The Phantom of the Opera
Employing his extensive experiences as a crime reporter and war correspondent, Gaston Leroux (1868–1927) produced some of the most popular crime and detective novels and plays ever written by a French author.
Leroux wrote one of the most famous thrillers of all time, The Phantom of the Opera (1911), also successful in several film adaptations. His many novels about Chéri-Bibi and Hardigras were eagerly read adventure-mysteries, but his best work features Joseph Rouletabille, a young police officer–amateur detective.
Introduced as a precocious teenager in Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1907; US title: The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1908), Rouletabille virtually takes over the investigation of an apparently impossible crime from the official police. Although many elements of this locked-room mystery seem familiar to readers of The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill, some critics still consider the Leroux book one of the best and most important titles in the history of the genre. Among the superior features of the novel is the author’s willingness to be more fair with the reader than most writers of French crime novels are. Rouletabille has his Watson—the reverential Sainclair, who is exasperated by the energetic reporter’s many flashes of insight (all of which he keeps to himself). The least-likely-person device employed in this novel is now a classic. The sequel, and the only other well-known tale involving Rouletabille, is Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1907; US title: The Perfume of the Lady in Black, 1909). Less successful than the previous work, it relies heavily on coincidence and sensationalism.
A dramatized version of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, produced in 1912, was highly successful.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room was filmed in France several times, mostly during the silent screen period. Lorin Baker played Joseph Rouletabille in an American version (Realart, 1919), discovering who made an attempt on the life of a girl in a locked room. Similarly, Chéri-Bibi has twice reached the French screen, the second time portrayed by Pierre Fresnay in 1937; in the United States he has been played only by John Gilbert.
The Phantom of Paris. MGM, 1931. Gilbert, Leila Hyams, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, C. Aubrey Smith. Directed by John S. Robertson. The magician Chéri-Bibi is convicted of murdering his beloved father; he escapes from prison, and when the man he suspects dies four years later, he assumes the killer’s identity to prove his guilt.
The most extensive use of a Leroux character on the screen, however, has been of mad Erik haunting the Paris Opera.
The Phantom of the Opera. Universal, 1925. Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry. Directed by Rupert Julian. Lurking in the subterranean passages under the Paris Opera House, occasionally terrorizing and even murdering stragglers above, the hideously scarred and masked Erik, once a prince of an Oriental land, falls in love with a young understudy.
The Phantom of the Opera. Universal, 1943. Nelson Eddy, Claude Rains, Susanna Foster. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Disfigured by acid hurled at him during a dispute over a concerto he wrote, a musician (Rains) retreats into the depths of the Paris Opera.
The Phantom of the Opera. Hammer (British), 1962. Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough. Directed by Terence Fisher. In the sewers under an English opera house, a man in a one-eyed mask (Lom), cared for by a dwarf, protests the theft of his lifework; he is musician Professor Petrie, in a relocated, period version of the Leroux novel.
The story was converted into a contemporary New York electronic rock palace setting in 1974 as Phantom of the Paradise, starring William Finley, directed by Brian De Palma, and released by Twentieth Century Fox.
Another remake of The Phantom of the Opera was distributed in 2004 by Warner Bros. Pictures, starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson, directed by Joel Schumacher.
IN WHICH THE AUTHOR OF THIS SINGULAR WORK INFORMS THE READER HOW HE ACQUIRED THE CERTAINTY THAT THE OPERA GHOST REALLY EXISTED
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 a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.
When I began to ransack the archives of the National Academy of Music I was at once struck by the surprising coincidences between the phenomena ascribed to the “ghost” and the most extraordinary and fantastic tragedy that ever excited the Paris upper classes; and I soon conceived the idea that this tragedy might reasonably be explained by the phenomena in question. The events do not date more than thirty years back; and it would not be difficult to find at the present day, in the foyer of the ballet, old men of the highest respectability, men upon whose word one could absolutely rely, who would remember as though they happened yesterday the mysterious and dramatic conditions that attended the kidnapping of Christine Daae, the disappearance of the Vicomte de Chagny and the death of his elder brother, Count Philippe, whose body was found on the bank of the lake that exists in the lower cellars of the Opera on the Rue-Scribe side. But none of those witnesses had until that day thought that there was any reason for connecting the more or less legendary figure of the Opera ghost with that terrible story.
The truth was slow to enter my mind, puzzled by an inquiry that at every moment was complicated by events which, at first sight, might be looked upon as superhuman; and more than once I was within an ace of abandoning a task in which I was exhausting myself in the hopeless pursuit of a vain image. At last, I received the proof that my presentiments had not deceived me, and I was rewarded for all my efforts on the day when I acquired the certainty that the Opera ghost was more than a mere shade.
