Isolating Age: On Masks and Madmen in “Phantom of the Opera”

“Do you think all this being in masks is hurting people’s souls?” My mother asked me one day, as we put on ours for a routine trip to the grocery store.

How the hell was I to know? I’m a writer, not a theologian. And, on the off chance I do have a soul, I assume mine is already plenty scarred.

She continues: “If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”

During the first days of the pandemic, I vividly remember coming across the following tweet posted by @SamSykesSwears.

“I know self isolation can be hard, but PLEASE do not wear a mask that covers half your face, go down in the ancient waterways beneath an opera house and devote your life to the perfection of music. It might seem tempting, but it causes waaaaaay more problems than it’s worth.”

There are few theatre-goers who wouldn’t get the joke. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 smash hit, The Phantom of The Opera, is the longest running Broadway show of all time. It’s been a fixture there for over thirty-one years (aka more than six times longer than the confederacy existed…) thanks in part to its almost universal appeal. For instance: it’s one of my all-time favorite musicals. It’s also one of my “not-really-theatre-people” parents’ favorite musicals. Oddly enough, it’s also one of Donald Trump’s.

But not everyone is a Phantom phan. Some critics have deemed the musical too high on spectacle and low on depth and character development to be a truly satisfying one, an interesting criticism of a show that is in many ways about the power of images and the seductiveness of spectacle. The show’s key symbol and instantly recognizable logo, the Phantom’s mask, also makes the play an interesting one to consider now that another sort of mask is becoming a symbol of a completely different kind as the centerpiece of a country-wide debate.

By now, we’re so used to Phantom’s ubiquitous presence on the Great Bright Way that most of us seldom stop to think about, like, how fucking weird it is. Based on a 1910 book by Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera tells the story of Erik, a child born with a severe facial deformity. He is abandoned by his parents and left to make his way as a circus freak, an environment in which he is ceaselessly demeaned and mocked. In adulthood, he finds unlikely refuge in the waterways beneath the Paris Opera House and there refashions himself from the grotesque outcast Erik into an elegant “Phantom,” hiding the withered part of his face behind a pristine half-mask.

Emboldened by his newfound disguise, the Phantom then becomes a masterful composer and architect, uses schemes and threats to exert substantial control over the theatre’s politics, and finds a musical protégé and potential love interest in Christine, a beautiful young orphan training at the institution.

How much a simple mask can empower. How much a simple mask can protect.

And yet…how easily a mask can slip.

“If you’re in a mask that means you’re afraid.”

At first, the Phantom tries to woo Christine from afar, using only his voice to instruct her and keeping himself and his ugliness safely out of sight. It’s no accident that when he finally appears to her corporeally, it is from within her mirror, that this mirror was the place he took over as portal to his subterranean dungeon lair. That, perhaps unconsciously, he had attempted to take ownership over the site of his deepest, earliest wound.

The Phantom expresses his devotion to Christine obsessively, singularly, constantly composing music in her honor and blackmailing the opera’s owners until he lands her a starring role. And though his pursuit eventually drives him to actions that should be considered reprehensible (#problematicfaves), the Phantom’s style and persona help him remain a figure as seductive and sympathetic as he is frightening, a fact to which his story’s popularity attests.

And maybe even the Phantom’s intended would have one day been swayed by his sensual “music of the night”  was she not about to be reunited with her handsome, wealthy, childhood friend Raoul. In the song All I Ask Of You, the two declare their love:

Say you’ll share with me
One love, one lifetime
Say the word and I will follow you
Share each day with me
Each night, each morning
Say you love me
You know I do
Love me—that’s all I ask of you

In the movie version, this is a gorgeous moment — until you cut to the Phantom. Watching them. Watching her — his muse, his savior, his everything— getting away. He’s gripping the show’s second most famous symbol, a red rose, one he had given to Christine but that she’d carelessly discarded upon finding her new beau. The Phantom then picks it up as he sings a mournful reprise, only to rip it to pieces.

Now, for all my melancholy, I don’t actually cry very often; very rarely does a work of art move me to tears. But the first time I beheld this moment, I actually started to sob. For all its spectacle, Phantom of The Opera is still plenty capable of touching our hearts.

The show doesn’t need to be a particularly nuanced one to communicate raw emotion with this kind of visual shorthand; all I needed was the image and the sweeping score to be instantly taken back to all the times I’ve found myself on the outside looking in. Feel free to roll your eyes at the crashing chandelier, but under all Erik’s bizarre, theatrical overcompensations, his brokenness is all too real.

But let’s turn our attentions for the moment to the conspicuously unmasked madman who’s been running around the White House these days. Now, having already compared Donald Trump to the literal lord of the underworld as well as to Hitler, I’m reluctant to make yet another comparison to the Phantom… as that would be an insult to Erik.

