No, that’s not a typo. This really is part 4 of this series. I just haven’t got part 3 finished yet, and I really wanted to put this part out for Easter!
So I was listening to the Final Lair (Phans term for the final scene from the musical) a while back, and something dawned on me. I think it’s something I’ve known intuitively all along, but I’d never realized it consciously before. And, on that note, that’s one of the awesome, amazing things about Phantom – that, after 25 years of Phanship, I can still find insights like this in it!
Anyway, as you know, for a while now, I’ve been posting a series comparatively analysing the stage-version of Phantom vs the 2004 film adaptation. And, while listening to the Final Lair the other day, I was thinking about the effect of that scene in both versions. For the music and lyrics are the same, and the staging is largely similar (though with a few significant changes), but, in fact, the two final scenes “say” two very different things.
In the Gerik (the 2004 film), the Final Lair comes after we have learned about the Phantom’s childhood time in the “Gipsy” fair and how he has since known “nothing of life except this Opera House”, and we have seen his very much downplayed deformity (which is revealed at the end of the song The Point of No Return, just before the chandelier crashes). Thus, by the time we get to the final scene, we’ve had the Phantom set up for us as some one who could, because of his proximity to bodily “normality”, have easily assimilated into society, but who was never helped/made to “get over” the abuse he suffered in the fair and the out-of-proportion sense of ugliness it instilled in him. We have had his sense of the whole world rejecting him on account of his face set up for us as “all in his head” – an internal, psychological problem which could have been cured rather than an actual social reality (see first post in this series). So, when Christine chooses him in order to save Raoul and kisses him, it comes across simply as an act of pity, though it’s professed as being compassion rather than pity.
In the stage-version, however, because the Phantom has sought for compassion out in the world and not found it for much of his adult life before coming to retreat to the Opera House (see again post 1), this moment comes across very differently, and makes a far more powerful point. Here, when Christine says to him “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you you are not alone!”, it is, in effect, an apology for the way society – and the whole of “respectable” society, not just an itself pathologized, not to mention racialized fringe element thereof (the “Gipsy” fair) – has treated him. It comes across as a true act of compassion rather than mere pity.
And this is where the stage-version ending makes a far more powerful point, and, in fact, one that powerfully echoes, or perhaps parallels, the message of the Gospel. For, in the Gerik, the Phantom is seen escaping after he has released Christine and Raoul. But, in the stage-version, the ending is highly ambiguous. The Phantom is simply seen sitting on his throne and pulling his cloak over himself. When the cloak is pulled away, only his mask remains on the seat. And, while this may be read as his having escaped, a reading based on the original Leroux novel lends it to implying his death – and I think this is supported by the staging, in which, once the mask is revealed on the seat, the lights slowly go down until it alone can be seen, held up by the kneeling Meg Giry, and then the stage goes black. But, if we read the ending this way, then, although the Phantom was able to regain his dignity and turn back from evil to good, in the end, Christine’s act of compassion was not enough. Loosing her still broke him beyond his ability to heal. And yet, as I’ve said before, to me at least, although I think to many others as well, the stage-version does not leave one depressed or despairing. Grieving for what happened to the Phantom, yes, but also always powerfully uplifted and inspired.
Now, this is partly because, although the staging and the original novel do argue for a reading of the Phantom dying at the end, many of us, self included, prefer to read it as his having escaped. But I think there is a much deeper source for the powerful uplift of the stage-version as well. To find it, though, we have to go back to Act I, to the songs “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Music of the Night”. In these songs, in the stage-version, the Phantom invites Christine to become his partner in the space of resistance he has created beneath the Opera House through his creative expression – his music, his creation of the “Lair”, his persona of the Phantom. He invites her to love him, but, as argued in my second post in this series, in a way far different, more powerful and more subversive than the polite, tame, sentimental romance endorsed by mainstream society.
So what does this say then? Well, it’s an extrapolation I admit. But I think it argues that compassion alone is not enough. It’s a good start, but it alone is not strong enough – not powerful enough – to heal the wounds of a cruel, exclusionary, violent society which meticulously ranks and stratifies people according to their ability to match up to impossible ideals of youth, “wholeness” and beauty. Compassion alone is not enough to heal the Phantom from what that society has done to him. It can call him back from falling into evil and help him regain his dignity, but it is not enough on its own to do the full work of restoration of a broken soul and spirit. Compassion can begin that work, but, to complete it, only radical love will do.
And stage-version Phantom Phans have always known that I think! For, many of us have always imagined the Phantom finding the love that could heal him, either with Christine or with some one else.
And this is because we all know instinctively, I think, that the turning back from evil that the Phantom does in the Final Lair, when he chooses to let Christine and Raoul go free rather than hold Christine to the impossible choice he had tried to force her to make, is only the beginning. It is only the first step in a long journey of repentance and healing, and that journey is hard work! It is hard work to look, closely and honestly, at the sins of oppression, exclusion and othering that have been committed against you and at how you’ve, in turn, internalized that oppression and perpetrated it against others. (And that’s one of the things that’s so powerful about Phantom. He isn’t blameless. Having been marginalized, he, like so many of us, perpetrates oppression against others – Christine, and the rest of the opera company.) And, as one undertakes this journey of repentance, there will be times when you backslide – when you forget, and fall back into old patterns internalized from the experience of marginalization. More than that, that journey requires the one who undertakes it to face his/her deepest fears, pains and insecurities. For all these reasons, then, it is a journey that cannot be undertaken alone. One needs support – support that has the strength to hang in through all of that crap! And I believe that the stage-version of Phantom makes the case that only radical love can give sufficient strength to both the one undertaking the journey and the one/s supporting him/her. But, as I argued in the first post in this series, it is not agape. It is not a generalized love for all humanity, though that’s important too. Rather, it is a specific, passionate love for a specific person/community of people.
