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The chandelier accident at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1888.

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Post  Jennie Wed Oct 08, 2014 5:40 pm

”Un accident qui a eu les suites les plus douloureuses s’est produit hier soir au Théâtre-Lyrique national.”

”An accident with the most painful consequences occurred last night at the Théâtre-Lyrique national.”

So begins the article in Le Petit Journal on the 23rd November 1888, that goes on to describe how a falling chandelier killed a member of the audience.

In ”The Phantom of the Opera”, Gaston Leroux describes how the great chandelier at the Opéra Garnier fell down and killed one person, a concierge. In real life, the chandelier at the Garnier never fell – it was a counterweight to the reflector above the chandelier. I’ve described this accident in another thread on this site, and I also wrote about it on the now lost fan site

The counterweight accident at the Garnier took place in 1896.

The chandelier accident at the Théâtre-Lyrique was in 1888, eight years previously. I found several newspaper articles covering this accident when I was doing background research for my book (”The Magic Envelope”, described in another thread).  

The basic facts are as follows:

The first act of ”Si j’étais roi” was nearing the end, when a noise was heard. One of the four chandeliers, the one closest to the stage on the right hand side came loose with terrible sound. It fell against the edge of the first gallery, tipped over on its side and crashed into the seats in the stalls.

There was no great panic, people quickly saw that the damage was limited. A young man named Alfred Obrecht, son of the owner of a café on the boulevard Rochechouart had his skull crushed, a fireman was slightly wounded in the hand, and an Englishman bled copiously from a hole in his scalp.

An ambulance took Alfred Obrecht to Saint-Louis hospital. It is unclear when he actually died, whether it was in the theatre or at the hospital, accounts vary.

The journalist in the Gaulois was disgusted by the reaction of the audience after the accident, calling it an ”incident révoltant”, a revolting incident…

”After the twitching body of M. Obrecht had been carried out, the director asked the audience whether the performance should continue. And the audience replied ’Yes!’

We think that after the unfortunate incident that had just occurred, the most basic feeling of decency/propriety would make it an absolute duty for the management to end the performance without asking the opinion of the public.”

I wonder which of these two accidents involving chandeliers or equipment around them inspired Leroux - possibly both!


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Post  Jennie Sun Nov 09, 2014 10:15 am

A translation of the whole article in the Gaulois....  

Le Gaulois 22 (23rd?) november 1888

The fall of a chandelier.

Bloc-notes Parisien (my translation of this would be ”Parisian notes/jottings”)

Last night at the Théâtre Lyrique, a terrible accident occurred, that could have turned into a disaster, during the performance of Si j’étais roi.

At approximately half past nine, just after the beginning of the second act of the opéra comique by Adolphe Adam, one of the four chandeliers, attached to the ceiling by an iron rod, came loose and plunged into the seats  of the stalls, which fortunately were mostly empty.

A young man of twenty three, M. Obrecht, son of the owner of the Brasserie Mulhouse, 86 Boulevard Rochechouart, who sat directly under the chandelier, had his skull crushed; another spectator was injured in the face.

Emotions ran high in the auditorium, people ran towards the unfortunate victim who was in a terrible state. Taken immediately by ambulance to the Saint-Louis hospital, he was declared dead on arrival.

As for the other wounded, he was lightly injured and could go home.

M. Obrecht attended the THéâtre Lyrique with his mother. They had been sitting in the twelfth row, but during the first act, the young man felt he was too far from the stage and said to his mother:

“Let’s move forward a little, I can’t hear a thing here.”

Mme Obrecht refused and her son left her to go to seat number 116.

A few moments later the accident struck.

It is impossible to describe the pain of the poor mother; the unhappy woman was distraught, shouted, called out for her son who had just been carried away. His condition was kept from her, she was told that ”he was lightly wounded”.

Slightly comforted, Mme Obrecht went to the hôpital Saint-Louis where she learnt the terrible/frightful/awful truth.
The scene that followed was heartbreaking.

In the meantime, a revolting event took place at the Théâtre-Lyrique du Château d’Eau.

After the still-twitching body of M. Obrecht had been removed, the director asked the audience whether the performance should continue.

And the audience replied: “Yes!”

We think that after the serious accident that had occurred, the most basic sense of decency would have made it the absolute duty of the management of the Théâtre-Lyrique du Château.d’Eau to end the performance without asking for the opinion of the audience.

Thanks to the calm presence of mind of the gasman, who immediately closed the gas valve, the fall of one of the chandeliers at the Théâtre-Lyrique  brought with it neither fire nor explosion. A disaster was thus avoided.

And now, who is responsible? The theatre manager without any doubt, since we are told that the primary cause of the accident seems to be the bad state of the screws holding the chandelier. But M. Senterre, who will be pursued for this, will tell the prosecutors (in his defence) that the theatre that he has managed since before it became the Théâtre-Lyrique, has passed through difficult times, that its construction is faulty, and that in order to repair it, he would have had to spend too much money!

What does that matter to the public?

There is a “Commission des théâtres” whose first duty is to watch over the safety of the public in question.  

This “Commission des théâtres” isn’t close to doing its job. We do not have the time nor the space to remind you about the disaster at the Opéra-Comique, but we hope that yesterday’s accident will be a final and salutary lesson, and that it will be decided to either do away with the “Commission des théâtres”, if it serves no purpose, or to appoint people to it who will take care to earn the money they’re paid.



