the novel is set, the Opera House boasted over fifteen hundred employees and had its own stables for the opera troupe of white horses underneath the forecourt. Even today it employs over a thousand people and contains two permanent ballet schools within the building.
The Paris Opéra rose to pre-eminence in the eighteenth century. After the Revolution it was fully restored to its leading position in Paris by Napoleon in the reforms of 1807. Unquestionably among the most performed composers at that time was Salieri, whose music remained in the repertoire at the time of Leroux’s novel. Salieri had his greatest triumphs in Paris with Les Danaides (1787) and Tarare (1784). It is interesting that Mozart began to work with Da Ponte after the latter’s huge success with Salieri in France. Indeed Mozart was not performed at the Paris Opéra until the early 1800s and then only in a severely adapted form. Salieri was hailed as the natural successor to Gluck, the main force at the opera in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and was greatly influenced by his music.
But perhaps it was Meyerbeer who reigned supreme. His grand operas were a masterful potpourri of ingredients. His music was accessible, his characterisation brilliantly aided by his command of orchestration and he relished stage spectacle. This writer was chastened to learn that the 1849 production of Le Prophète was the first to feature roller-skating as a key ingredient and also introduced electric light as an effect. Indeed the Paris Opéra always prided itself in its innovation. Aladdin (1822) by Isouard introduced gas lighting to the stage.
King of all this was the Opéra’s chief designer Ciceri, the John Napier of the day, who reigned supreme from 1824-1847. Spectacle was all. Hugo in his preface to Cromwell (1827) wrote “The stage should make as complete as possible the illusion of reality”. The Paris Opéra’s eruption of Vesuvius was legendary, employing real stones and the titles of the opera alone convey everything: Le Siège de Corinth (Rossini), La Muette de Portici (Auber), Robert Le Diable (Meyerbeer) (noted for its Phantom of the Nuns effect) and, of course, Gounod’s Faust, the opera which is the backdrop to the Leroux novel.
Key also to the Paris formula was the ballet. This was usually at the start of Act 111. Thus gentlemen could dine before arriving at the theatre to see their various young ladies in the corps de ballet. Wagner’s Tannhäuser caused uproar with the Jockey Club because its ballet was in the wrong place.
The Paris Opera House survives in much the same form described in the novel. It occupies a three-acre site and some idea of the labyrinthine nature of the building can be appreciated if one considers that the auditorium accounts for less than one-fifth of the total space. There are over seventeen storeys, seven of which are below the stage level. The stables for the opera horses still exist. There is a monument to La Carlotta. More important, there really is a lake underneath the building. It is an integral part of the design, and the water level acts as ballast, raised or lowered depending on the weight on the stage, seven storeys above it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Prior to the 2004 movie version of The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, the Phantom has undergone several screen adaptions.
It is not just the figure of the mysterious music lover that haunts the story of The Phantom of the Opera but also that of the remarkable American film star, Lon Chaney Snr., for, more than anyone else, he created the image most readily associated in the public mind with the tale – that of the disfigured man skulking through the labyrinths of l’Opéra masterminding the career of his beautiful protégée. Indeed, it is arguable that if Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, had not starred in that hugely influential 1925 silent movie, Gaston Leroux’s story might well have remained in obscurity – as the original book most certainly has done for many years – instead of inspiring a whole series of screen and stage adaptations during the past half century.
With that film, Chaney not only made himself an international star but placed the story of The Phantom of the Opera firmly alongside those other great horror classics, Dracula and Frankenstein.
The moment when Chaney snatched away the mask from his famous Death’s Head also provided one of the great moments of screen history, (reportedly causing many people among the early audiences to faint!) as well as setting a standard for all who have since played the role. Although the former stage manager turned actor was always reluctant to reveal just how he achieved his terrifying appearance, he firmly denied wearing any kind of mask: “It was the use of paints in the right shades and the right places – not the obvious parts of the face – which gave the complete illusion of horror,” Chaney said.
The second version was made in 1943, this time with sound and in color, and starred Claude Raines as a revengeful Phantom who has been scarred by acid. Interestingly, all the sets for the original Chaney picture were used in this remake and the photography won an Oscar.
Twenty years on, Leroux’s story was shabbily treated in a Spanish version, El Fantasma de la Operetta, which portrayed the Phantom as a blood-thirsty villain bent on murdering chorus girls. Two years later, in 1962, Hammer Pictures revamped it as one of their series of ‘Hammer Horrors’ with Herbert Lom and Heather Sears. Most recently, the original concept was abandoned in The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) when the Paris Opera House became a New York rock ’n’ roll theater, and the Phantom a demented disc jockey preying on pretty teeny-boppers!
The story has not fared much better on the stage. In France, strangely, it has scarcely appealed to dramatists at all, and there have only been two notable productions in England. The first was a much abridged version performed as part of a Grand Guignol season at the Little Theatre in London in 1935 and then, in 1975, the Actors Company mounted a performance with Edward Petherbridge in the title role and Sharon Duce as Christine. It is also a sad fact that the image of the Phantom has obscured Gaston Leroux himself – for few people knew his name and even fewer have read his books. Yet, just as this new production will further ensure the continuation of the legend, it might perhaps help rescue his creator from the wings of literary acclaim where he has stood for so long.
“The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants, or the concierge. No, he existed in flesh and blood, though he assumed all the outward characteristics of a real phantom, that is to say, of a ghost.”
– Gaston Leroux