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|Gaston Leroux (1868-1927)|
French mystery novelist, playwright, journalist, and a prolific feuilletonist. Leroux is best known for his Le Fantôme de l'opéra (1910, The Phantom of the Opera), in which a criminally insane recluse haunts a Paris opera house, and abducts a young and beautiful singer to his cellar retreat. The novel has been a source for several films and stage adaptations, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version, first produced in 1987.
"The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade." (from The Phantom of the Opera)
Gaston Louis Alfred Leroux was born in Paris, the son of Dominique Alfred Leroux, a wealthy public contractor, and Marie Bidault. Leroux's grandparents owned a ship-building company in St. Valery-en-Caux, Normandy, where he grew up. While at school, he began writing stories in the style of Aleksanre Dumas and Victor Hugo. To please his father, Leroux abandoned his plans to become a writer and went to Paris to study law, receiving his degree in 1889. His father died later in the same year and after inheriting nearly a million francs, Leroux spent the following six months in his life drinking and gambling.
Finding most of his money gone, Leroux started to work as a theater critic and reporter for L'Écho de Paris. His breakthrough piece was a sonnet he composed about an actress. By the end of 1890 Leroux had become a courtroom reporter, covering the Dreyfuss affair as one of his assignments. Between the years 1894 and 1906 he travelled in different countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia as a correspondent. Leroux wrote for the daily newspaper Le Matin and L'echo de Paris and reported amongst other things about the Russian Revolution of 1905. While in Switzerland in 1902, he met Jeanne Cayatte, the love of his life, who became his mistress and bore him two illegitimate children. Because Leroux's wife, Marie Lefranc refused to grant him a divorce, they were not able to marry until she died in 1917.
From 1909 Leroux devoted himself entirely to writing, focusing on plays and popular novels of mystery and detection. Often his ideas came to him in dreams. In 1919 Leroux established his own film company called Cinéromans. When Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Pictures visited Paris on vacation, Leroux gave him a copy of Phantom of the Opera. Fascinated by the book, Laemmle decided to make it into a big budgeted movie. However, at the time of the filming, Leroux was ill at his Paris home, and he did not contribute to its making. Leroux died in Nice on April 15/16, 1927, as a result of an acute urinary. To his final moments, Leroux maintained that his "Opera Ghost really did exist!"
Leroux started to write novels in the early 1900s. Between the years 1903 and 1927 he produced two dozen newspaper serials, many shorter works and seven plays. In the UK and the USA Leroux's reputation was long based on his mysteries. His breakthrough work was Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1907, The Mystery of the Yellow Room), which introduced the teenager crime reporter Joseph Josephson aka Rouletabille, a young journalist with a bullet-shaped head (hence his name). Its plot included one of the first "locked room" murder motifs. Mademoiselle Stangerson is found in The Yellow Room, lying on the floor in the agonies of death. She has cried "Murder! - murder! - help!" The room is sealed from the inside with a key and bolt, and the blinds on the only window are also fastened on the inside. Rouletabille's friend, Sinclair, chronicles the story, and serves as Rouletabille's own Dr. Watson. The official detective in the case, the least suspected person, is in fact a notorious criminal, who becomes the hero's arch-enemy - later a much used bluff. "When I sat down to pen that story," Leroux recalled, "I decided to go 'one better' than Conan Doyle, and make my 'mystery' more complete than even Edgar Allan Poe had ever done in his stories of Mystery and Imagination. The problem which I set myself was exactly the same as theirs that is, I assumed that a crime had been committed in a room which, as far as exits and entrances were concerned, was hermetically closed."
Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir (1909), the sequel to Le Mystère... also gained popularity, but Le Fantôme de l'opéra, produced from the author's fascination with the Paris Opera House, which really is set above a network of catacombs. Before publishing the novel, Leroux had written an account of the 1896 disaster, in which one of the chandelier's counterweights had fallen down and killed a patron of the playhouse. Leroux also owned the architectural plans of the building and knew about its secret passageways. After a skeleton was found in the Opera cellars, Leroux began to work on the novel by mixing fact and fiction: "In those labyrinthine cellars and the mysterious subterraneas lake which was visible through iron grilles in the floor only if a torch was lit to pierce the blackness, there was an atmosphere that seemed to demand that yard to be told." Le Fantôme... was first serialized in Le Gaulois, then published in book form, but the work was only a moderate success until newspapers in Great Britain and the United States published a serialized version of the story, with images of the Phantom.