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Post  Countess of Rothes Sun Nov 09, 2014 6:17 pm

Hi Jennie,

Thank you for posting this! It brings up all sorts of questions. I am particularly interested in that bit about the man quickly shutting off the gas. I'd never thought of that issue! So, what happened when Erik dropped the chandelier at the Garnier? Did that gasman similarly rise to the occasion?

And why does Erik drop the chandelier if there's a risk of fire? In the ALW stage show, you could probably use the excuse of him being so enraged over what he's just heard on the roof that he isn't thinking straight at all. But in Leroux, that's not the case. Erik isn't dropping the chandelier at Christine's feet because he's in a blind rage and wants to get back at her, he's doing it to make the managers start toeing the line. Okay, he's probably somewhat annoyed/irritated, but I don't think he's nearly as furious there as he is at the end of Act One of the show. Presumably he doesn't want to burn the Opera House to the ground. So...did he go shut off the gas line first? Or did he just assume that the gasman would be able to do it fast enough?

And I guess, then, that the fire in the Opera House in the 2004 movie does actually make some sense. I always thought it was a stupid idea that was just done for dramatic effect!

The Countess

Countess of Rothes

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Post  Jennie Sun Nov 09, 2014 9:43 pm

Hi Countess... this chandelier accident at the Théâtre Lyrique, and the terrible fire at the Opéra Comique a couple of years previously brought about several changes in safety precautions at theatres. The introduction of asbestos fire curtains and conversions from gas to electricity, and fireproofing the set, for example... In 1896, the chandelier at the Garnier used electricity, not gas, and it's possible that Leroux's chandelier would have been electrified too... I think we can take our pick... but I think Leroux's Erik intended the falling chandelier to be a warning and did not intend to burn down the theatre... so he would either have "fixed the gas" in some way, or the chandelier would have run on electricity.

The ALW chandelier was definitely a gas one, the auctioneer talks about the old chandelier having been fitted "with the new electric light".... which makes the action of the ALW Phantom particularly horrific and frightening. He could have burnt down the theatre. I don't think ALW or the rest of the creative team gave this much thought, though. I didn't myself, until I read the newspaper accounts of the fire at the Opéra Comique - it was horrendous, over a hundred victims. Le Gaulois in particular gave it extensive coverage, writing about the horrors of the fire, the rescue work, publishing lists of the dead as they were identified. The office of this newspaper was across the road from the theatre, so the journalists were eyewitnesses to the disaster.

Am going through the articles about the Théâtre-Lyrique accident, it's interesting to compare different accounts....  will get back with a translation...

ETA 2014-11-10: Le Temps (among other newspapers) published details about the cause of the accident... the chandelier was attached to a copper tube (4 metres in length) and held in place with a nut. This single nut had somehow worked loose, possibly through vibrations when the chandelier was raised or lowered.


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Post  TwelveInchTailor Fri Dec 05, 2014 8:43 pm

Thanks for posting the newspaper article, Jenny! This was a really enjoyable and informative read - although as you say, it does add an extra dimension of horror to the novel in that there could have been a terrible explosion. I'd heard about the Opera-Comique fire - I think Leroux actually references the theatre earlier in the novel when he says Sorelli's (or possibly Jammes, I don't own a copy at the moment, unfortunately) mother remembers 'the glories of the Opera-Comique?' (Feel free to check that, I'm certain I'm only dimly remembering that), so it's pretty certain he's citing cases that his Paris readers would definitely remember.
Weirdly enough, I'd often laughed at the terrible 2004 movie for the Michael Bay-esque explosion when the chandelier crashes and sets fire to the theatre - for being unrealistic. Neutral From what you say about gas lighting, might it actually be referencing the Opera Comique? (Or am I giving the film-makers far too much credit?)

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Post  Jennie Sun Dec 07, 2014 7:34 pm

Hello TwelveInchTailor, you're welcome. I'm glad to be able to share these contemporary accounts with others. Until I read about this particular real-life chandelier accident, I'd been unable to imagine a falling chandelier killing only the one person! But it did indeed happen.

A quick search (using CTRL F) in an online version of Phantom reveals only one mention of the Opéra Comique, in the sentence below, that describes Christine's triumph as Juliet:

Mais tout le triomphe avait été pour Christine Daaé, qui s’était fait entendre d’abord dans quelques passages de Roméo et Juliette. C’était la première fois que la jeune artiste chantait cette œuvre de Gounod, qui, du reste, n’avait pas encore été
transportée à l’Opéra et que l’Opéra-Comique venait de reprendre longtemps après qu’elle eut été créée à l’ancien Théâtre-Lyrique par Mme Carvalho.

Leroux says that she sang passages from Gounod's Romeo and Juliet for the first time, and this work had not yet been performed at the Opéra (Garnier), and that the Opéra-Comique had set it up long after the original production at the old Théâtre Lyrique.....

I haven't verified this particular online version with the book, so I can't vouch for it being identical to the book... but off-hand I cannot remember any particular mention of theatre accidents in my paper copy of the book... I may have missed something.

An interesting thought, that the makers of the 2004 film may have been inspired by the real-life fire at the Opéra-Comique. As I recall it, that particular fire started on-stage in the gas lighting, and spread to the rest of the auditorium. If they'd looked for "theatre accidents" they may have come across pictures from the fire... I've seen at least one that reminded me of the images from the film. Showing here, at wikipedia:


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