Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

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Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  Jennie on Thu Jan 15, 2015 7:40 pm

First of all I would like to thank Raj Shah for introducing me to the memoirs of Monsieur Nestor Roqueplan, manager of the Paris Opera between 1847 and 1854 . It was through Raj Shah’s “No ordinary skeleton: unmasking the secret source of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” that I tracked down and read Roqueplan’s memoirs . These are mentioned in Leroux’s handwritten manuscript, but not in the published version of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra.

Leroux drew on real-life characters and events, incorporating them in his work. His inspiration for the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera may have been a combination of two real accidents involving chandeliers or equipment attached thereto. In 1888 a chandelier did fall and kill a member of the audience at the Théâtre-Lyrique, and in 1896 at the Paris Opera, also called the Opéra Garnier after its architect, a concierge was killed by parts from a counterweight to the reflecting disc above the chandelier.

Leroux’s “world-famous modern myth”  created fantasy not only from reality, but also fictionalized already existing legends.  Raj Shah describes this in his paper “No ordinary skeleton [ ]”, where he dissects the anatomy of a theatrical myth perpetuated in the story of Phantom. In his handwritten manuscript, Leroux quotes a large section from Les Coulisses de L’Opéra,  a chronicle by Nestor Roqueplan.  Roqueplan tells the story of Boismaison, a young dancer at the Paris Opera, who is crossed in love, dies and bequeathes his skeleton to the opera house. Boismaison’s skeleton was allegedly used on the stage to enhance the atmosphere during the performance of the Freyschütz by Weber. Entranced by this romantic ending to a love story, whereby a spurned suitor started a new life after death at the theatre, Leroux proposes (in the manuscript) that the skeleton of the Phantom also should be used as a theatre prop. This part of the manuscript did not survive the transfer to the newspaper serial published in le Gaulois, I am thankful to say. In my opinion, the Phantom deserved a more dignified fate, than to be used as some kind of ghoulish bone-rattling marionette in a theatre.  

A closer study of Roqueplan’s Les Coulisses de l’Opéra also offers enlightening glimpses into the world behind the theatre scenes, as well as raising smiles of recognition among those familiar with Leroux.

I have always wondered at Leroux’s description of Madame Giry’s hat… he describes it several times as soot-coloured, “la couleur de suie”. He trots out the phrase “chapeau couleur de suie” at regular intervals in the novel. In Roqueplan’s  les Coulisses we find two mentions of soot-coloured hats. Firstly, when he describes the ballet rats, the young girls at the theatre:
“Le vrai rat, en bon langage, est une petite fille de sept à quatorze ans, élève de la danse, qui porte des souliers usés par d’autres, des châles déteints, des chapeaux couleur de suie, se chauffe à la fumée des quinquets, a du pain dans ses poches, et demande dix sous pour acheter des bonbons.”

“The real rat, in polite language, is a small girl between seven and fourteen, a dance pupil who wears shoes worn out by others, faded shawls and soot-coloured hats, who warms herself in the smoke from the lamps, has pieces of bread in her pocket, and begs ten sous to buy some sweets.”

In the manuscript (but not in the newspaper serial, nor the book) Meg Giry is thirteen years old, placing her at the top end of the age scale for ballet rats.

The soot-coloured hat also appears on the head of a typical mother of the theatre’s artists…

“Pour sa toilette de ville elle possède un chapeau couleur de suie mouillée, et un châle dont les franges pleurardes balayent le trottoir.”  

“For going into town she owns a hat the colour of wet soot, and a shawl with a weeping fringe that sweeps the pavement.”
In his handwritten manuscript, Leroux quotes Roqueplan on several counts, thus providing authentic descriptions of theatre life in the mid 19th century.

Roqueplan describes the corps de ballet, the dancers, in their spare time:  “On chante, on se déshabille, on médit, et bat les coiffeurs, on désole les habilleuses, et l’on se paye des petits verres de cassis ou de la bière jusq’au coup de cloche de l’avertisseur.” Leroux gives us: “elles passaient leur temps à chanter, à se déshabiller, à battre les coiffeurs et les habilleuses et à se payer de petits verres de cassis ou de bière ou même du rhum jusqu’au coup de cloche de l’avertisseur.”

The dancers passed the time singing, undressing, beating the hairdressers and annoying the dressers, buying small glasses of blackcurrant liqueur or beer or even rum until the bell rang.

I do not know whether Roqueplan invented the term “rat” for the young girls of the ballet, but his description of the reason for the name is very vivid:

“The rat is a pupil at the dance school, and it is perhaps because it is a child of the house, because it lives, it nibbles, and it gossips [ ] there; because it gnaws and scratches the sets, tears and makes holes in the costumes, causes huge amounts of damage and commits a host of harmful deeds, that it has received this reasonably incredible name of rat .” Roqueplan’s ballet rat is paid twenty sous per evening, but the fines imposed because of its mischievous destructiveness reduce its earnings to a meagre eight to ten francs per months, along with “trente coups de pied”, thirty kicks, from its mother. No

Leroux has lifted verbatim from Roqueplan the description not only of lead dancer la Sorelli’s dressing room but also of la Sorelli herself…  The dressing room contains a mirror, a divan, a dressing table, as well as portraits if Vestris, Gardel, Dupont and Bigottini. Like Roqueplan’s dancer Cl.. , la Sorelli had a waist supple as a willow branch, golden blond hair, and a long elegant neck. The vision of her bust and jutting hip when she prepares to pirouette is enough to make any man blow his brains out. The only difference between the real-life ballerina Cl.. and the fictional la Sorelli seems to be the colour of their eyes, Leroux having chosen emerald green rather than sapphire blue for his dancer.

