Phantom of the Opera: A Psychological Review
Phantom of the Opera has been playing on Broadway for twenty five years now which makes it the longest running play in the history of Broadway. It has been seen by over one hundred and thirty million people, world-wide. It is a phenomenon, a spectacle. It is tempting for a psychologist to wonder, "Why?"
I am writing as a fan. I have not made a serious study of the play or of the book on which it was based. I have not tried to gather information on those who wrote the music and the lyrics or who staged the various productions. I am not trying to look at it from all possible angles. I am writing from my own reactions and as a person who found the play captivating.
When I was in college, there was an idea going around that we only use 1% of our brains. The idea was that geniuses, such as Einstein, had access to more than 1% of theirs. And the suggestion was that if we could somehow tap into even a small part of the unused 99% of our own brains, we could become Einsteins. In the 1960's, under the influence of such writers as Aldus Huxley, some tried hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and Mescaline thinking that they could unlock the unexplored 99%. The results were often disastrous.
I am not sure what happened to the 1%-99% theory, but I have noticed basically the same idea being expressed in different ways on television. There are motivational speakers who talk about how we all have limitless potential locked up inside us. There is a gate or door that separates us from our true or deeper selves, and we are told that, if we buy a series of books or tapes or DVD's, we will be able to open these gates and find who we really are.
Some of these speakers are religious or, at least, they put the idea in religious terms. They say that God has given us untold powers and abilities and knowledge and that, if we can begin to break down the walls between ourselves and God, we can begin to partake in his power and knowledge and release the true potential, the self that God wants us to be. We can receive God's true blessings.
Traditionally psychologists have met with individual patients, one to one, face to face. We have had occasion to see, up close and personally, just what it might mean for the deeper, "locked up" parts of the brain or mind or psyche to become unleashed. Anyone who has worked for any length of time, psychologically, with people on an individual basis, would agree that there are unexplored parts of the self but would also have become acutely aware of the negatives as well as the positives of exploring these parts. It all sounds good on paper. To hear many people talk about it, it all sounds simple and wonderful and straightforward, but the reality can be both more wonderful than people image and also more dangerous, more wild and uncontrollable and terrifying. It is the difference between looking at a map of how to get to a place that appears on the map and actually using the map to go to the real place in person. And, what makes it more foggy, in the regions of the psyche, there aren't any good maps. The territories we are talking about are largely uncharted.
Phantom of the Opera, whatever else it does, puts out for the audience to see, what some of us psychologists call the drama of the contact with the unconscious. It takes us into the mind of a young, aspiring opera singer who hears a voice promising her that she can penetrate to the core of music and become a great singer. This is the voice of the phantom of the opera, but it is also, to use some of her words, an Angel (of music), an unseen and inner tutor and genius, and her guide and guardian. To meet this Angel and to learn from him, she must turn away "from that garish light of day" and towards him. In particular, she must turn from her boyfriend (and his invitation to dinner, for example) and towards another world, a world of dreams and imagination, the world deep insider her, the world in which she has already met the guide that has begun to teach her the deeper secrets of music and of life.
The singer, Christine ("Christine" being a female form of "Christ"), is not being asked to take a class or listen to a DVD that will give her the secret. It turns out she is being asked to leave all that she knows behind and travel, as if to a different country, or to a different world. The voice she is to follow comes to her and sings to her in her dreams. It is there, she says, inside her mind. She has to close her eyes and allow herself to become possessed. She has to "open up" her mind and allow herself to become helpless and defenseless. And it also turns out that she must fall, not into a light and airy world, but into a "labyrinth," a darkness, "a darkness you know you cannot fight." And it is this darkness that is the spirit of music. She has to let herself go completely with this spirit of music — and this letting go has sexual connotations ("softly, deftly, music shall caress you;" "rich desire;" "sweet seduction;" "I've already imagined our bodies entwining"). She has to allow herself to go to where she has always wanted to be, to a "strange new world." This is an "intoxication" (a word we use for someone under alcohol or a drug). She has to allow herself to be intoxicated, to enter a dream and there, to face the "darker side" of herself. It is only after this journey, away from the ordinary world of the senses, that she will be able to find the source of music, "the music of the night," and be able to work with and join with the Angel of Music. Then she and he will be writing music, creating music, together. She will no longer be part of the superficial world of the opera for which she works. When she returns to it, she will have found a whole other level and will have become a wholly different person.
I emphasize that the path being offered her by the phantom is not an easy path. The idea of buying a DVD and watching ten lectures in the comfort and security of ones own home and learning a few lessons and then penetrating to the secret of music, is not the path being offered to Christine by the phantom. The phantom or angel is not just offering something to Christine; he wants something from her in return. In fact he needs her. Not only is he saying that she has to leave her home, to leave all that she knows and everything that makes her feel safe, but she has to make a commitment to him. For her to learn what she wants to know, she has to go to where she always longed to be, but she has to go there because, as he tells her, that "only then can you belong to me." She has to decide, once and for all, between two sides, between two lives, between two worlds. She is told of "the point of no return, the final threshold." She has to go towards her Angel of Music (inside her mind), she has to marry him and become "one" with him and devote herself to him, or she has to go back to the ordinary world and have an ordinary life and an ordinary marriage to an ordinary man. The phantom will not allow her to go back to her ordinary life and take credit for and glory in what she learned from him.
