Who among us doesn’t wear a mask? Even different masks for different occasions? At times it feels like our life is just one big masquerade ball - doesn’t it? We have our work mask, our lover mask, the parent mask, a friend mask and of course the mask of silent indifference we don on the subway to shield us from unpleasant intrusions. If we think about our own reasons for hiding behind a variety of facades, it becomes easier to understand Erik – the elusive “phantom” or “opera ghost” in Gaston Leroux’s novel “Phantom of the Opera”.
When preparing to direct the new musical production of “Phantom of the Opera” at the Players Theatre in NYC – I spent a lot of time getting to know the man behind the infamous mask and as a result came to learn a lot about myself through comparison.
Erik had a tragic beginning. Born with an unsightly, horrifying appearance, he learned at birth that hiding behind a mask was the only way to protect himself from ruthless scorn and ridicule. It is amazing how what happens as a child forms us and haunts us for the rest of our lives. I still have nightmares about the lunch line in high school – do you still have dreams of those brutal childhood events? Imagine what it must have been like for Erik to have no refuge from such brutality. As Gaston Leroux points out in the novel, “even his mother never looked lovingly upon him”.
So we have a child neglected by his mother and abused by his father who runs away and joins a band of gypsies who, being “freaks” themselves, accept him. They use him – exhibiting him as “living corpse” - but they also teach him the skills of illusion and deception allowing him to master every skill from ventriloquism to pick-pocketing. Interesting, a child growing up in terrible circumstances is tossed away by his family and ends up in the company of “bad people” and inherits their lifestyle. Hmmm. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Too familiar.
Yes, the more I study the Phantom the more I realize that he is not some obscure monster or evil demon. No he is simply a man as human as you or I. There is a piece of Erik in all of us. It may be hidden beneath a mask so that no one can see it – but we still know it is there.
Until next time – Be Bold!