But Trump’s kind of brought it on himself by playing songs from Phantom of The Opera at his campaign rallies. In some ways, it’s an odd choice; in others, a fitting one. Trump, after all, won over America almost entirely with spectacle. To quote my aforementioned Trump/Hitler piece, written for Musée Magazine’s 19th issue in early 2019:

Our nation elected Trump in part because we were taken in by the false aura of splendor his wealth and seeming self-assurance granted him, because of the solid nature his grandiosity and self-importance lent to his speeches, speeches with actual content so bizarre and incoherent that his candidacy should have been a joke. But instead of laughing, we handed him the keys to our kingdom. A close look at the president’s behavior, or even a casual scroll through his twitter feed, reveals his self-preoccupation and an outsized ego he would do anything to protect. If we continue to trust in Trump’s bravado and the surface glimmer of his crafted persona while ignoring the damaging and problematic messages he conveys, we risk making the same deadly mistake as did the Germans who were hypnotized by Hitler’s own manufactured ease.

All this, of course, is even truer now. Though Trump’s mistakes have gotten bigger and his ideas have gotten ever stranger (Lysol, anyone?), his ego, improbably, remains intact. Trump’s obsession with his own image is the reason why he prioritized resurrecting his “great economy” over saving actual human lives and gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op. It’s also the reason that he has continuously downplayed the importance of masks and still refuses to be seen wearing one, not wanting to give reporters “the satisfaction.”

            Which brings us quite seamlessly to Phantom of The Opera’s final moments, the “point of no return.” The Phantom’s unrequited love for Christine has long festered into a toxic madness, and, in front of an entire audience, she has pulled off his mask. We can see for the first time, not his sleek, suave surface but his hysterical desperation, along with his limp, thinning hair, and pathetic, naked face. In reaction, the Phantom has trapped Raoul in his lair and given Christine an ultimatum: he will free her lover if and only if she pledges to marry him.

Now, someone given only the above scene could well come away with the idea that, “people who look like monsters are monsters.” But those whom have the benefit of the whole story can clearly see that what is actually being conveyed is that, “people who we treat like monsters often become them.” Or that, “a lifetime of marginalization can drive people to actions that can seem, at first glance, incomprehensible.”

Then, instead of making a choice, Christine steps forward and kisses the Phantom—the only expression of love he has ever known. And then Erik realizes—that he has to let her go. Knowing, certainly, that she isn’t coming back. As the reunited Raoul and Christine make their way to safety and cruelly begin to reprise their timeless lover’s duet, Erik does the only thing left to do with his seething, bottomless rage; he turns it back on himself, towards his image. With bare fists, he can only shatter his mirror.

            Note that the first time I beheld this scene, having never properly stopped crying after All I Ask Of You‘s reprise, I was practically inconsolable. Despite years of hiding his very face in a futile effort to seek acceptance, the Phantom finds it in himself to show some damn humanity and sacrifice a future with his only love for the sake of her happiness. Meanwhile, Donald Trump doesn’t even have the humanity to put on a damn mask when doing so could’ve made him a powerful role model for the American people, and thus could almost certainly have saved lives.

Which, um, sort of begs the question:


“If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”

News flash: with over 100,000 Americans dead and new cases at over 50,000 new cases a day…WE FUCKING SHOULD BE.

Maybe we would look better or even feel safer without masks… but in truth, we would be in far greater danger. No mask can be worn forever; and no “masking” of the coronavirus pandemic is actually going to make it go away. Even the recent instances of horrifying police brutality that kicked the Black Lives Matter movement into high gear fall under the broader category of mistaking “seems” for “is,” and while I’m not going to try to simplify the matter to a platitude like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” also, like, DON’T?

This is no time to let ourselves be swayed by surfaces and spectacle but the time to choose discomfort over delusion, reality over denial; coronavirus will be hard enough to beat without us refusing to acknowledge that it even exists. And though, for now, our mouths and noses must stay covered, we should make sure our eyes are open wider than ever before.

Now, as I’ve proclaimed, is the time for vision, a time when the smallest shortsightedness could be deadly; masks, after all, do less to protect ourselves than the people around us. So this is the time to, for once, look at something other than our damn reflections and care about something beyond appearances, to truly see why we should continue to make a simple, selfless choice.

And if you happen to be reading this, Mr. President… I doubt there’s any face covering in the world that could possibly make you look any stupider than you already do.

Now, all of that being said, I do, eventually, plan on finishing this little Isolating Age series, and next up is Sunday In The Park With George by good old Stephen Sondheim, whose characters are some of the most solitary—and most twisted— folks around. Is anyone surprised that he’s my all-time favorite composer?

In the meantime, while obviously-not-working-on-this-post-for-nearly-a-month, I’ve been busying myself writing a few new short plays, finishing a one act, occasionally attempting to start or revise longer works, protesting for police reform (more on that eventually), and participating in the creation of a super-queer musical that takes place mostly in outer space (more on that in… I don’t know, a week?)

Meanwhile, happy mask-wearing, and happy weirdest July 4th in the world! I’ll be out (in all black) trying to fix America!

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