This sounds as much a pact with Mephistopheles, the Devil (as made by Goethe's Faust) as it does an agreement with an Angel of the Lord. And, if it is an agreement with an Angel, it is not a Sunday morning agreement, but a total commitment which involves giving up ones whole life ("purge your thoughts of the life you knew before") in exchange for another. It is no wonder that Christine is frightened, terrified, and, at the same time, torn and tempted.
In the story, the phantom is not a beautiful, happy haloed angelic figure, but a tormented, half-grotesque figure who no one can bear to look at. He is also a murderer who is filled with rage and bitterness and envy. He is alone and preaches the need to learn to be alone. He is like a vacuum who is trying to pull in the beautiful and innocent Christine. Once in, it seems, she will never be able to get out. Yet she is tempted. Why? Because, at the same time, the phantom has the secret, and it is just the secret that Christine has always wanted to know: he offers her "true beauty," the possibility to "live as you've never lived before," and, as she says, though his face was "distorted" and "deformed," still "his voice filled my spirit with a strange sweet sound ... And through music my soul began to soar! And I heard as I'd never heard before." And what she saw and heard was extraordinarily emotional, it was a powerful emotion, because what she saw in his eyes was "all the sadness of the world." She went deeper into herself and into the world than she had ever gone before or wanted to go. She chose, at least for a while, to turn from her other boyfriend, "a slave of fashion" an "ignorant fool," and she learned.
Raoul, her boyfriend (the other part of herself), trying to get her back, trying to de-program her from the cult into which she has fallen, tells her, "What you heard was a dream and nothing more," "a fable," "a waking nightmare." And he goes on to tell her: "No more talk of darkness. Forget these wide-eyed fears ... let daylight dry your tears," and he offers to be her "shelter" and her "light." And this comforts her for the moment and gives her strength. But, from another angle, it is part of the garish light of day, and soon she relapses into terror.
The conflict in Christine, the temptation she feels, could be similar to the temptation Eve felt and is reminiscent of the story of the temptation of Christ, and her struggle is suggestive of Jacob's wrestling with the Angel when his hip is dislocated, even though he wins in the end.
In so far as we, the audience, identify with Christine, we are taken on her journey and have to face the temptation in ourselves, the phantom, "something inside" each of us, the Angels, the grotesque Angels within each of us. We sense there is a deep secret, something we have always wanted to know and feel we need to know, that is there for us to find and unlock. It is a secret deep inside, it is there in our minds, in our dreams, in our longings. It is a secret with two faces, and, to find it, we have to give up and risk everything we have that is safe and carefree. There is the definite danger of getting lost in madness, and this is what is laid out for us and dramatized in the play (at the end of Act 1, after Christine gives into the phantom, she passes out, so, she has become completely unconscious. In Acts 2 and 3 she comes back to consciousness and faces the problem and solves it in her own way).
I think this, in itself, can explain why one hundred and thirty million people have gone to see the play. It shows a longing to find the deeper self and a willingness to face just what finding it might mean.
There is another aspect of the story that I think should be mentioned. The question is presented to Christine — and to each of us —, "Which direction should we go?" And it seems like an either/or decision. Either we stay the way we are, locked in and committed to our ordinary lives that are, whatever their positivies, at times, superficial and boring. Or we give it all up and dive into the dark quicksand in search of the secret that will give everything meaning and take us to "where we always longed to be." But the play does not settle on it being a simplistic either/or problem. Christine does not give in one hundred percent to the angel (except for a moment) nor does she kill it (or have her boyfriend kill it) and return to the world of her senses. Christine interacts with the angel, even kisses it and helps it, learns from it, but, in the end she leaves it. In this way, it would seem, she is able to keep a foot in each world, maybe as best as is humanly possible.
In fact, in real life, many people feel the same exact problem. They don't want to fall one hundred percent into unconsciousness and get swept away into the glories and hells of an unconscious life on some dark back street of life. On the other hand, they rebel against the humdrum, surface existence into which it is so easy to fall. The play offers the possibility of a reconciliation, a possible integration. It recognizes the existence of and validity of and immense importance of the "other" world (or whatever we want to call it), and, at the same time recognizes the immensity of its dangers and the wondrous safety of the ordinary lives many people are lucky enough to have been able to construct. The ending of the play is unclear — the phantom says he'll never let Christine go but then let's her go; he disappears but is still there for the next young, aspiring singer to find — yet, since life itself is unclear, the ending of the play is realistically ambiguous. There is no easy answer to the struggle portrayed in the play and that psychotherapists see before them in their practices and that we all feel, off and on, inside ourselves. It is a testimony to the play and to the stage we have reached in the evolution of the human soul that we are able to tolerate looking at both sides in ourselves and that we experience the balancing of these sides as a workable problem, at least in theory.