Behind the Phantom's Mask (1993)

     by Roger Ebert

This is, first of all, not a retelling of the Phantom story per se; it's an original story, connected to the Phantom tale by references to and intrusions from the Lloyd Webber musical.  Some readers (I assume mostly the ones here at this site, since other people are probably not reading Ebert's work as much through the lens of Leroux Studies) might be confused about whether it has anything to do with the Phantom story at all. But the book shares a lot of themes and concepts with the Phantom story, and since it's also a fun tongue-in-cheek romp, it's getting a writeup here anyway.

 

The book isn't quite in classic novel composition, though it has been edited up a little prior to publication; like Leroux's novel itself, this was originally published as a newspaper serial, so it's full of cliff-hangers and reads in easily-digested chunks. This doesn't take anything away from its effectiveness, but it's fun to note that it is the first related novel, chronologically, that shares that style with Leroux's.

 

Mason Devereaux is the main character, and he is plagued by eternal misfortune and bumbling, most of which, we discover, has been brought on by himself. A chronic alcoholic and failed (though not really talentless) actor, he has hit the skids mostly through his fondness for liquor and his tendency toward stagnation. His love interest, Sheila Chesham, is an extremely rich British heiress who finds him endearing and enjoys slumming with him despite having a rich fiancé, Douglas.

 

The basic moral message for the novel, occasionally visible under the layers of satire and wicked referential humor, is that everyone deserves a second chance; a chance at love, certainly, and at appreciation, but at life in a broader sense as well. The idea that no person is completely irredeemable is one of the core ones of Leroux's original novel, and although the original Erik's physical deformity or condition and Devereaux's alcoholism are not the same kind of illness, they're both conditions that are not the fault of their sufferer and that can be overcome by the compassion and care of those around them. The idea that those who are not the most beautiful or the most fortunate (Mason Devereaux is neither) can and should still achieve happiness is almost lost in the sea of parody, but it is there.

 

Mason represents, in many capacities, a modern-day Phantom figure. Aside from the obvious reference in that he understudies the role in Lloyd Webber's musical (it's worth noticing that he's the understudy - in other words, not quite good enough to play the role he's representing, even), he is described as "a great man who sincerely believed he was a failure", a psychological parallel to Leroux's beleaguered genius, who viewed himself as fundamentally monstrous and worthless in the grand scheme of things despite his obvious musical talent. Devereaux's rocky, frequently almost non-existent relationship with Sheila is another parallel; it was nice to see that Ebert had finally done what many a modern version of the story has wussed out on, and was using the age gap between them (Sheila is in her twenties, Mason about fifty) to function essentially as the "deformity" whose psychological influence he is constantly prey to. The original Erik's despair over the ostracizing effect of his appearance is echoed in Mason's continual glum conviction that Sheila would have no interest whatsoever in someone so much older than herself. In the same way, Mason's alcoholism (which, despite the entertaining and affectionate manner in which it is treated throughout much of the narrative, is a serious condition that significantly hampers him throughout his life) fulfills much the same function as Erik's mental condition does in the original novel, and just as it was Erik's behavior that alienated Christine in the end, Mason's self-destructive tendencies do more to drive Sheila away than the age divide does.

(I'd like to note, though that like a lot of books in which an older man falls in love with a young woman, nobody ever really discusses the issues of power dynamics or why someone in their fifties is pursuing someone so much younger in the first place. Devereaux doesn't have Erik's excuse of being attracted to Christine's sublime vocal potential; Sheila is very much younger than he is and Ebert could have put more into explaining what exactly he likes about her to prevent the reader from wondering if he's attracted to a twenty-year-old because he's lionizing youth or because women his own age won't put up with his bullshit.)