The Phantom of the Opera, translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, is a version of the classic tale 'Beauty and the Beast', but the real object of fatal obsession is music, embodied in the character of Erik. "Erik was born in a small town not far from Rouen. He was the son of a master mason. He ran away at an early age from his father's house, where his ugliness was a subject of horror and terror to his parents." After years of wandering, Erik hides himself in the corridors and underground locales of the Paris Opera House. He has helped in the reconstruction of its cellars, and incorporated many trapdoors in the building. He falls in love with a young singer, Christiane Daaé, and arranges a series of deaths to advance her career. Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, is also in love with Christine, but she is forbidden by Erik to respond to his advances. When the Opera managers refuse to make her a star, the unmasking of Erik's evil side leads to his destruction. "'Know,' he shouted, while his throat throbbed and panted like furnace, 'know that I am built up of death from head to foot and that this is a corpse that loves you and adores you and will never, never leave you!..."
The plot is presented as a story pieced together from journal entries, alternating first-person narratives, and interviews, revealing the "true" history of the Opera Ghost. In the classic film version from 1925 Lon Chaney was the victim of torture with a crazed mind. Chaney is a composer himself and in his obsession with Mary Philbin, a lovely singer, he drives away the opera's star so that Philbin can have the lead in Faust. Philbin is twice abducted by the Phantom to his secret world. The great moment of the film is when the Phantom is unmasked while playing the organ. As a result of a misfired publicity stunt, the film was banned in Britain for four years. In 1930 a talkie was issued, with some new footage and dialogue which had been recorded by the surviving actors. Arthur Lubin paid a great deal of attention to music in 1943 in his remake - Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Jane Farrar had singing roles. The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was Brian de Palma's horror comedy-drama about a disfigured musician haunting a contemporary pop palace. The film was poorly received by many critics but attained a large cult following. Susan Kay's novel Phantom (1990) was based on Leroux's work and won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award; Terry Prachett also played with Leroux's ideas in his Maskerade (1995).
The character of Rouletabille has also inspired several films. Henri Fescourt's 10-episode serial, Rouletabille chez les bohémes, was made in 1921, starring Gabriel de Gavrone. Istvan Szekely made Rouletabille aviateur (1932) with Roland Toutain, and Christian Chamborant starred Jean Piat in loose adaptations of Leroux's work, Rouletabille joue et gagne (1946) and Rouletabille contre la dame de pique (1947). In the 1960s the hero appeared in France in a television series. One episode was directed by Yves Boisset. Claude Brasseur played the detective under the direction of Jean Kerchbron.
Cheri-Bibi, an adventurer, was perhaps Leroux's most popular character in France. He appeared in such detective novels as Cheri-Bibi (tr. 1914), Cheri-Bibi: Mystery Man (tr. 1916), Missing Men: The Return of Cheri-Bibi (tr. 1923), and The Dark Road; Further Adventures of Cheri-Bibi (tr. 1924). The first film of Chéri Bibi was made in 1913, directed by Gérard Bourgeois and starring René Navarre. Charles Krauss directed Les premieres aventures de Chéri Bibi (1914), starring Emile Keppens. Nouvelle Aurore / Nouvelles aventures des Chéri Bibi (1919) was directed by Edouard-Emile Violet, starring José Davert. Léon Mathot continued the adventures with Pierre Fresnay in Chéri Bibi (1937), and the Italian Marcello (Marcel) Pagliero made Chéri Bibi / Il forzato della Guiana (1955), starring Jean Richard.
Leroux's narrative was fast moving, and he often used complicated plots. Later mature work show the influence of Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, especially 'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842) in The Phantom... and the tale 'Thou Art the Man,' in which the detective turns out to be the murderer - the idea appeared again in The Mystery of the Yellow Room. In the novella The Burgled Heart (tr. 1925) Leroux employed supernatural elements - the astral body of a French woman is abducted by an English artist. The Kiss that Killed (tr. 1934) and The Machine to Kill (tr. 1935) featured a vampire and a robot as murderers.
For further reading: Murder for Pleasure by P. Haining (1941); Hommage à Gaston Leroux (1953); Horror! by D. Douglas (1969); The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and Supernatural, ed. by by Jack Sullivan (1986); Something About the Author, ed. by D. Olendorf (1991); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. by John Clute and John Grant (1997); The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera: Sublimation and the Gothic in Leroux's Novel and Its Progeny by Jerrold E. Hogle (2002) - Diverse film adaptations: Alsace (1915), dir. by Henri Pouctal; La sept de trefle (1921) by René Navarre and M. Manzoni; Il êtait deux petits enfants (1927)