Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Killing Me Softly

I spent the weekend crying. All because of Phantom of the Opera -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom. On PBS. The 25th anniversary production at London's Royal Albert Hall.

A dam burst open and I was powerless, like Christine, to stop it. The Music of the Night tore me apart.

Much later, after I had blubbered and sobbed my way through umpteen boxes of Kleenex, I began to consider how monster stories were all the rage in the 19th century. Monsters who penetrated our souls with their eternal damnation and agony. Monsters, who, through no design of their own, became heroic even as they were reviled. We pitied them even when they killed. We will always identify with them because we know what it is to be monstrous.

I made a quick list of monsters:

Quasimodo, the ugly Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Phantom of the Opera whose mother caged him at birth
The nameless freak created by Dr. Frankenstein
I never read the original Nosferatu legend, really, so I don't know the exact story. But, yes, his longing for a lost love is pitiable.

Moving toward modern times, I thought about King Kong.

These so-called beasts loved beauty, needed love, needed something and someone to humanize them. Tragically, "twas beauty killed the beast(s)" in one way or another.

How utterly divine they were and how heartbreaking in their purest form.

Interestingly, the original fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, comes to us from the 18th century. And in that story, like the Frog Prince, true love must, as in days of chivalry, conquer all, including evil spells cast on handsome princes by evil, jealous harpies. Beasts are saved by a kiss or a tear.

So, the progression seems to be that as society moved forward toward the Industrial Age, we became more dehumanized, our stories grew bleaker, and no redemption was at hand. It was, as they say, " a dark and stormy night."

We nursed a fascination for the grotesque. Poor Joseph Merrick, the real Elephant Man. He was brutalized by society, and society women were sexually aroused even as they were repulsed. Like the royal court of the Romanovs. Women wanted the smelly rutting hypnotic Rasputin.

Kind of disgusting. The capture and parade of grotesques and side-show performers was the Victorian rage. Freaks are an interesting subject examined by director Tod Browning in a 1932 movie, which was at one time banned.

But freaks were what made Barnum and Bailey successful. Everyone wanted to see freak shows. I guess the freak as a metaphor for the rising interest in eugenics and the ultra nationalism quietly spawning in Germany, was what transfixed Gunter Grasse in The Tin Drum.

Beasts and freaks make us feel superior externally, but remind us internally that everyone is exactly the same. We don't like that, so we throw stones, hurl rotten eggs; defile, scorn and ridicule that which disturbs our misguided sense of balance.

Officially, we stopped going to freak shows, outlawed freak shows, and bear baiting and cock fights. Officially.

But, we still need to kill freaks, round up the villagers and hunt down the Red Bogeymen, the monsters. The Jim Crow laws in the US are supposedly dead.
But, racial profiling isn't. Ethnic wars, us versus them is alive and well. Faggots are freaks, women are monsters.

But, I digress.

I miss the old monster stories -- the ones that were so naive in their clear-eyed view of right and wrong. I miss the purity of love in "All I Ask of You."