A detail in Leroux that made me raise my eyebrows was that the Comte de Chagny would hold la Sorelli’s “guêtres”, leg warmers, because she did not have a mother.

“ [la Sorelli] qui avait parfois cette manie tyrannique de lui donner à garder les petites guêtres avec lesquelles elle descendait de sa loge et dont elle garantissait le lustre de ses souliers de satin [ ] . La Sorelli avait une excuse, elle avait perdu sa mere.”

Roqueplan clarified this for me. The mother of a dancer “est un ustensile de première nécessité [ ]”, is a necessity of life. She holds her daughter’s cloak in the wings, watches her dance, and covers her shoulders when she has performed. Roqueplan does not mention the mother holding the leg warmers in particular, but Leroux’s description of them matches Roqueplan’s perfectly. So.... Monsieur le Comte Philippe-Georges-Marie de Chagny was a stand-in for the mother of a dancer at the Opera  Laughing

Enlightening and entertaining to read, Nestor Roqueplan’s memoirs have given me a glimpse into the world of the Paris Opera a hundred and fifty years ago, adding to my understanding of Leroux, and adding yet another dimension to the many-faceted fascination of the story of Phantom.

Jennie

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Re: Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  MarySkater on Thu Jan 15, 2015 9:48 pm

Thanks, Jennie.  It's very interesting to have this insight into some of Leroux's sources.  It is to his credit that he researched his material so carefully, instead of making it all up out of his imagination.  (Maybe it's not quite so creditable that he actually copied bits from his source...  Wink )

The idea of a real skeleton being used as a stage prop has a more modern equivalent.  André Tchaikowsky, a Polish pianist who died in 1982, bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company.  In the 2009 production of Hamlet, with David Tennant in the title role, Tchaikowsky's skull was used as Yorick.  The play's director said, "You can't hold a real human skull in your hand and not be moved by the realisation that your own skull sits just beneath your skin, that you will be reduced to that at some stage."  So maybe this use was more dignified and acceptable than the "ghoulish marionette" which you (and Leroux) rightly rejected for the Phantom.

The description of the ballet rats reminds me very much of Degas's "Little Dancer" statue.

Maybe the reference to Comte Philippe and La Sorelli's leg-warmers was meant to indicate the intimacy between them... it is rather a personal service, after all.  (Did he take them off her, one wonders...?  Or put them back on when she came off-stage?  Shocked )

A quick look at Amazon tells me that Les Coulisses de L’Opéra is still available, but only in French (modern reproductions of the original edition).  So I'm afraid I won't be able to read it.  I'll have to depend on talented linguists like you to quote good bits for me.

Thank you for posting this.

Mary

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Re: Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  Jennie on Fri Jan 16, 2015 5:56 pm

You're welcome Mary, sharing tidbits like this is half the fun of actually finding them! And as none of my "real-life" friends are remotely interested in Phantom, I'm glad we have the Internet and places like this for sharing the obsession.....

Yes, I definitely think that Leroux uses the leg warmers to show that there is an intimacy between la Sorelli and Philippe, and also how she bosses him around. This, and the fact that she is permitted to make a farewell adress/speech to the departing managers sort of implies (to me anyway) that she is smarter than she may look. Leroux says she doesn't have much of a brain, but she must have been clever enough to play her cards right, since she is able to retire to her own property in Louveciennes after her career at the Opera. Leroux doesn't say that Philippe helps her to remove them or put them back on, but I bet he does and tickles her with his moustache too.... Embarassed

Leroux says: she had the ”tyrannical foible of giving her little leg warmers for him to look after, the leg warmers that she wore coming down from her dressing room, and which guaranteed the shine on her satin shoes and protected her flesh-coloured tights”.

Quoting Roqueplan here, so you can see for yourself that Leroux has lifted the phrase from him. Roqueplan: ”ces guêtres sont destinées à garder le lustre de leurs souliers de satin et la netteté de leurs bas”.

Roqueplan paints a quaint image of the dancers: ”On les voit venir une à une, descendre avec un grâce étudiée un petit escalier de quatre pas, marcher avec ce déhanchement qui n’appartient qu’aux danseuses, le pied en dehors, tout d’une pièce et chaussé d’une guêtre large qui leur donne assez l’aspect de petites poules anglaises blanches.”

He describes how they descend a small flight of stairs with studied grace, walking with the swaying of the hips peculiar to dancers, the foot pointing outwards and wearing large leg warmers that make them look like little white English hens.