On that day, I had spent long hours over THE MEMOIRS OF A MANAGER, the light and frivolous work of the too-skeptical Moncharmin, who, during his term at the Opera, understood nothing of the mysterious behavior of the ghost and who was making all the fun of it that he could at the very moment when he became the first victim of the curious financial operation that went on inside the “magic envelope.”
I had just left the library in despair, when I met the delightful acting-manager of our National Academy, who stood chatting on a landing with a lively and well-groomed little old man, to whom he introduced me gaily. The acting-manager knew all about my investigations and how eagerly and unsuccessfully I had been trying to discover the whereabouts of the examining magistrate in the famous Chagny case, M. Faure. Nobody knew what had become of him, alive or dead; and here he was back from Canada, where he had spent fifteen years, and the first thing he had done, on his return to Paris, was to come to the secretarial offices at the Opera and ask for a free seat. The little old man was M. Faure himself.
We spent a good part of the evening together and he told me the whole Chagny case as he had understood it at the time. He was bound to conclude in favor of the madness of the viscount and the accidental death of the elder brother, for lack of evidence to the contrary; but he was nevertheless persuaded that a terrible tragedy had taken place between the two brothers in connection with Christine Daae. He could not tell me what became of Christine or the viscount. When I mentioned the ghost, he only laughed. He, too, had been told of the curious manifestations that seemed to point to the existence of an abnormal being, residing in one of the most mysterious corners of the Opera, and he knew the story of the envelope; but he had never seen anything in it worthy of his attention as magistrate in charge of the
Chagny case, and it was as much as he had done to listen to the evidence of a witness who appeared of his own accord and declared that he had often met the ghost. This witness was none other than the man whom all Paris called the “Persian” and who was well-known to every subscriber to the Opera. The magistrate took him for a visionary.
I was immensely interested by this story of the Persian. I wanted, if there were still time, to find this valuable and eccentric witness. My luck began to improve and I discovered him in his little flat in the Rue de Rivoli, where he had lived ever since and where he died five months after my visit. I was at first inclined to be suspicious; but when the Persian had told me, with child-like candor, all that he knew about the ghost and had handed me the proofs of the ghost’s existence—including the strange correspondence of Christine Daae—to do as I pleased with, I was no longer able to doubt. No, the ghost was not a myth!
I have, I know, been told that this correspondence may have been forged from first to last by a man whose imagination had certainly been fed on the most seductive tales; but fortunately I discovered some of Christine’s writing outside the famous bundle of letters and, on a comparison between the two, all my doubts were removed. I also went into the past history of the Persian and found that he was an upright man, incapable of inventing a story that might have defeated the ends of justice.
This, moreover, was the opinion of the more serious people who, at one time or other, were mixed up in the Chagny case, who were friends of the Chagny family, to whom I showed all my documents and set forth all my inferences. In this connection, I should like to print a few lines which I received from General D—:
I can not urge you too strongly to publish the results of your inquiry. I remember perfectly that, a few weeks before the disappearance of that great singer, Christine Daae, and the tragedy which threw the whole of the Faubourg Saint-Germain into mourning, there was a great deal of talk, in the foyer of the ballet, on the subject of the “ghost;” and I believe that it only ceased to be discussed in consequence of the later affair that excited us all so greatly. But, if it be possible—as, after hearing you, I believe—to explain the tragedy through the ghost, then I beg you sir, to talk to us about the ghost again.
Mysterious though the ghost may at first appear, he will always be more easily explained than the dismal story in which malevolent people have tried to picture two brothers killing each other who had worshiped each other all their lives.
Believe me, etc.
Lastly, with my bundle of papers in hand, I once more went over the ghost’s vast domain, the huge building which he had made his kingdom. All that my eyes saw, all that my mind perceived, corroborated the Persian’s documents precisely; and a wonderful discovery crowned my labors in a very definite fashion. It will be remembered that, later, when digging in the substructure of the Opera, before burying the phonographic records of the artist’s voice, the workmen laid bare a corpse. Well, I was at once able to prove that this corpse was that of the Opera ghost. I made the acting-manager put this proof to the test with his own hand; and it is now a matter of supreme indifference to me if the papers pretend that the body was that of a victim of the Commune.
The wretches who were massacred, under the Commune, in the cellars of the Opera, were not buried on this side; I will tell where their skeletons can be found in a spot not very far from that immense crypt which was stocked during the siege with all sorts of provisions. I came upon this track just when I was looking for the remains of the Opera ghost, which I should never have discovered but for the unheard-of chance described above.
But we will return to the corpse and what ought to be done with it. For the present, I must conclude this very necessary introduction by thanking M. Mifroid (who was the commissary of police called in for the first investigations after the disappearance of Christine Daae), M. Remy, the late secretary, M. Mercier, the late acting-manager, M. Gabriel, the late chorus-master, and more particularly Mme. la Baronne de Castelot-Barbezac, who was once the “little Meg” of the story (and who is not ashamed of it), the most charming star of our admirable corps de ballet, the eldest daughter of the worthy Mme. Giry, now deceased, who had charge of the ghost’s private box. All these were of the greatest assistance to me; and, thanks to them, I shall be able to reproduce those hours of sheer love and terror, in their smallest details, before the reader’s eyes.
