I went to see ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ for the first time as little while ago. Clearly, the power of the show lies in the fact that the story draws on the Greek myths, and so the themes that are dealt with are those that resonate with our experience, simply because we are human. What I am interested in is the solutions, which the myths themselves offer to life’s issues raised by the myth.
Take the story of the Phantom himself. Here is a person who has been disfigured from birth and is, by looking at his mask ‘half a man’. He has been ridiculed, and so has become bitter. But at the same time, he is very talented, musically. He teaches the ‘heroine’ Christine, how tossing beautifully by introducing her to ‘the music of the night’. (This is an allusion to the ‘dark side’ of human nature).
But not only does the Phantom want to introduce others to the music of the night, he wants some recognition of the place of ‘the dark side’ in normal life, lived in the ‘light’. And when this is refused, he resorts to force and violence to get his way. (“Little pig, little pig, let me in..or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and blow your house in!) In the end, the phantom’s dark side takes him over completely for a while, till Christine draws from him a modicum of compassion with a kiss. He lets the ‘couple of light’ go from his power, but this small amount of compassion is too little, too late in the piece, so he himself must ‘slip away’: he must be removed from the scene.
It seems to me, that the ‘children of light’ make the first mistake in this story. The phantom asks for some recognition, some ‘tribute’, but they refuse to pay. Right at the beginning, the ‘dark side’ of our natures is rejected outright.
This is unrealistic. The myth on which this story is based is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, and in ‘The Phantom’, Eurydice feels the attraction of the ‘underworld’ represented by Orpheus. Every girl knows this attraction; otherwise we would not remember the story of ‘Bonny and Clyde’, nor the story of Thelma and Louise. It is the same for young men. There is a saying that ‘Every young man must pluck three hairs from the beard of the devil.’
So we know the power of the dark side of our natures, and we know that we cannot be ‘good’ all of the time.
But what are we to do about it? The story of Orpheus and Eurydice tells us that she gives Orpheus his due. She spends some time (actually half!) in the underworld with him, which represents the season of winter, but then spends the other six months in the summer: in the light.
This solution to the problem of ‘the dark side’ is the very one which the ‘children of light’ in The Phantom do not have at their disposal.
It represents a limited acknowledgement of ‘the dark side’. It is interesting that just as Eurydice spends a limited amount of time in the underworld, so with young men, the elders in cultures where this works well, supervise the ‘plucking of three hairs from the beard of the devil’, so that the risk taking of young men does not lead to death or permanent damage. It is limited.
We also know this pattern at sporting events, and other places where there is a crowd. Being part of a crowd gives us a chance to ‘go on holiday’ from our ‘proper’ self, in order to vent our dark side on the umpires or players whom we don’t like!
The tragic result, which happens when the dark side of life is not given a limited acknowledgement, is that of the phantom. His redemption is not possible, even though signs of it are drawn from him by Christine’s kiss.
But now comes the hard part. Does being Christian have anything to say, or to add to our means of coping with our own darkness?
Some of the truth is that Christianity has too often Christianity has sided with its complete repression. There is just so much about ‘being children of the light’ in the Bible that it seems as though we have no way of giving our ‘dark side’ its due, and ‘cutting loose’ from tile to time. Is there a way of allowing any legitimate expression of our own ‘dark side’ within Christian faith so that we are not forced into complete repression and hence the violence of ‘the Phantom’?
The most powerful image that comes to me is Jesus’ embrace of sinners. It is this willingness to embrace us, which allows us to touch and become aware of our own darkness. Knowing that I am held, and that He will not let go of me, gives me permission to allow all that I am to be acknowledged, no matter how dark it may be. The limit on this embrace is perhaps that we do not act out the ‘darkness’, while at the same time, giving it due recognition. This is the most powerful way of being saved which I know. The psalms too, and some hymns give us the opportunity to touch and yes, even express our darkest thoughts and feelings without acting on them. That was the Phantom’s failure: he could only ‘act out’ the darkness, to his own and others’ harm.
But I think that Christians could do better in also allowing ‘cut loose’ time for Christianity. Carnival is one such time, when the ‘meaty’, ‘fleshy’ aspects of humanity are given limited rein, before the fast of Lent. We could make more of that.