This copying.... I don't know how it was looked upon at the time, but I've seen other cases in the manuscript that never made it to the newspaper serial, and consequently not into the book either.....  So perhaps Leroux had second thoughts, or someone else made decisions to cut out the most obvious bits.

The history of the skull at the Royal Shakespeare sounds familiar, wasn't there so much fuss made over it that it distracted from the performance???

Again, I'm happy to share and discuss "my" finds, and I try to always be clear about my sources, and to give credit where it is due. Anyone wanting to share this information, please feel free to do so, but also please credit me and Raj for the work we've done.

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Re: Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  mesadallas on Sat Jan 17, 2015 2:44 pm

Very interesting information. Thank you for posting this.


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Re: Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  Scorp on Sat Jan 17, 2015 2:54 pm

Jennie wrote:

Leroux’s “world-famous modern myth”  created fantasy not only from reality, but also fictionalized already existing legends.  Raj Shah describes this in his paper “No ordinary skeleton [ ]”, where he dissects the anatomy of a theatrical myth perpetuated in the story of Phantom. In his handwritten manuscript, Leroux quotes a large section from Les Coulisses de L’Opéra,  a chronicle by Nestor Roqueplan.  Roqueplan tells the story of Boismaison, a young dancer at the Paris Opera, who is crossed in love, dies and bequeathes his skeleton to the opera house. Boismaison’s skeleton was allegedly used on the stage to enhance the atmosphere during the performance of the Freyschütz by Weber. Entranced by this romantic ending to a love story, whereby a spurned suitor started a new life after death at the theatre, Leroux proposes (in the manuscript) that the skeleton of the Phantom also should be used as a theatre prop. This part of the manuscript did not survive the transfer to the newspaper serial published in le Gaulois, I am thankful to say. In my opinion, the Phantom deserved a more dignified fate, than to be used as some kind of ghoulish bone-rattling marionette in a theatre.  

Leroux doesn't go as far as saying in his manuscript that the (fictional) skeleton in the Palais Garnier (i.e. Erik's) should be used as a prop in the same way Boismaison's purportedly was (and most likely wasn't). He simply says that, when he stumbled across the skeleton, he wanted it to be thoroughly cleaned and transported to the archives or to the Opéra's library, but the Opéra's management weren't keen on the idea.

Thanks, Jennie. It's very interesting to have this insight into some of Leroux's sources. It is to his credit that he researched his material so carefully, instead of making it all up out of his imagination. (Maybe it's not quite so creditable that he actually copied bits from his source..)

Oh, Leroux copied loads. So many well-known passages in the novel, from Little Lotte to Christine's background and much more in between, are lifted word for word from a variety of sources. Most are from nineteenth-century publications on the Paris Opéra and its history. Some are from Charles Garnier's own book on his opera house. Others are from newspaper articles -- Leroux had a habit of collecting articles he found interesting, storing them away, and then using them later for his novels. I know of at least a dozen non-fiction books that Leroux copied passages from for Phantom.

The idea of a real skeleton being used as a stage prop has a more modern equivalent. André Tchaikowsky, a Polish pianist who died in 1982, bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the 2009 production of Hamlet, with David Tennant in the title role, Tchaikowsky's skull was used as Yorick. The play's director said, "You can't hold a real human skull in your hand and not be moved by the realisation that your own skull sits just beneath your skin, that you will be reduced to that at some stage." So maybe this use was more dignified and acceptable than the "ghoulish marionette" which you (and Leroux) rightly rejected for the Phantom.

I saw that production. After all the press attention, the RSC then claimed they were retiring the real skull and were going to use a fake. It then transpired that they hadn't swapped it at all, and had been using the real one all along. Hamlet in particular has a long history of real human remains being used on stage, and Leroux was aware of this. When his characters exclaim "poor Erik!" in his novel, it is a deliberate echo of "Alas, poor Yorick..." from Hamlet.

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Re: Interesting revelations from the memoirs of a theatre manager. Nestor Roquefort and Leroux...

Post  Jennie on Sun Jan 18, 2015 9:25 pm

Oops, I've been jumping to conclusions, I thought Leroux wanted Erik's bones to be rattled on stage No Leroux wrote that the old opera had its skeleton, and that he didn't see why the new should be deprived of its very own, and then goes on to copy out quote what Roqueplan wrote in les Coulisses, winding it up with "la vie du théâtre a recommencé pour lui", saying how life at the theatre started again for the unfortunate Boismaison, and that this is how the theatre dealt with skeletons in the old days, and we will see what happens to the cadaver of my phantom.... Shame on me for thinking the worst Rolling Eyes

Scorp states that Leroux copied his sources freely, and I agree, based on what I've seen so far... Does anyone know who / what was his source of information about Christina Nilsson? Did he ever actually meet her? I'm intrigued at the late substitution of Christine Daaé for Pauline Bellini.... It's a major change of course, to use a Scandinavian instead of an Italian singer.... would "Erik" have been called "Marcello" or "Luigi" instead, if Leroux had stuck to Bellini??? We wouldn't have had a little Lotte or any mentions of the dark stories of the north, either...

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