And I should be ungrateful indeed if I omitted, while standing on the threshold of this dreadful and veracious story, to thank the present management the Opera, which has so kindly assisted me in all my inquiries, and M. Messager in particular, together with M. Gabion, the acting-manager, and that most amiable of men, the architect intrusted with the preservation of the building, who did not hesitate to lend me the works of Charles Garnier, although he was almost sure that I would never return them to him. Lastly, I must pay a public tribute to the generosity of my friend and former collaborator, M. J. Le Croze, who allowed me to dip into his splendid theatrical library and to borrow the rarest editions of books by which he set great store.
Is It the Ghost?
IT WAS THE EVENING on which MM. Debienne and Poligny, the managers of the Opera, were giving a last gala performance to mark their retirement. Suddenly the dressing-room of La Sorelli, one of the principal dancers, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of the ballet, who had come up from the stage after “dancing” Polyeucte. They rushed in amid great confusion, some giving vent to forced and unnatural laughter, others to cries of terror. Sorelli, who wished to be alone for a moment to “run through” the speech which she was to make to the resigning managers, looked around angrily at the mad and tumultuous crowd. It was little Jammes—the girl with the tip-tilted nose, the forget-me-not eyes, the rose-red cheeks and the lily-white neck and shoulders—who gave the explanation in a trembling voice:
“It’s the ghost!” And she locked the door.
Sorelli’s dressing-room was fitted up with official, commonplace elegance. A pier-glass, a sofa, a dressing-table and a cupboard or two provided the necessary furniture. On the walls hung a few engravings, relics of the mother, who had known the glories of the old Opera in the Rue le Peletier; portraits of Vestris, Gardel, Dupont, Bigottini. But the room seemed a palace to the brats of the corps de ballet, who were lodged in common dressing-rooms where they spent their time singing, quarreling, smacking the dressers and hair-dressers and buying one another glasses of cassis, beer, or even rhum, until the call-boy’s bell rang.
Sorelli was very superstitious. She shuddered when she heard little Jammes speak of the ghost, called her a “silly little fool” and then, as she was the first to believe in ghosts in general, and the Opera ghost in particular, at once asked for details:
“As plainly as I see you now!” said little Jammes, whose legs were giving way beneath her, and she dropped with a moan into a chair.
Thereupon little Giry—the girl with eyes black as sloes, hair black as ink, a swarthy complexion and a poor little skin stretched over poor little bones—little Giry added:
“If that’s the ghost, he’s very ugly!”
“Oh, yes!” cried the chorus of ballet-girls.
And they all began to talk together. The ghost had appeared to them in the shape of a gentleman in dress-clothes, who had suddenly stood before them in the passage, without their knowing where he came from. He seemed to have come straight through the wall.
“Pooh!” said one of them, who had more or less kept her head. “You see the ghost everywhere!”
And it was true. For several months, there had been nothing discussed at the Opera but this ghost in dress-clothes who stalked about the building, from top to bottom, like a shadow, who spoke to nobody, to whom nobody dared speak and who vanished as soon as he was seen, no one knowing how or where. As became a real ghost, he made no noise in walking. People began by laughing an
d making fun of this specter dressed like a man of fashion or an undertaker; but the ghost legend soon swelled to enormous proportions among the corps de ballet. All the girls pretended to have met this supernatural being more or less often. And those who laughed the loudest were not the most at ease. When he did not show himself, he betrayed his presence or his passing by accident, comic or serious, for which the general superstition held him responsible. Had any one met with a fall, or suffered a practical joke at the hands of one of the other girls, or lost a powderpuff, it was at once the fault of the ghost, of the Opera ghost.
After all, who had seen him? You meet so many men in dress-clothes at the Opera who are not ghosts. But this dress-suit had a peculiarity of its own. It covered a skeleton. At least, so the ballet-girls said. And, of course, it had a death’s head.
Was all this serious? The truth is that the idea of the skeleton came from the description of the ghost given by Joseph Buquet, the chief scene-shifter, who had really seen the ghost. He had run up against the ghost on the little staircase, by the footlights, which leads to “the cellars.” He had seen him for a second—for the ghost had fled—and to any one who cared to listen to him he said:
“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.”
This chief scene-shifter was a serious, sober, steady man, very slow at imagining things. His words were received with interest and amazement; and soon there were other people to say that they too had met a man in dress-clothes with a death’s head on his shoulders. Sensible men who had wind of the story began by saying that Joseph Buquet had been the victim of a joke played by one of his assistants. And then, one after the other, there came a series of incidents so curious and so inexplicable that the very shrewdest people began to feel uneasy.