Of course, the Gospels teach that this is exactly the kind of love God has for us, and which is spectacularly demonstrated now at Easter by Christ’s supreme act of love in going to the cross so that we might be healed. That, to me, is part of the awesome power of the Christian message! It says that we don’t have to make that journey of repentance alone – that God walks it with us, and that God’s love will give us the strength we need and has the strength to support us. And thank God for that!
But, even if you don’t believe in God or Christ or any of that, I think a huge part of the power of the original stage-version of Phantom is that it, too, says that that kind of love is real. It argues, I think, that that kind of love is something we can have for each other, and that it’s powerfully transformative when we do. Granted, I’m thoroughly aware of the danger, and, indeed, the well-founded criticisms of the heteropatriarchal myth that suggests that a single partner can or should answer all a person’s needs. And I’m well aware that Phantom runs the serious danger of falling into that trap! Even so, though, I think there’s a case to be made that, at its best, that’s not what Phantom’s about. Rather, it’s about a courageous kind of love that’s transformative for both/all parties. After all, potentially, it doesn’t just help the Phantom walk his journey of repentance, but also helps Christine (or equivalent) walk hers. It helps her, too, learn to find her strength and courage – to learn where she’s internalized oppressive norms and undertake the struggle to liberate from them. It helps her take a stand, and gives her strength to try again when she backslides. And, indeed, it is this kind of empowering, transformative love that I find in the best Phanfictions in which the Phantom finds happiness. And, indeed, in these Phanfics, it’s not just the two, the Phantom and Christine or equivalent, against the world. It’s them plus at least a micro-community, which is as it should be. Moreover, in such Phanfics, unlike in the heteropatriarchal myth, rather than being an exclusionary force which draws them into a dyad that shuts others out, it is, in fact, the passionate love between the Phantom and Christine that draws this micro-community together around them. It becomes a warmth that invites and draws others who are willing to embrace the space of alterity and resistance it inhabits. Thus, the micro-community and the lovers nourish and give strength to each other.
The thing is that, although I reference the Phanfiction above to make my point, I felt the message that that kind of radical, transformative love is real from Phantom long before I started reading it. And I can’t entirely say how I got that message from the text – the lyrics and staging – of the show. Perhaps it just seemed intuitively obvious that that’s what it would take to give the story the happy ending it should have – where the Phantom finds healing, and where Christine is strong enough to both handle him and his issues and stand up to society when it gives her crap for being with him? In any case, I felt it very strongly, and that was a huge part of why Phantom had such an impact on me then and now! And I would suspect that it is the same for a great many of my fellow Phans out there. Phantom makes a stark case for why that kind of radical love is needed in the world. But it also, at least to me, though I’d guess it’s so also for others for whom the story resonates, holds out the vision of what that kind of love can do – of the kind of transformative, healing, liberating power it can be!
But what, then, does that say about/for those who, like the Phantom of the musical and novel, never do experience that kind of love? Honestly, I don’t know, except that Phantom very definitely argues that, without it, full healing is impossible, because the work of repentance involved is too much to do alone and unsupported. Now, as I mentioned above, I, like many people, believe that God loves us all that way, and that all we need to do is to connect with God’s love, in whatever idiom works for us, to have the support we need. But I know many don’t believe that. And, for some one as severely wounded as the Phantom, it can be damned hard to believe in a loving and merciful God as anything but a fairy-tale when all you experience around you is exclusion and cruelty.
The good news, though, is that just because we can’t achieve full healing and transformation alone doesn’t mean we’re powerless to do anything at all! We can begin the process, even if we can’t get all the way there by ourselves. We can begin, at least, to understand how our own attitudes and actions are rooted in the oppressions and exclusions we’ve experienced, and we can at least begin to own up to how we’ve passed that on to others. We may not be able to find the strength to dig all the way, but we can start! And, the even better news is that, I believe, the story of the Phantom argues that, yes, even one as wounded as the Phantom can make such a beginning. After all, he does so in the Final Lair by recognizing that his actions are wrong and letting Christine and Raoul go free. In fact, he has made a start even earlier, too, by creating a space of resistance for himself and seeking to share it. And it is of critical importance that we make such a beginning, and that we strive earnestly to go as far as we can down the road of repentance and transformation. Because, it is by doing this that we make ourselves ready for that radical, liberating love when it comes, whether we ultimately find it from God and/or another person. It’s in beginning the journey of repentance, even if we can’t complete it on our own, that we find/build up the strength and courage to accept and embrace that kind of love when it comes, and to do what it will demand of us. It may even be that, in making ourselves ready like that, that we invite that kind of radical love in!
And, God knows, we need more of that radical, transforming, redeeming love in the world today. We loose far too many souls to bitterness, despair, and outright cruelty, both as victims and as victimizers. So, I pray, let’s get to work, open the space for it to enter in, and make our hearts ready for it. And may we embrace it courageously when it comes!
And happy and blessed Easter! Christ is risen! Hallelujah!