 

Sheila, in turn, is a very Christine-like character, whose naiveté and lack of worldliness is explained via her social circumstances (as a very rich heiress, she knows plenty about tea parties but not very much about functioning in the less wealthy circles of London and the Americas). While she is engaged to Douglas, whom she describes as very young and handsome, she nevertheless acknowledges that Mason has what she refers to as an "irresistible" personality and that she is drawn to him despite viewing him as a father figure (another parallel to Leroux's character, although since Leroux's Erik was actually impersonating her father and this was very much Not Cool, Mason is on a lot sketchier ground when it comes to portraying this as a budding romance). At the very beginning, when she is stuck in the machinery underneath the stage, she reflects that she is literally trapped "within the wheels that moved the Phantom's world", a very apt description both of her situation and of Leroux's heroine's dilemma. Unlike Christine's relationship with Erik, Sheila's and Mason's bizarre courtship ends happily, but not until Mason has overcome his alcoholism and made serious changes to his life and behavioral patterns.

 

This story isn't intended to be a modern retelling; the characters represent many of the same ideas, but the storyline is Ebert's, and most of the borrowed elements (which could easily have been borrowed from either Leroux or Lloyd Webber, though there seems to be a certain romanticism attached and lampooned that suggests the latter) of the Phantom story are present without being at the forefront. The echoing of the story is constant, usually in order to parody it by showing how extremely implausible and un-romantic it would be in a real-life modern setting (for example, Sheila's ancestors built several secret passageways and an artificial lake under their manor, but all that this accomplishes is for everybody to get lost in the dark and for Mason to almost die before finding his way to the surface). We've got a few "accidental" murders (usually "accidental" because the murderer in question is a waffler who claims it wasn't really his fault he shot those people, which is appropriate for certain half-baked popular defenses of Erik's murders in the original), some mysterious machinery, frequent discussion of mental illness in less than glowing terms, a "sort of" engagement between Sheila and Douglas, frequent wearing of literal masks, frequent use of the Majestic Hotel (which is probably a reference to the Majestic Theatre in New York, home to Lloyd Webber's musical for the last two decades), angsting over how the lady you killed those guys for wants nothing to do with you because you killed those guys, boats floating through dark caverns, mention of ghosts haunting operas, mention of Lazarus, villains turning up with "masks" of mud and blood over their faces, and finally a redemption (achieved via Alcoholics Anonymous), all of which point us toward a very funny, very savvy modern satire of the romantically gothic and overwrought spectacle that is the Phantom story.

 

Especially entertaining is Mason's literal (and accidental) imprisonment in the Iron Mask (hello, Dumas!), and the unsubtle but nevertheless entertaining discussion of how it effectively removes him from any kind of normal social interaction or life; Ebert is poking fun at these tragic, dramatic stories by placing his modern hero in the same situations and pointing out that they are, rather than being romantic and swoon-worthy, mostly just extremely inconvenient.

 

Ebert's writing style, unsurprisingly, is snappy, savvy, intelligent, and extremely engaging and enjoyable. The characters are very real-seeming, and the suspenseful moments (which are plentiful, given that the novel was originally a newspaper serial that wanted to hook the reader for the next installment) are masterful; not only is a reader frequently completely at a loss as to how characters are going to survive or escape their predicaments, they are also emotionally invested enough in them to really care. I was worried about these fictional people, which is a sign of something being done right. The constant insights into show business - agents, producers, backstabbing, etc. - are interesting and provide us with a window into an industry that the average reader may not know much about, and Ebert's obvious knowledge of the subject comes through with a witty ability to share its funnier moments with his audience.

 

It's worth noting (at least, for me) that this is an example of a suspenseful (albeit satirical) narrative done right. It is engaging and surprising without resorting to ridiculousness that doesn't aid the story, and while it does indeed make reference to other works, such as Oliver Twist or Agatha Christie's novels, it does so in an amusingly tongue-in-cheek manner that lets us know that the comparison is in fun. The difference between this and the miserable pseudo-suspenseful Ryan novel is the difference between cow patties and Oreos.

 

My favorite line of the entire novel, spoken by Mason, is possibly one of the great questions of all Phantom literature, and a perfect example of Ebert's background as a film critic and flair for brilliant satire:

 

"Why are we moping about in the bowels of a rat-infested French dungeon? What purpose is being served?"

A question every derivative version of the story should be asking itself.

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